5 Truths About Darfur

By Emily Wax
Sunday, April 23, 2006; B03


Heard all you need to know about Darfur? Think again.
Three years after a government-backed militia began
fighting rebels and residents in this region of
western Sudan, much of the conventional wisdom
surrounding the conflict -- including the religious,
ethnic and economic factors that drive it -- fails to
match the realities on the ground. Tens of thousands
have died and some 2.5 million have been displaced,
with no end to the conflict in sight. Here are five
truths to challenge the most common misconceptions
about Darfur:

1 Nearly everyone is Muslim

Early in the conflict, I was traveling through the
desert expanses of rebel-held Darfur when, amid
decapitated huts and dead livestock, our SUV roared up
to an abandoned green and white mosque, riddled with
bullets, its windows shattered.

In my travels, I've seen destroyed mosques all over
Darfur. The few men left in the villages shared the
same story: As government Antonov jets dropped bombs,
Janjaweed militia members rode in on horseback and
attacked the town's mosque -- usually the largest
structure in town. The strange thing, they said, was
that the attackers were Muslim, too. Darfur is home to
some of Sudan's most devout Muslims, in a country
where 65 percent of the population practices Islam,
the official state religion.

A long-running but recently pacified war between
Sudan's north and south did have religious undertones,
with the Islamic Arab-dominated government fighting
southern Christian and animist African rebels over
political power, oil and, in part, religion.

"But it's totally different in Darfur," said Mathina
Mydin, a Malaysian nurse who worked in a clinic on the
outskirts of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. "As a
Muslim myself, I wanted to bring the sides together
under Islam. But I quickly realized this war had
nothing to do with religion."

2 Everyone is black

Although the conflict has also been framed as a battle
between Arabs and black Africans, everyone in Darfur
appears dark-skinned, at least by the usual American
standards. The true division in Darfur is between
ethnic groups, split between herders and farmers. Each
tribe gives itself the label of "African" or "Arab"
based on what language its members speak and whether
they work the soil or herd livestock. Also, if they
attain a certain level of wealth, they call themselves

Sudan melds African and Arab identities. As Arabs
began to dominate the government in the past century
and gave jobs to members of Arab tribes, being Arab
became a political advantage; some tribes adopted that
label regardless of their ethnic affiliation. More
recently, rebels have described themselves as Africans
fighting an Arab government. Ethnic slurs used by both
sides in recent atrocities have riven communities that
once lived together and intermarried.

"Black Americans who come to Darfur always say, 'So
where are the Arabs? Why do all these people look
black?' " said Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of
Sudan's independent Al-Ayam newspaper. "The bottom
line is that tribes have intermarried forever in
Darfur. Men even have one so-called Arab wife and one
so-called African. Tribes started labeling themselves
this way several decades ago for political reasons.
Who knows what the real bloodlines are in Darfur?"

3 It's all about politics

Although analysts have emphasized the racial and
ethnic aspects of the conflict in Darfur, a
long-running political battle between Sudanese
President Omar Hassan Bashir and radical Islamic
cleric Hassan al-Turabi may be more relevant.

A charismatic college professor and former speaker of
parliament, Turabi has long been one of Bashir's main
political rivals and an influential figure in Sudan.
He has been fingered as an extremist; before the Sept.
11, 2001, attacks Turabi often referred to Osama bin
Laden as a hero. More recently, the United Nations and
human rights experts have accused Turabi of backing
one of Darfur's key rebel groups, the Justice and
Equality Movement, in which some of his top former
students are leaders.

Because of his clashes with Bashir, Turabi is usually
under house arrest and holds forth in his spacious
Khartoum villa for small crowds of followers and
journalists. But diplomats say he still mentors rebels
seeking to overthrow the government.

"Darfur is simply the battlefield for a power struggle
over Khartoum," said Ghazi Suleiman, a Sudanese human
rights lawyer. "That's why the government hit back so
hard. They saw Turabi's hand, and they want to stay in
control of Sudan at any cost."

4 This conflict is international

China and Chad have played key roles in the Darfur

In 1990, Chad's Idriss Deby came to power by launching
a military blitzkrieg from Darfur and overthrowing
President Hissan Habre. Deby hails from the elite
Zaghawa tribe, which makes up one of the Darfur rebel
groups trying to topple the government. So when the
conflict broke out, Deby had to decide whether to
support Sudan or his tribe. He eventually chose his

Now the Sudanese rebels have bases in Chad; I
interviewed them in towns full of Darfurians who tried
to escape the fighting. Meanwhile, Khartoum is accused
of supporting Chad's anti-Deby rebels, who have a
military camp in West Darfur. (Sudan's government
denies the allegations.) Last week, bands of Chadian
rebels nearly took over the capital, N'Djamena. When
captured, some of the rebels were carrying Sudanese

Meanwhile, Sudan is China's fourth-biggest supplier of
imported oil, and that relationship carries benefits.
China, which holds veto power in the U.N. Security
Council, has said it will stand by Sudan against U.S.
efforts to slap sanctions on the country and in the
battle to force Sudan to replace the African Union
peacekeepers with a larger U.N. presence. China has
built highways and factories in Khartoum, even
erecting the Friendship Conference Hall, the city's
largest public meeting place.

5 The "genocide" label made it worse

Many of the world's governments have drawn the line at
labeling Darfur as genocide. Some call the conflict a
case of ethnic cleansing, and others have described it
as a government going too far in trying to put down a

But in September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin
L. Powell referred to the conflict as a "genocide."
Rather than spurring greater international action,
that label only seems to have strengthened Sudan's
rebels; they believe they don't need to negotiate with
the government and think they will have U.S. support
when they commit attacks. Peace talks have broken down
seven times, partly because the rebel groups have
walked out of negotiations. And Sudan's government has
used the genocide label to market itself in the Middle
East as another victim of America's anti-Arab and
anti-Islamic policies.

Perhaps most counterproductive, the United States has
failed to follow up with meaningful action. "The word
'genocide' was not an action word; it was a
responsibility word," Charles R. Snyder, the State
Department's senior representative on Sudan, told me
in late 2004. "There was an ethical and moral
obligation, and saying it underscored how seriously we
took this." The Bush administration's recent idea of
sending several hundred NATO advisers to support
African Union peacekeepers falls short of what many
advocates had hoped for.

"We called it a genocide and then we wine and dine the
architects of the conflict by working with them on
counterterrorism and on peace in the south," said Ted
Dagne, an Africa expert for the Congressional Research
Service. "I wish I knew a way to improve the situation
there. But it's only getting worse."


Emily Wax is The Washington Post's East Africa bureau

 2006 The Washington Post Company


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