A New History of a Long War
By Julie Flint, Alex de Waal
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2008 Julie Flint and Alex de Waal
All rights reserved.
The people of Darfur
Northern Darfur is a forbidding place. It has landscapes of elemental simplicity: vast sandy plains, jutting mountains and jagged ridges, and occasional ribbons of green along the all-too-rare seasonal watercourses. A village, sometimes comprising no more than a cluster of huts made from straw and branches, may be a day's ride from its neighbour. Every place, however humble, counts. A hand-dug well in a dry river bed can be the difference between life and death for a camel herd trekking from the valleys of central Darfur to the desert-edge pastures.
Darfur's people are resourceful and resilient. Extracting a living from this land requires unrelenting hard work and detailed knowledge of every crevice from which food or livelihood can be scratched. A woman living on the desert edge will know how to gather a dozen varieties of wild grasses and berries to supplement a meagre diet of cultivated millet and vegetables, along with goat's or camel's milk. She will know the farms and village markets within a hundred miles or more, and will not hesitate to walk or ride such distances to buy, sell or work.
Nomads move three hundred miles or more twice a year, ranging even further in exceptionally wet or unusually dry years. 'Settled' people move also, migrating to open up new areas of farmland. In the dry sandy areas of eastern Darfur especially, villages grow and die along with their water supplies and the fertility of their soils; in the far south, along the forest edge, the frontier of cultivation creeps southwards every year. Mobility and distance make it difficult to maintain authority: those in power must always contemplate their subjects' option of simply moving beyond reach.
In the centre of Darfur, the extinct volcano of Jebel Marra rises 8,000 feet above the surrounding savanna. The green mountain can be climbed in a day, an arduous trek through orchards, terraced fields and pastures that reach nearly to the lip of the crater. There are wonderful myths about the fertility of the soils on the crater floor and the monstrous creatures that live in the deep waters of the crater lakes. Jebel Marra is the greenest mountain of Sahelian Africa, the only major watershed between the Ethiopian escarpment and the headwaters of the Niger close to the Atlantic Ocean. For many Darfurians this mountain possesses an almost mythical quality. It was when the Fur suspected a government plan to turn Jebel Marra over to the Arabs that Darfur's rebellion reached its point of no return, and the mountain became the rebels' sanctuary and first headquarters.
Yet the historic centre of Darfur is not the highest peak, which lies at the southern end of the massif, but the drier, broken mountains further north. Five centuries ago, in the mountainous triangle between Kutum, Kebkabiya and Korma, centralized states were created. The first was the Tunjur empire, named for a people who still inhabit the region, and whose rulers' castles still stand abandoned on hilltops, ringed by long-dry terraces. Tunjur origins remain an enigma: closely related in myth and language to the Fur, their history and ethnography has yet to be fully written. The successor to their empire was the Fur sultanate, the first Muslim state in Darfur, which emerged in the middle of the seventeenth century. The region takes its name from the homeland (dar) of the Fur.
By 1800, the Fur sultanate was the most powerful state within the borders of modern-day Sudan. In adopting Islam as the official state religion, the Fur sultans also embraced Arabic as a language of religious faith, scholarship and jurisprudence. Both Arabic and Fur were spoken at court. Darfurians – like most Africans – were comfortable with multiple identities. Dar Fur was an African kingdom that embraced Arabs as valued equals.
The village of Dor lies north of Kutum, amid lumpy granite hills. It is drier and poorer than most parts of Darfur, but typical in the complicated allegiances of its people. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Dor was governed by a land grant from the ruler of Dar Fur, Sultan Mohamed Teyrab. Throughout this part of Darfur, even today, the chiefly families possess land titles in the form of documents, written on thick paper with a huge seal or stamp the size of a camel's hoof. This document is a hakura, or land grant. The term refers both to the grant and to the land itself.
The hakura of Dor is known as Dar Sueini. Many inhabitants refer to themselves as 'Koraberi', which means 'Fur-Zaghawa' in both those languages. Most of the inhabitants of Dor speak three languages: Fur, Zaghawa and Arabic, the lingua franca of Darfur. The Fur are the largest group in Darfur and Dor lies at their northern extremity; the Zaghawa are a Saharan people, whose homeland lies on the Sudan-Chad border at the edge of the desert. In the millennium-long dessication of the Sahara, the Zaghawa have slowly moved southwards.
Like all Darfur villages, Dor is ethnically mixed. Thirty years ago the village was dominated by four ethnic groups: Zaghawa, Fur, Tunjur and Kaitinga – this last a Fur clan that migrated north and adoped Zaghawa as its language. Some argue that Fur and Tunjur are parts of the same ancient group, and that Kaitinga embraces both Fur and Zaghawa. How could a person's identity be pinned down? It depended on the context. For political allegiance, blood-money payment and marriage considerations, ancestry was most important. But that didn't stop almost half the marriages in Dor crossing ethnic lines. In the marketplace, what mattered most was which language was spoken. A smart merchant would learn as many dialects as possible to gain the confidence of his customers. When dealing with the district tax collector and magistrate, or using the wells to water your animals, what counted was where you lived. If a Fur or Tunjur villager accumulated a lot of animals and chose to move with them seasonally, he might well prefer to call himself 'Zaghawa' or even 'Arab', in line with his livelihood.
