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A Family Torn by Sudan's Strife

Tensions in Arab-African Marriage Follow Flight From Ethnic Conflict

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page A01

BAHAI, Chad -- His gut was twisted into a knot, his head pounding, his leg searing in pain from a gunshot wound. Ibrahim Mohamed Doud, a village elder in an African tribe, remembers the day an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed attacked his village.

He had been hit in the left leg. His two wives knelt by his side to soothe him as he twitched in the burning sand. But in his moment of agony, he recalled that his deepest concern was not about the wound, but about one of his wives. Aisha Haroon Mohamed, 29, his Arab wife with the almond-colored eyes, is from the same ethnic group as the attackers. Her uncle was a Janjaweed commander.


Aisha Haroon Mohamed, a Sudanese Arab married to an African, stands with her son, Mahamat Ibrahim, at a refugee camp in Chad. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Washington Post correspondent Emily Wax chronicles the genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
Sudan's Ragtag Rebels (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 2004)
Wells of Life Run Dry for Sudanese (The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2004)
Targeting the Teachers of Darfur (The Washington Post, Aug 18, 2004)
In Sudan, 'a Big Sheik' Roams Free (The Washington Post, Jul 18, 2004)
Refugees Moved Before Annan Visit (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)
'We Want to Make a Light Baby' (The Washington Post, Jun 30, 2004)
In Sudan, Death and Denial (The Washington Post, Jun 27, 2004)
Chad Broken by Strain of Suffering (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2004)
Bittersweet Homecomings in War-Weary Sudan (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2004)

Doud begged her to flee. He was fearful that African villagers would turn against Aisha. She stood frozen, her eyes watering with tears. She refused to leave his side. In the end, they all escaped, fleeing the village in western Sudan's Darfur province in an arduous, month-long journey through the desert sands of the Sahara.

Today, Doud sits in a tent at the Oure Cassoni refugee camp here, 15 miles north of the Sudanese border. His two wives are safely at his side, but his anxiety from that day still runs deep. "I just kept shouting at her to leave. It hurt me to do that," he recalled of the day of the attack, in January. "At first, I confess, we were all scared of hatreds brewing."

"We were a family before all of this happened," he added. "Now what are we?"

The experience of Doud and his two wives, one African and one Arab, illustrates the tangled ethnicity of Darfur, the scene of the violent displacement of 1.5 million people that has become one of the world's most urgent humanitarian crises.

Once, intermarriage was common. Having two wives from different backgrounds was seen as prestigious for men. But now, ethnic hatreds, flight and war have enveloped Darfur. The U.S. government has called the conflict genocide.

Sudan sits on the ancient Saharan crossroads between Arab North Africa and sub-Saharan black Africa. For generations, the trade of beads and spices from West Africa into the Middle East led to the intermixing of peoples. The spread of Islam across the Sahara and into black Africa firmly united the two regions.

The history can be seen in the blended faces and skin tones of the people of Sudan. Members of Sudan's three elite Arab tribes often say they have an African grandmother, either through slave raiding or through intermarriage.

Labels such as Arab and African in Darfur are rooted far more in appearance, class, language and social mobility than in bloodlines. The nomadic tribes primarily speak Arabic and have physical features like fine hair and light brown skin that are more Arab than African. They live in concrete-block housing close to urban centers or in spacious nomadic tents and move across the desert with carpets, straw mats and blankets rolled up for sleeping. They often eat Middle Eastern styles of food like sweet pastries, rice with raisins, meat kabobs and dates.

By contrast, peasant farmers speak indigenous languages. When they speak Arabic, it is usually for commerce and religion. They are sometimes viewed as having a lower social status, less money and less education. They live in stone huts capped with thatched roofs. They live on a steady diet of millet porridge and the occasional meat dish of camel, goat, chicken or antelope during special occasions.

These two communities, both Muslim, have intermingled, but also have been increasingly at odds. African farming tribes were called zurga by the Arabs, a derogatory term that means blacks, or abid, meaning slave. The tensions deepened during a prolonged drought in the 1980s, when nomadic Arab tribes began clashing with farmers over water and land. Nomadic tribes moved south onto the more grassy and fertile plains of central Darfur. Cattle raiding and killings sparked violence.

In Khartoum, three ruling tribes, which consider themselves Arab, make up a majority of Sudan's government. Last year, three of Darfur's African tribes launched a rebellion against the government, saying their region was underdeveloped and Arabs were responsible.

The government rallied Arab nomadic tribal leaders and their associated militias, still bitter over land disputes during the drought, to put down the rebellion, according to human rights groups and the United Nations. The government claims that the militias are out of its control.


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