In Darfur, From Genocide to Anarchy
Imagine you are a U.S. Special Forces officer and you get a call: You are being posted to Darfur. Your job is to protect African villagers from marauding Arab horsemen and to show the Sudanese security chiefs that their bluff has been called -- at last, the international community is standing up to their evil schemes.
What can you expect? According to news reports, a sort of slow-motion Rwanda in the desert. What will you find on arrival? A reality that's complicated and messy. A Darfur that has more in common with Chad, southern Sudan and -- dare we say it? -- Somalia.
In Darfur today, knowing who is on which side is not straightforward. The savage counterinsurgency offensives, with their massacres and scorched earth, that Colin Powell called "genocide" in September 2004 had in fact largely concluded by the time Powell made that historic determination. This isn't a moral exculpation; it's simply a fact. It's also been a regular sequence in Sudan's recurrent wars over the past 25 years. Episodes of intense brutality and mass displacement are followed by longer periods of anarchic internecine fighting, ably exploited by the government.
Because the vanguard of government offensives is tribal paramilitaries -- well known to prefer soft civilian targets to hardened rebels -- the result of each offensive is a fractured and demoralized society in which every group is armed and most leaders cut opportunistic alliances to preserve their power bases. The warlords who prosper in this environment deal only in the currency of power, switching alliances as their calculus shifts.
For the past three years, Darfur has been descending into this murky world of tribes-in-arms and warlords who serve the highest bidder, with some community leaders of integrity trying to carve out localities of tranquility. Many Arab militias are talking to the rebels; many erstwhile rebel leaders have struck bargains with the regime, receiving high-sounding positions and nice villas in return for providing an adornment to the government's attempts to show a pluralistic facade.
While the script of many rights campaigners and activists has remained stuck in the groove of "genocide," Darfur faces something that can be just as deadly in the long term: anarchy. The government is a dictatorship, but its writ doesn't run beyond the first checkpoints outside the towns. The army has a fearsome arsenal, but two much-heralded offensives last year were smartly and bloodily annihilated by rebels. The air force is rarely used, except when targets of opportunity arise -- or the rebels have the army on the run. There have been no large-scale offensives by the government in 2007.
The Sudanese government relies on its Arab militias for a semblance of control, but increasingly these militias pursue their own agendas. The largest loss of life this year occurred in clashes between two Arab militias, most recently at the end of July, when 100 militia members and Arab civilians died. The other big ongoing crisis, and the major cause of more than 100,000 people being displaced this year, is a multisided conflict in Southern Darfur involving warring Arab militias; rebel commanders from the Sudan Liberation Army who are now allied with the government, though other commanders are fighting it; a militia drawn from West African immigrants; and a rebel commander from the Justice and Equality Movement who answers to no one but himself. Simple, it isn't.
What's keeping Darfurians alive in this dismal war of all against all is their own skill at survival and, in the camps for the displaced, an immense relief effort. For the past two years, mortality rates among people reached by international aid have been lower than they were before the war. That's a tremendous achievement -- though the annual "hungry season," now upon us, is showing a worrying decline in child nutrition.
But the very scale of the aid effort brings its own problems. Aid agency vehicles are a tempting prize for bandits and militia leaders in a land without law. During the height of the massacres, aid agencies were scarce and their neutrality was largely respected -- not least because the two sides' military focus was on one another. It is a different story today. And as the attacks on humanitarians increase, the relief agencies duly report that things are getting worse.
For them, it is true. For the people of Darfur, the story is more complicated. So, if you are dispatched to Darfur as a peacekeeper, best to wise up quickly. Leave that fortified camp, step out of that armored car and ask the Darfurian people: "Just what the hell is going on here?"
Alex de Waal is editor of and Julie Flint is a contributor to "War in Darfur and the Search for Peace."