Sudan is Africa’s largest country, located just south of Egypt on the eastern edge of the Sahara desert. The Darfur region is a drought-prone area of western Sudan. By area, Darfur is roughly the size of Texas and is divided into three states that had a collective population of approximately 6 million people before the crisis in Darfur began in 2003. Darfurians exist largely on subsistence farming or nomadic herding. There are between 40 and 80 ethnic groups in Darfur. Most villages are multi-ethnic and, despite ethnic differences, there is a history of peaceful coexistence. Local languages include Arabic, Fur and Massalit.
The conflict in Darfur began in the spring of 2003 when two Darfuri rebel movements – the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – launched attacks against government military installations as part of a campaign to fight against the historic political and economic marginalization of Darfur. The Sudanese government, at the time engaged in tense negotiations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) to end a three decades long civil war between North and South Sudan, responded swiftly and viciously to extinguish the insurgency. Through coordinated military raids with government-armed militia (collectively known as the janjaweed), the Sudanese military specifically targeted ethnic groups from which the rebels received much of their support. The civilian casualties were immense. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed and millions of civilians were forced to flee their homes.
An immense humanitarian crisis resulted from the mass displacement of these civilians. From direct attacks and the deterioration of living conditions, many experts estimate that as many as 300,000 people lost their lives between 2003 and 2005. In September 2004, President George W. Bush declared the crisis in Darfur a “genocide” – the first time a sitting American president had made such a declaration regarding an ongoing conflict. Despite the world’s growing outcry, the violence continued in Darfur and the number of dead and displaced increased considerably.
In May 2006, the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement with one of the rebel movements (SLM-Minni Minawi). However, the Sudanese government continued to fight the two other groups (SLM-Abdel Wahid and JEM) that refused to sign the agreement. The rebels also suffered from serious internal divisions and due to political differences, the movements began to fight one another, making the conflict in Darfur even more complex and jeopardizing the lives of more civilians in the process.
The United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) now in Darfur replaced an underfunded and underequipped African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur in January 2008. UNAMID to this day remains without the necessary resources to protect the 2.7 million internally displaced persons who live in large camps across Darfur. There are also around 300,000 Darfuri refugees living across the Sudanese border in neighbouring Chad. Overall, the UN estimates that roughly 4.7 million people in Darfur (out of a total population of roughly 6 million) are still affected by the conflict.
Today, fighting between the rebel movements and the government continues. In the last few years, opportunistic bandits and militias have also taken advantage of the anarchy in Darfur. General banditry and looting jeopardize humanitarian aid and gender-based crimes are now being committed by many different sides. Despite this chaotic environment, the Sudanese government remains the most responsible for the violence in Darfur. President al-Bashir and others in his government created the anarchic conditions presiding in Darfur today through their violent violent counterinsurgency campaign targeting innocent men, women and children. Furthermore, the Sudanese government has obstructed the deployment of an international peacekeeping force, avoided serious negotiations with the rebel groups, refused to prosecute any individuals responsible for crimes against humanity committed in Darfur, and most recently expelled thirteen international humanitarian aid groups from Darfur. These actions continue to leave many civilians in Darfur unprotected and dispossessed of their basic human rights.
It is important to dispel a few common myths surround ing the conflict.