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What Would You Have Done When the Liberation Army Formed in Darfur?

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This is the fourth in a series, How to Think About Darfur, by James North:

Darfur is one of the relatively few places in Africa where the word “tribe” is valid. or
decades, Africans have been asking rhetorically why 25 million Hausa speaking
people and 10 million Zulu speakers are “tribes,” while 9 million Swedes are a
“people,” or a “nation.” “Tribe” implies
“primitive,” and also suggests a rudimentary political structure, with chiefs
or sheikhs.

In Darfur, the word to some extent fits. The vast desert region contains a mix
of peoples, some nomads, some farmers, and tribal structure has persisted
despite the national government in faraway Khartoum. Still, everyone is a Muslim, and Arabic is the lingua
franca. In physical appearance, everyone
is also “black"–although I suspect Darfuris can readily distinguish each other
by details of dress.

Gerard Prunier, one of the experts I
consulted, explains that
Darfur, “though
extraordinarily diverse, was in many ways one. Arabs and non-Arabs did not live in peace, but nor did they feud
systematically with each other; most conflicts pitted communities or sections
of communities against each other, without any reason to attach to them the ‘Arab’
and ‘African’ labels used in the 21st century crisis. Until recently, the
categories of “Arab” and “black,” or “African” meant little.
Darfur was
an ethnic mosaic, not a land divided along binary lines of fracture.”

That started to change
in the ‘70s and ‘80s. First Darfur was
sucked into the long civil war in Chad, to the west, which did
include “Arab versus black” features.
The erratic Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi
supported Chad’s
Arabs; Prunier calls Gaddafi a “racist” and an “Arab supremacist.” And Gaddafi’s views started to spill over into Darfur.

Next, the climate in Darfur started changing for the worse, which was one of
the causes of the 1984-85 famine, in which 95,000 Darfuris died. (In late 1985 I was just to the east, in
Kordofan province, reporting on famine
relief there.� The “Arabs” I met were
enthused when they learned I was American; they knew that emergency food aid
from our country had saved many of them.
They asked me to thank Ronald Reagan personally, assuming that just as
they knew their political leaders, I knew mine.
A few had named their newborn sons for Reagan. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that
only citizen action, including by Bob Geldof and the rock stars in Band-Aid,
had embarrassed Reagan and other western leaders into doing something.)

Climate change put
even more pressure on the already poor region.
“Drought leading to an advance in desertification was
playing havoc with the ‘Arab’ tribes’ means of survival at the very moment when
they were encouraged to see themselves as basically different from their
‘African’ neighbors," Prunier says.

Then, too, the entire
region felt neglected by the dictatorial regime in Khartoum. Sudan is best
understood not as Arabs dominating Africans, but as a small “Arab” elite, drawn
from the heart of the country –Khartoum, and north along the Nile –
which uses a combination of brute force and cynical manipulation to maintain
its power over the largest country in Africa.

By the early 2000s,
many Darfuris were ready to take up arms. They
had seen southern Sudanese fight the Khartoum regime to a draw; they had been
exposed (and some drawn directly into) the long war next door in Chad. President al-Bashir had held on to power since 1989, and showed no
sign of leaving; and his regime had
already started encouraging informal armed groups, the janjawiid, to attack
certain Darfuri villages–yet another example of the divide and rule strategy
the regime had used for years.

When I look into a crisis in the third
world, I ask myself what I would do if I
lived there. The question is a little self-indulgent; as Graham Greene once pointed out, people
like us have the luxury of a roundtrip ticket, and we don’t have to choose.

But over the past 30
years I've grown tired of meeting people, especially Western journalists, who use their privileged status to
dismiss conflict in the third world as scorpions fighting in a bottle. And I reflect that in Darfur,
when the Sudan Liberation Army formed, it attracted farmers, former soldiers
from the regime’s army, unemployed young men, and teachers and
intellectuals. And SLA grew out of self-defense groups, formed to protect
villages from the janjawiid.

If I were a high
school teacher in Darfur, instead of a well-off writer in New
York City,
would I have joined the SLA
in 2003? Or supported it– I don’t have
any military training.

I think so.

And, looking back
today, would I regret my decision?

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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