No-one really knows how many people have died in Darfur. Everyone continues to cite reports from years ago, and no-one has the information to make new estimates. Suffice to say that somewhere upwards of 500,000 and below one million people have been killed in cold blood, and countless more raped, wounded, and scarred for life. Why?
Darfur is a large portion of the country of Sudan and is roughly the size of France. Darfur is its Arabic name (dar means house, and the Fur people are the largest tribe in the area) and subjecting it to Arab rule has been a longstanding goal of the peoples to its north and west. Darfur's environment and climate are not hospitable to an advanced, settled civilization and it has been the fate of the tribes within to be the conquered rather than the conquerors for most of their history. The territory was incorporated into Sudan in the nineteenth century, at a time when Sudan was itself ruled by Egypt and Egypt by Britain. Britain, exercising ultimate control, wanted as little to do with the area as possible and hence had a policy to keep the people there poor, uneducated, and pliant.
Sudan has long been split between north and south, east and west. The British arbitrarily grouped the north and the south together upon independence, despite the fact northerners almost totally dominated the government in the capital, Khartoum. There was also little commonality of language or religion between the north and south, and this was the touchstone that set off the country's two civil wars; the south, mainly Christian and animist, wanted independence from the Islamic, Arabic north. Eventually the regime in Khartoum imposed shariah, the law of the Koran, effectively making four million southerners second class citizens. The war lasted from 1983 until 2003, and ended with a peace treaty and promises on autonomy and maybe eventual secession for the south that it is unlikely the government will keep.
But in 2003 a new conflict rocked Sudan - the war in Darfur had begun. There are a number of over-arching factors in this war that must be briefly summarized before its course can be understood. Darfur is a poorly-governed and sparsely-populated area with one major faultline in its demographics. While both sides in the war in Darfur are Muslim, they are split between tribes who are nomadic herders and consider themselves Arabic, and settled "black" tribes who farm. War between the tillers of the soil and herders of flocks is as old as man himself, and is noted in the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible; Cain's punishment for slaying Abel was to receive the mark of Cain, which has often been interpreted as signifying the blackening of his skin. This myth no doubt plays a role in the murder of black farmers by Arabs, with the killers expressing a supremacist ideology and invoking God as they slaughter, rape and pillage.
Then there was the impact of population growth, desertification, and drought. The spread of the Sahara and increased competition for resources meant that the nomads and the farmers were increasingly fighting for scarce resources, with the nomads forced to take their herds to places where the farmers had been used to enjoying a monopoly on water and food. As battles began between Arab militias and the farmers, the government came to the aid of the former and supported them without question. Feeling squeezed and without their government to protect them, the black tribes had to fend for themselves.
Hence, it was actually the tribes that fired the first shot against the government, although they did so in response to the government's support of Arab militias. After attacking smaller targets, a rebel militia attacked an army base in the capital of one of Darfur's provinces, and destroyed a large quantity of military equipment. This was a huge psychological blow to the government in Khartoum, not least because they had been militarily embarrassed by a people who they consider racially inferior. As a result, the gloves came entirely off.
Everyone by now has probably heard of the janjaweed, the ferocious militia that has done the Sudanese government's dirty work in Darfur. They were initially under the command of Musa Hilal, who had led previous, smaller Arab supremacist groups in Dafur. Backed by government supplies, air support, and intelligence - as well as with their ranks filled by Arab criminals released from prison especially for the purpose - the janjaweed set about a genocide in Darfur. They attacked the settlements of the non-Arab tribes, indiscriminately burning them down, raping and killing the inhabitants, and driving those who survived to flee. Satellite pictures of the region show a pattern familiar from the Balkans, where the villages of certain tribes are completely destroyed whilst those of the nearby Arab tribes remain intact; a patchwork of destruction that leaves little question as to who is the victim and who is the victimizer.
As the non-Arab tribes fled before the janjaweed, who were even supported on the ground by troops from the Sudanese army, they were forced into massive refugee camps outside Darfur's larger cities. Resources became even more scarce thanks to the scorched earth, and a massive humanitarian crisis ensued. Sexual violence was a routine weapon of war because of the extreme shame rape victims carry in local culture - they are often victimized further by being ejected from their families for evermore. The janjaweed surrounded the refugee camps and raped countless more women who had to travel outside for food and firewood. Why do they keep going? "When the men go out, they're killed. The women are only raped," as one survivor explained to journalist Nicholas D. Kristof.
Then there is the international dimension to the situation, which has been explained by one of our noders in Sudan, oil and human rights. I will not dignify the pitiful response of the United Nations with an explanation; suffice to say, they have done essentially nothing. The Sudanese government's supporters in Russia and China have been much more effacious, supplying arms to Khartoum in exchange for access to its oil supplies. The International Criminal Court has indicted Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, but most Arab and African countries have dismissed this as interference in the internal affairs of Sudan. The country anyway does not recognize the legitimacy of the ICC. So, under the umbrella of "sovereignty", the massacres continue.
All this been said, the war is not entirely one-sided. The rebel groups that touched off the conflict remain in existence, although many have fled into neighbouring Chad. The rebels continue their battle and earlier this year even attacked government targets near Khartoum. For years now they have only known the business of war, and after suffering so much they are not about to abandon their broader political goals. Ultimately, they fervently believe that this will be best for the people who they sought to protect at the war's outset. But as the Big Men fight for glory and a better tomorrow, millions of Darfur's normal people suffer and die today.
Sources and further reading
My quotation comes from Nicholas D. Kristof, "Genocide in Slow Motion", New York Review of Books (February 9, 2006). This in turn is a review of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War by Julie Flint and Alex de Waal and Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide by Gérard Prunier. The Wikipedia article "Timeline of the War in Darfur" ought to provide enough information for most.