Life in Darfur
photo: Jerome Tubiana
Rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army in North Darfur.

Early on the morning of April 25, 2003, rebels from the Darfur Liberation Army, later becoming the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), attacked the Sudan government's air base in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state. The force destroyed multiple Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships, and seized a large amount of ammunition and heavy weapons.

The government had not suffered such a humiliating defeat in more than 20 years' war in South Sudan. It refused to negotiate with the armed opposition group, whose demands included recognition as a political movement, autonomous powers within a federal system and development for Darfur - one of Sudan's most neglected regions. The government of Sudan (GoS) instead responded by mobilizing the Army, Air Force and militias recruited among some of Darfur's Arab tribes. The militias later came to be known as the Janjawid. It was the beginning of a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the non-Arab tribes which formed the backbone of the armed opposition groups - primarily the Zaghawa, Fur and Masalit.

From time immemorial, seasonal fluctuations in water and grazing land had led to conflict over natural resources in Darfur. These tensions exploded into a Fur-Arab war in 1987 after drought and famine in North Darfur drove many Arabs south towards Fur lands in South Darfur. Earlier conflicts had been settled by traditional reconciliation mechanisms. But these had been weakened by a series of measures beginning in 1971, when President Gaafar Nimeiri abolished the tribal-based Native Administration. Conflicts and insecurity escalated in rural areas as those with access to firearms took the law into their own hands and started resolving their disputes by force rather than by mediation.

From the mid-1980s to the outbreak of rebellion in 2003, Darfur suffered high-intensity, large-scale armed conflicts fought with modern weapons - many of them brought across Darfur's long and virtually unpoliced desert borders with Chad and Libya. When Arab nomads attempted to occupy traditional Fur land with the support of the government, the Fur responded with the mass burning of pastureland.

Initial recruits to the government war in 2003 came mainly from two Arab groups - the failed nomads of North Darfur, and immigrants from Chad without land of their own. With the exception of urban areas, almost all land in Darfur is utilized according to a customary tenure or hakura system of land grants initially conferred by the Fur sultans. In South Darfur, the sultans gave hakuras to each of the four main cattle-herding or Baggara Arab tribes - the Rizeigat, Ta'aisha, Beni Halba and Habbaniya. The camel-herding Abbala of North Darfur received no land but were allowed right of passage though the tribal lands of sedentary groups.

The Crisis At-a-Glance
People who have died as a direct result of the conflict:
Over 200,000
People displaced from Darfur:
Over 2 million
People displaced from Darfur into Chad:
Displaced Chadians:
People displaced from the Central African Republic:
TOTAL at risk:
Several million

When war erupted in 2003, most Arab tribes with land remained neutral. But many landless Abbala joined the Janjawid, believing that land occupied by force would be theirs.

Government forces and Janjawid emptied wide swathes of land with a scorched-earth campaign war that destroyed everything that made life possible, including wells, pumps, orchards and mosques. As international criticism of the conflict grew, the Sudanese Army took a back seat and the militias became the spearhead of the government's strategy, as they had in southern Sudan.

The rebellion, and the government's response to it, caused death, displacement and destruction on an epic scale. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. Another two and a half million were driven into camps for the displaced where African Union troops had neither the mandate nor the resources to guarantee their safety and where the Janjawid roamed with impunity. More than 200,000 others fled across the border into camps in Chad.

The Government of Sudan and Minni Minawi's faction of the SLA signed the Darfur Peace Agreement on May 5, 2006 after seven rounds of AU-led negotiations. JEM and the SLA faction led by Abdul Wahid Mohamed el Nur refused to sign, saying power, wealth-sharing and compensation provisions were unacceptable and demanding stronger guarantees for the disarmament of the Janjawid.

A handful of individual commanders and splinter groups signed Declarations of Commitment to the agreement but, like Minawi himself, were armed by the government and turned against their former comrades-in-arms - most importantly, the Group of 19, SLA non-signatories who controlled most of North Darfur. Subsequent attacks by signatories on non-signatories displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

In mid-2006, the Sudanese Army was put in the front line of a new offensive against non-signatories. The commander of the Western Military Region was replaced and huge amounts of weaponry were flown into El Fasher. A short-lived alliance between the Group of 19 and JEM handed the government forces a series of crushing battlefield defeats. By the end of 2006, the government offensive in North Darfur was stymied, the UN Department of Safety and Security had declared almost a third of South Darfur a no-go area and a militia-led offensive in West Darfur had spilled deep into Chad.

Eastern Chad is plagued by three separate, and sometimes interlocking, conflicts: cross-border attacks by Sudanese Janjawid in coordination with Chadian militias; Chadian armed opposition groups activity against the regime of President Idris Deby; and local ethnic conflicts compounded by the formation of self-defense village militias. The conflict has displaced more than 160,000 Chadian civilians, who have exacerbated the humanitarian problems caused by the 260,000 Sudanese refugees already in the country. There are also more than 155,000 refugees from northern Central African Republic.

Today, the conflict between the GoS and the Janjawid against armed opposition groups is not the only source of insecurity in Darfur. After more than six years of conflict, armed men on all sides are benefiting from the total collapse of law and order to loot the livestock of vulnerable people, hijack humanitarian vehicles and relief supplies, impose war "taxes" and extort "protection" money. The emergence of a strong war economy threatens to perpetuate the conflict. The camps for the displaced have become so crowded and volatile, with so many uncontrolled small arms, that they present a danger even for those who are attempting to provide humanitarian services. In some camps, government police and AU forces are no longer allowed entry and there is no institution entrusted with guaranteeing security and administering justice.

In March 2009, the government of Sudan expelled and suspended the operations of 13 international humanitarian aid organizations and at least 3 domestic aid organizations operating in Darfur and across Sudan. Organizations working in South Sudan were exempted from the government's order. The government's action followed a decision by the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Without the food, water, and medicine provided by these aid groups, millions of vulnerable men, women, and children in Darfur and throughout Sudan face starvation and disease.