Darfur > Background on Darfur
(Sources: Save Darfur Coalition, ENOUGH, the ICG, the BBC)
Sudan is the largest country in Africa, located just south of Egypt on the eastern edge of the Sahara desert. Sudan owes its existence as one nation to its colonial history: it is divided by religion, ethnicity, tribe, and economic livelihood (between nomadic and sedentary cultures). Since independence in 1956, the country's longest conflict has been between the North and South, with the first civil war lasting from 1955-1972, and the second from 1983-2005.
Following Sudan’s independence from the British in 1956, the country was ruled by a number of short-lived regimes. After a series of conflicts and failed peace agreements between North and South Sudan, in 1977, northern troops were deployed to the oil-rich southern town of Bentiu. In response, southern troops mutinied against the government in June 1983. In September 1983, Khartoum imposed fundamentalist Islamic or sharia law, further alienating the non-Muslim southern population.
Southern grievances eventually crystallized around the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA), a rebel group led by Dr. John Garang. As political tensions rose in the North, the economy fell into decline and the war in the South re-escalated. Moves towards a peace agreement between the SPLA and the northern government were dashed when the National Islamic Front (NIF), led a bloodless coup in June 1989. Led by General Omar al-Bashir, the NIF unraveled peace efforts, revoked the constitution, banned opposition parties, and pursued the war with the SPLA by proclaiming jihad against the mostly non-Muslim south.
The conflict in Darfur
The current crisis in Darfur began in 2003. Darfur, an area about the size of Texas, lies in western Sudan and borders Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic. The approximately 6 million inhabitants of Darfur are among the poorest in Africa, and are predominantly non-Arab, black African Muslims from a number of different tribes, who exist largely on either subsistence farming or nomadic herding. As a result of decades of neglect from the government in Khartoum, Darfur has only the most basic infrastructure and development. Sudan’s current economic growth is highly dependent on the current oil boom, but, as in other developing countries with oil, this resource is not being developed for the benefit of all of the the Sudanese people. The people of Darfur have seen little to no support from the rich, ruling regime in Khartoum. As much as 70 percent of Sudan’s oil export revenues are used to finance the country’s military and protect the ruling NIF regime.
After decades of neglect, drought, and oppression in Darfur, two rebel groups—the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), both representing non-Arab tribes—mounted an insurgency against the central government. President Bashir’s response was brutal and ideological, and many have called it genocidal. In previous internal conflicts (in the South, Center, and East of the country), the Sudanese government had employed the tactic of using proxy militias to attack the civilian populations that were suspected of supporting insurgencies. Similarly, in seeking to defeat the rebel movements in Darfur, the government in Khartoum increased arms and support to local militias (which have come to be known as the Janjaweed) and unleashed them on non-Arab civilians. The Janjaweed militias, working at the direction and with the support of the Sudanese government, utilized racial supremacist ideologies and wiped out entire villages, destroyed food and water supplies, and systematically murdered, tortured, and raped hundreds of thousands of Darfuri civilians.
This scorched-earth campaign by the Sudanese government against Darfuri civilians has, through direct violence, disease, and starvation, already claimed as many as 300,000 lives. In addition, about 2.3 million Darfuris have fled their homes and communities. They now reside in a network of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Darfur. The conflict has also crossed the Sudanese border, generating over 200,000 refugees now living in camps in Chad. These refugees and IDPs are entirely dependent on the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations for their basic needs—food, water, shelter, and health care, and they remain vulnerable to attack, murder, and rape.
Until the full deployment of the United Nations peacekeeping force (UNAMID), authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769, the safety of Darfuri civilians depends on the presence of a small contingent of underfunded and unequipped peacekeepers. At almost every turn, the Sudanese government has obstructed the deployment of UNAMID. In addition to this, both the Sudanese government and elements of the fragmenting rebel movement are increasingly targeting humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. Aid vehicles are being hijacked and robbed, workers are being assaulted and intimidated while trying to carry out their work, offices are being broken into and looted.
Both the UN and non-governmental humanitarian organizations have warned that their ability to sustain operations is at risk in the face of government harassment and worsening security problems. Many have already ceased operations or cut back on lifesaving programs. Any further interruption in the flow of humanitarian aid could spark deaths on a scale even worse than that seen to date: UN officials say that the death rate in Darfur could rise as high as 100,000 people per month if the fragile humanitarian life-support system collapses.