The Perilous Change in Darfur's Demography

A fighter from the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces sits on a vehicle in the city of Nyala,
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY TOM LITTLE A fighter from the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces sits on a vehicle in the city of Nyala, in south Darfur, on May 3, 2015, as they display weapons and vehicles they say they captured from Dafuri rebels and fighters from The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), lead by opposition leader Jibril Ibrahim, the previous week. Darfur's insurgency was launched in 2003, with the rebels complaining of economic and political marginalisation by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. Bashir unleashed a brutal counter-offensive using Arab militia and the military. The United Nations says the conflict has killed 300,000 and forced 2.5 million from their homes. AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

The debate about whether or not Darfur (Sudan) was the site of genocide long ago flamed out, largely because the issue became excessively politicized and the world--in general--no longer cared about how we referred to continuing ethnically-targeted destruction in Darfur. But the facts of the past several years, particularly in North Darfur and the Jebel Marra region, compel us to ask again about the character of the atrocity crimes committed on a daily basis, if almost completely unreported.

These crimes are committed in the main by regular forces of the Khartoum regime as well as by its new militia force, the Rapid Response Forces (RSF). They are often referred to as the "new Janjaweed," and enjoy the open support of Khartoum's brutal ruling junta, which the "old Janjaweed" did not. The crimes, systematic in nature, include mass rapes, gang rapes, and the rape of girls; rape is a central weapon of ethnic warfare in Darfur, as human rights organizations and investigators have long argued.

More broadly, thousands of villages have been totally destroyed in recent years: the UN estimates that 3,300 villages were destroyed in Darfur during 2014 alone; these were in addition to the many thousands of villages that had been destroyed in the previous ten years of unceasing violence. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, many without resources of any kind; the population of displaced and refugees is approximately 3 million, overwhelmingly people from African tribal groups. Murder and violence-related mortality is not reported by the UN or the UN/African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), but the figure for recent years is certainly in the many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. Overall, the number of people who have died in the conflict since 2003 exceeds 500,000.

Of particular note recently is the Jebel Marra massif in the center of Darfur, bordering the older state divisions of West, South, and North Darfur; it is a fertile region inhabited mainly by the African Fur tribe and has long been the primary stronghold of the Sudan Liberation Army. "Eastern Jebel Marra" is the region of North Darfur into which Jebel Marra descends. It lies west of El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, and includes the majority of towns and villages that have been the subject of attack.

Tabit is one such town, and the scene of mass rape last October 31 - November 1, perpetrated by regular army forces, and according to Human Rights Watch, under orders from the commander of the local garrison. More than 200 girls and women were brutally raped, and often gang-raped. The U.S., the UN, and European countries have feebly attempted to initiate an investigation, since the initial UNAMID report clearly whitewashed events. But this is merely posturing: international actors know very well the Khartoum won't allow investigators of any kind to travel to Tabit--or any other part of Darfur, which the regime has successfully turned into a "black box" as its campaign of civilian destruction continues.

And let us be clear: the overwhelming majority of those raped, killed, and displaced are from the non-Arab, African tribal groups of Darfur, not only the Fur.

New Development in the Strategy

In recent years we have heard of an ominous new strategy in Khartoum's campaign from Radio Dabanga, our only meaningful source of news about Darfur other than an occasional UN humanitarian report (and these reports are often suppressed, even when they contain data suggestive of massive humanitarian needs unmet, particularly nutrition). Nomadic Arab "settlers" have appropriated the lands of African farmers, and either used them as foraging ground for their livestock or claimed them as a means of increasing their wealth. Farmers attempting to work their lands are either killed or, in the case of women and girls, raped. The tentative movements out of the displaced persons camps by farmers run into this extremely violence, for the Arab militias, whether part of the RSF or not, enjoy complete impunity as Khartoum continues its attempt to "change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes."

Reports that the Arab "settlers" are not just from Darfur are of longstanding, but have recently grown markedly. Chad, Niger, and Mali are the countries of origin most often cited. Differences in accent in the Arabic spoken, different clothing, and a clear appearance of not belonging are decisive in the minds of African Darfuris. Khartoum must be facilitating these migrations because they could not occur otherwise: the Chad/Darfur border is relatively well patrolled and once inside Darfur, any significant non-Sudanese population would be detected by Khartoum's intelligence services, including Military Intelligence. Rather, what we have are reports that on entering Darfur, these new Arab immigrants are given identity papers, and other means of facilitating an Arab re-population of a demographically changed Darfur--even land titles.

There is no reporting on this by UNAMID, by the UN, and only very occasionally by human rights groups, which are hampered by a complete lack of access to Darfur. But land appropriation, the conversion of farmland to foraging lands, the impoverishment of the farmers who worked the lands productively, and the violence that accompanies the land seizures--all make for what is almost certainly the greatest problem in securing peace for Darfur.

Certainly the issue is not addressed in the Doha (Qatar) Document for Peace in Darfur, an agreement signed by one small, factitious rebel group and the Khartoum regime. Perversely, its signing in July 2011--more than four years ago--coincided with the beginning of accelerating violence, which has grown greater in every year since. Even the Obama administration, which long touted the Doha agreement as the best road for peace in Darfur, has silently abandoned this view, although it has provided no diplomatic or other resources for an alternative peace process: it is too busy seeking to move along the process of rapprochement with Khartoum, which adamantly cleaves to the Doha document as the only agreement it will sign.

But if the farcical Doha agreement--immediately rejected by Darfuri civil society and the major rebel movements--isn't the answer, what is? And how will the issue of restoring land ownership be addressed, when every day it becomes more difficult as additional farmland is appropriated?

The change in demography has been achieved, and reversing it will take the kind of international commitment that is nowhere in sight. The UN and African Union hide behind the fig-leaf of the Doha agreement, even as they well know that it is meaningless; the Obama administration and European leaders are silent. The UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations wants to continuing its already substantial drawn-down of UNAMID personnel, compromising further an already failing and expensive mission. And humanitarian organizations, without even the vestiges of a meaningful protection force, will leave--even as they are the critical lifeline for many hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Darfuris.

Darfur has been abandoned, and in the coming years--sooner or later--we will discover the truth about the horrific consequences of such abandonment: many hundreds of thousands dead or dying, more than 2 million displaced, perhaps permanently--and a region that has been demographically re-made as planned in Khartoum's radical Arabizing agenda.

Misk al-Khitam is an Arabic phrase--from the Qur'an--that a well-informed Darfuri contact tells was initially given by Khartoum to the accelerating offensive in Darfur. One English rendering of this phrase into English is "The Perfect Ending"; another might be "The Final Solution."

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for the past sixteen years. He is author of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 - 2012 (September 2012)