A minority of Dor's residents were drawn from a host of other ethnic groups: Seinga, Berti, Jawamaa and Masalit, plus two categories of Arabs: Jellaba and Rizeigat. The Jellaba were traders from the Nile. The Rizeigat of Dor were Darfur Bedouins, members of the powerful Mahamid section. It was an impressive but not untypical array of ethnic groups in one remote village.
Darfur is home to more than 6 million people. There is just one rainy season, lasting approximately from June to September, which brings occasional storms to the arid north and regular showers across the well-watered south. The best cultivation is in the central belt, especially where big seasonal rivers, or wadis, run down from Jebel Marra. But even in the semi-desert, there are hollows that collect rainwater where millet can be grown. There is a span of rural livelihoods, from the poorest farmers who have no livestock, through farmers with sheep, goats and maybe a cow or two (the majority), to purely nomadic herders. Camels do well in the dry north while cattle prefer the wetter south. There is a regular cycle of boom and bust in the livestock economy, as herders acquire and lose animals and rely less or more on cultivation. It was ever thus: the historical records are full of references to settled Arab villages, and Arab sheikhs were granted land for farming by the sultans as far back as records exist.
Dor lies close to one of just three all-season livestock routes to the desert – known as masars – used by camel herders on their annual north-south migrations. Six hours' walk to the east is Wadi Fokhma, one of those rare seasonal watercourses that run northwards from Darfur's central plateau into the desert. Traditionally, the nomads spent the rains and the following three months, October to December, in the desert, grazing their camels on the pastures along Wadi Howar, the last seasonal watercourse before the desert, and further north, where the grasses known as jizu are so succulent that camels can go without water for more than thirty days. Until just a few years ago, this rich grazing land was shared among Darfur's camelmen: Arabs, Zaghawa and Meidob. In January, the herds moved south, spending the winter and dry season in the valleys south of Kutum or travelling into the well-watered districts of south-west Darfur, along the major migration routes that everyone shared.
The people of Dor pay bridewealth and blood money in livestock. With no banks, animals are the store of wealth. At this latitude, keeping a cow, a thirsty animal that needs lots of grass, is little more than a vanity; most of Dor's animals are sheep, goats and camels, the latter traditionally entrusted to Arabs and Zaghawa herders for the northern migration. Not forgetting the ubiquitous donkeys, essential for travel to market and carrying firewood and water.
A few days' travel north, along the seasonal watercourse that serves as the route to the autumn pastures, is Rahad – or Lake Gineik, a vast reservoir, several metres deep in the rainy season, created by an earthen dam. In 1968, a fight began at Rahad Gineik between Zaghawa and Arab herders from the powerful Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid camel-herders. It was provoked by an attempt by Um Jalul herders to disarm a Zaghawa, Mohamed Omar Diko, who was watering his camels. It continued for three days before government troops and the police finally intervened.
'There were many Arabs, but few Zaghawa,' Diko recalled more than forty years after the event. 'The Arabs were well-armed; the Zaghawa had sticks and spears and old guns.'
In 1969, a tribal conference presided over by the sultan of the Masalit and the paramount chief of the Mahamid, Sheikh Hilal Mohamed Abdalla, sentenced twelve Zaghawa and twelve Arabs to ten years' imprisonment each. Mohamed Omar Diko was one of the Zaghawa – even though he fled after he lost his weapon. Looking back almost half a century later, he harboured no grudge at this rough justice. 'There was equal treatment then,' he said. 'Not like now. But after the conference, we lived like snakes and mice. And we were the mice.' The Arabs saw it differently. From that time, they said, the Zaghawa harboured plans to dominate Darfur by acquiring education, money, land and guns.
After the Rahad Gineik trouble, the Zaghawa, Kaitinga and Tunjur ended their practice of entrusting their camels to the Arabs. Zaghawa herders began taking care of the camels from Dor. This showed a pattern which became more and more marked over the next generation: conflict divided groups along ethnic-ancestry lines. As the people of Dor say, 'Conflict defines origins.' Was this because people instinctively clung to their ancestral tribes in times of insecurity? Or was it because, when disputes came to be settled and compensation paid, corporate lineage groups were responsible for paying blood money? The Gineik fight levered open a tribal divide.
Although the two sides at Gineik were Zaghawa and Rizeigat Arabs, the Rizeigat themselves were not united. There was a longstanding dispute between the Mahamid and Mahariya sections. In our analysis of the origins of the Janjawiid, we will examine how this conflict played out over three generations, stoking the fires of violent conflict.
