Darfur’s less-known victims

Times Staff Writer

He was shopping for cooking oil when Arab gunmen attacked his village. Adam Abdalla Omar, 70, tried to rescue his cow, but the invaders shot off his left arm. Now he lives in a displacement camp, so desperate and bored he worries he’s losing his mind.

It’s a sadly familiar story in Darfur, except that Omar too is an Arab.

Arabs in the western Sudanese region of Darfur are usually depicted as the aggressors in a conflict with black African ethnic groups, but many Arabs now find themselves caught up in the violence, forced into camps by intertribal fighting and cut off from traditional migration routes they’ve relied upon for centuries to survive.


In the latest twist, Arab militias armed by the Sudanese government as part of its counterinsurgency strategy are turning their guns against each other.

In the last three months, such inter-Arab clashes have killed nearly 200 people in southern Darfur, officials estimate. Thousands of Arabs have been forced into makeshift displacement camps around towns such as Kas, Nyala and Zalingei.

The deadliest fighting has been between a powerful group of Arab pastoralists, known as Reizegat, and a smaller Arab tribe of seminomadic farmers, called Targem. Officials say the two tribes once were allies and have participated in the systematic attacks against non-Arab farming villages that have left more than 200,000 people dead in Darfur since 2003, mostly of disease or hunger in the early years, and an additional 2 million displaced.

About 32 Targem villages were torched last month by Reizegat attackers, African Union officials said. Four Targem children were executed in their sleep, the officials reported.

“This is absolutely new,” said Mariam Sadiq Mahdi, daughter of former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq Mahdi, who is the leader of the opposition Umma Party.

Experts say Arab tribes used by the government as mercenaries are starting to panic about how they’ll figure in Darfur’s political future, particularly in light of a fragile peace agreement signed in May between some non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur and the Sudanese government.

“Arabs were not part of the negotiation,” said Mohmed Izzat, who represents Arab nomad populations in the state government of North Darfur. “They got nothing.” Such views have led to fighting over the land and resources that the government promised Arab militiamen, experts say.

“The cooperation with the government worked for a while, but the government went through the whole peace process without representing the people they once used,” Mariam Sadiq Mahdi said. “That’s left Arabs with a lot of tension. It’s very turbulent.”

Although conflicts among Arab tribes in this region date back hundreds of years, the recent clashes are unusual because of the high number of casualties.

“Yesterday they were using sticks,” said Hassan Turabi, a prominent Islamist opposition leader in Sudan. “But the government gave them arms. Now they are using guns. Many more are dying.”

There are also reports that the Sudanese government is fueling the inter-Arab conflicts, perhaps in an effort to keep the tribes vulnerable and therefore loyal to the government. In the recent clashes between the Reizegat and Targem, aid officials say, the government secretly intervened in behalf of both sides, providing guns, trucks and even soldiers.

With heavy international pressure on Sudan to allow the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers and with prosecutors from the International Criminal Court in The Hague threatening to deliver indictments soon, some Arab militia leaders fear the government in Khartoum will withdraw its support.

“They want what they were promised, but they’re worried the government is going to hang them out to dry,” said one Darfur political consultant who did not want to be identified.

The recent clashes are raising the broader question of what will happen to the more than 2 million Arab nomads, people who have lived in Darfur for centuries. Arab leaders here say only a fraction of the Arab population, from 10% to 20%, has participated in the government-led attacks. Most Arabs have remained neutral and some have even sided with Darfur’s rebels, the leaders say.

Late last year, an Arab-led rebel group was formed that distanced itself from the tribes participating in the Arab militias backed by Khartoum.

Izzat said Darfur’s Arabs suffered from a lack of education. He said fewer than 10% were literate or educated. “We cannot explain ourselves, so we are exploited,” he said.

“Now everyone acts as if we are all killers. It’s as if we are against all the world. People want to make us criminals instead of helping us.”

He said characterizations of the Darfur crisis as stemming from a conflict that pits Arab herders against non-Arab farmers are overly simplistic. “We have African blood in our bodies,” Izzat said.

Advocates for the Arab nomads note that Darfur’s turmoil has disrupted traditional north-south migration routes used for grazing and watering cattle and camels. Several hundred thousand nomads are trapped in pockets such as Kebkabiya, a town about 60 miles northeast of here, unable to make use of camel trading routes to Libya and Egypt. Camel prices have plummeted 40%, and many nomads have seen their livelihoods cut off, experts say.

“Because of the fighting, they are trapped and surrounded in Kebkabiya,” said Mohammed Sayid Hassan, who runs a nomad advocacy group in North Darfur’s capital, El Fasher.

Nomad advocates say humanitarian aid rarely reaches Arabs who find themselves caught in the conflict.

“The [aid groups] give us nothing,” Izzat said. “They view us as enemies.”

Aid workers acknowledge that the needs of nomads have not received as much attention, but they say efforts are underway to provide assistance and encourage reconciliation.

“Ultimately these people are going to have to live together,” said Cate Steains, acting head of the U.N. mission in El Fasher. “The more we isolate them and tarnish them, psychologically it can only serve to make them feel more defensive. We need to engage all groups, including the Arabs, if we want to achieve peace.”


Sanders, The Times’ Nairobi Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Sudan.


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Back story

Fighting broke out in 2003 between Sudanese government forces and rebel groups that said the Darfur region had been neglected. Arab militias are accused of committing some of the violence, with support from the government.

Estimates are that more than 200,000 people have been killed and that 2 million others have been forced from their homes. In 2004, the U.S. declared that the attacks by the government-backed militias constituted genocide.


Source: Times staff reports