5 Truths About Darfur

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By Emily Wax
Sunday, April 23, 2006

KOU KOU ANGARANA, Chad

Heard all you need to know about Darfur? Think again. Three years after a government-backed militia began fighting rebels and residents in this region of western Sudan, much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the conflict -- including the religious, ethnic and economic factors that drive it -- fails to match the realities on the ground. Tens of thousands have died and some 2.5 million have been displaced, with no end to the conflict in sight. Here are five truths to challenge the most common misconceptions about Darfur:

1 Nearly everyone is Muslim

Early in the conflict, I was traveling through the desert expanses of rebel-held Darfur when, amid decapitated huts and dead livestock, our SUV roared up to an abandoned green and white mosque, riddled with bullets, its windows shattered.

In my travels, I've seen destroyed mosques all over Darfur. The few men left in the villages shared the same story: As government Antonov jets dropped bombs, Janjaweed militia members rode in on horseback and attacked the town's mosque -- usually the largest structure in town. The strange thing, they said, was that the attackers were Muslim, too. Darfur is home to some of Sudan's most devout Muslims, in a country where 65 percent of the population practices Islam, the official state religion.

A long-running but recently pacified war between Sudan's north and south did have religious undertones, with the Islamic Arab-dominated government fighting southern Christian and animist African rebels over political power, oil and, in part, religion.

"But it's totally different in Darfur," said Mathina Mydin, a Malaysian nurse who worked in a clinic on the outskirts of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. "As a Muslim myself, I wanted to bring the sides together under Islam. But I quickly realized this war had nothing to do with religion."

2 Everyone is black

Although the conflict has also been framed as a battle between Arabs and black Africans, everyone in Darfur appears dark-skinned, at least by the usual American standards. The true division in Darfur is between ethnic groups, split between herders and farmers. Each tribe gives itself the label of "African" or "Arab" based on what language its members speak and whether they work the soil or herd livestock. Also, if they attain a certain level of wealth, they call themselves Arab.

Sudan melds African and Arab identities. As Arabs began to dominate the government in the past century and gave jobs to members of Arab tribes, being Arab became a political advantage; some tribes adopted that label regardless of their ethnic affiliation. More recently, rebels have described themselves as Africans fighting an Arab government. Ethnic slurs used by both sides in recent atrocities have riven communities that once lived together and intermarried.

"Black Americans who come to Darfur always say, 'So where are the Arabs? Why do all these people look black?' " said Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of Sudan's independent Al-Ayam newspaper. "The bottom line is that tribes have intermarried forever in Darfur. Men even have one so-called Arab wife and one so-called African. Tribes started labeling themselves this way several decades ago for political reasons. Who knows what the real bloodlines are in Darfur?"

3 It's all about politics

Although analysts have emphasized the racial and ethnic aspects of the conflict in Darfur, a long-running political battle between Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir and radical Islamic cleric Hassan al-Turabi may be more relevant.

A charismatic college professor and former speaker of parliament, Turabi has long been one of Bashir's main political rivals and an influential figure in Sudan. He has been fingered as an extremist; before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Turabi often referred to Osama bin Laden as a hero. More recently, the United Nations and human rights experts have accused Turabi of backing one of Darfur's key rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement, in which some of his top former students are leaders.

Because of his clashes with Bashir, Turabi is usually under house arrest and holds forth in his spacious Khartoum villa for small crowds of followers and journalists. But diplomats say he still mentors rebels seeking to overthrow the government.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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