A history of statehood and ethnicity
A host of ethnic groups or tribes – between forty and ninety depending on one's definition – have emerged from Darfur's history. Dar Fur was an independent state for three centuries until 1916. It was one of the most powerful kingdoms in a string of such states positioned on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, trading with the Mediterranean and raiding its southern neighbours. When Napoleon occupied Egypt in 1798, he exchanged letters with the sultan of Dar Fur, which at that time had a trade with Egypt five times the value of that with the kingdom of Sennar, Dar Fur's rival on the Nile. The sultan was wealthy – the greatest merchant in the kingdom – and in theory possessed absolute power. At its zenith in the nineteenth century, Dar Fur's towns were prosperous: a visiting merchant, Mohamed al Tunisi, compared Kebkabiya favourably with country towns in Egypt.
The Dar Fur state was centred in the northern mountains, just south of Dor. The ruling clan here was the Keira dynasty, which gradually expanded its domain southwards. As the state spread its authority, it absorbed farming communities which adopted the Fur language, converted to Islam, and came under the political and administrative suzerainty of the state. They 'became' Fur. During the eighteenth century, the system of hakura land grants was formalized and expanded. The hakura system is commonly described today as 'tribal land ownership', but this is a misnomer in two respects. First, the system was not directly 'tribal'. The hakura-holders were court appointees, entitled to collect dues from the people living in their domain. Often, the hakura head became a local potentate, building a base independent from the sultan, usually by collecting his kinsmen in the area. By these means the office became hereditary and the dominant group the tribe of the hakura chief. Hence the 'tribe' consolidated around the hakura as often as the other way around. In other cases, tribal groups controlled territorial domains regardless of the sovereign's writ: 'The hakura system preceded the sultans,' says Saeed Madibu, head of the southern Rizeigat. 'It is a tradition from the people.' Second, the rights of the hakura owner started off as feudal jurisdiction, and never became freehold title. These subtleties are of more than historical importance: they influenced the political strategies of the land-hungry at the turn of the twenty-first century and can help determine workable solutions for Darfur's crisis.
Only a minority of people within Dar Fur's dominions were, or became, Fur. There were also the Tunjur, Meidob and Zaghawa in the north, the Berti and Birgid in the east, the Masalit in the west and many other smaller groups – all today labelled as 'African' tribes. The Masalit are especially significant. For centuries their villages were in the political no-man's land between Dar Fur and the Wadai sultanate to the west, based in Abeche in today's Chad. Only in the late nineteenth century, as both these powerful states were plunged into crisis, was Dar Masalit able to emerge briefly as an independent polity.
The Arab presence in Darfur dates from the fourteenth century. Darfur's original Arabs fall into two groups: scholars and traders who arrived from the east and the west – the Nile and Arabia, the Maghreb and West Africa – and Juhayna Bedouins who arrived from the north west over several centuries in search of grass and water. The Juhayna Arabs trace their lineage back to the Qoreish tribe of the Prophet Mohamed. Their numbers increased through marriage with Darfurians and through assimilation as indigenous groups claimed Arab descent – partly because adopting an Arab-Muslim identity was a means of protection against enslavement. South of Jebel Marra, the Arabs took to herding cattle – becoming known as Baggara, or cattle-people – while those in the north remained as Abbala, or camelmen. In the sparsely settled south, the Fur sultans recognized the authority of each of the four main Baggara chiefs – Ta'aisha, Beni Halba, Habbaniya and Rizeigat – and in time their administrative jurisdiction became recognized as a hakura or dar (tribal homeland). Their Abbala cousins, moving as nomads in the northern provinces, where all land was already allocated to others, occasionally received small estates, but had no jurisdiction over any sizeable territories. To this day, many Abbala Arabs explain their involvement in the current conflict in terms of this 250-year-old search for land, granted to the Baggara but denied to them. An Arab omda (administrative chief) from North Darfur explained, 'the system of hakura is old and outdated like the feudal system in Europe. The right to [Sudanese] citizenship guarantees a right to a place to live.'
The Rizeigat are the largest and most powerful of the Arab tribes of Darfur. Most live in south-east Darfur, under the tribal authority of the Madibu family. The Rizeigat in northern Darfur and Chad trace the same lineage but have no enduring political connections. They have three sections – Mahariya, Mahamid and Eteifat – and close political connections with two other Arab tribes, Awlad Rashid and Ereigat. Their camels made them rich and influential: the northern Rizeigat were among Darfur's specialist export hauliers across the desert.
On its southern periphery, Dar Fur showed a different and more violent face. It was a slaving machine, hunting the forest peoples for slaves, both for its own domestic and agricultural economy and for export along the 'Forty Days' Road' to Egypt and beyond. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Darfur by Julie Flint, Alex de Waal. Copyright © 2008 Julie Flint and Alex de Waal. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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