This overview is a brief history that provides a contextual background for understanding the issues Operation Broken Silence works on. Specifically, this overview provides an overarching historical narrative of the war and genocide in Darfur. It is part of our Educational Resources list.
Pre-Crisis Background: 1898-2003
The war and genocide that began in Darfur in 2003 has roots in many historical grievances and decades of marginalization. During the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium beginning in 1899, the joint British and Egyptian government that administrated Sudan, the colonial authority invested heavily in the central and eastern parts of the country. The Darfur region, like most of the rest of Sudan outside the Nile River Valley, remained largely off the radar and had a great deal of autonomy until World War I. During that conflict, Darfur was integrated into Sudan under the Condominium.
The area remained largely ignored until January 1, 1956, when Sudan declared independence. Left out of the decision-making process for the creation of a central government in Khartoum, regional Darfuri groups began to emerge to advocate for a larger role in the country and to argue against the creation of an Arab, Islamic state, even though much of Darfur was and remains Muslim with various African ethnicities. This led to increased tensions between the country's more powerful center in Khartoum and much of Darfur.
Tensions continued to rise in Darfur throughout the 1960s and 1970s as the regional dynamics between Sudan, Libya, and Chad continued to evolve. Darfur became a safe haven for various rebel groups fighting in Chad, with the governments of Sudan and Libya frequently supporting different sides of that conflict. As the ideas of Arabization and Islamization spread in both Libya and central Sudan, many Darfuris found themselves caught in the middle of a new cultural context they disagreed with.
The situation in Darfur became more unstable in the 1980s due to a horrific famine and the central government's increasing efforts to rule the area through Arabs who agreed with the country's power base in Khartoum. Additionally, the region was now awash in arms due to various governmental and rebel activities between Sudan, Chad, and Libya.
In 1991, Sudan's ongoing civil war between the north and south briefly spilled into Darfur as an armed SPLA force entered Darfur in an attempt to spread the southern rebellion. After the SPLA force was defeated by Sudanese government forces and allied Arab militias, Darfuri communities sympathetic to the southern plight were burned to the ground. In 1994, the Sudanese government divided Darfur into three different federal states in an attempt to keep Darfuri African tribes, predominantly the Fur, from effectively mobilizing in support of ideas and policies that countered the government.
By the turn of the century, war between Darfuris and the central government in Khartoum was inevitable. Arab militias armed by the government of Sudan were attacking non-Arab tribes, specifically the Fur and Masalit, at an alarming rate from 1998-2000. Clashes between both sides continued to increase in scope and severity due to a number of issues including land, rights, and access to markets. In 1999, Masalit fighters briefly managed to gain the upper hand and killed several Arab militia leaders. The government of Sudan responded by sending its own armed forces in to turn the tide. Many Masalit intellectuals and leaders were promptly arrested, imprisoned, and tortured as Arab militias continued to attack Masalit villages.
The political situation in Darfur finally spiralled out of control in 2000, when a group of future Darfuri rebel leaders published the Black Book, a dissident piece of literature highlighting Arab and government abuses against African Darfuris. The government of Sudan failed to suppress the Black Book, and talk of rebellion spread across large swaths of Darfur. Meanwhile, Arab militia attacks against Fur and Masalit communities continued. With no peaceful options available for change and in April of 2003, organized Darfuri rebels advanced on the Sudanese government air base in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. The war had arrived and, unbeknownst to Darfuris, the first genocide of the 21st century was about to be unleashed against them.
The Beginnings of War & Genocide: 2003
While there had been growing activity by Darfur's two main rebel groups, the Darfur Liberation Army and the Justice & Equality Movement (JEM), since the beginning of 2003, the joint rebel attack on the Sudanese government military base in El Fasher is seen as a major turning point in Darfur's recent history. The attack was unprecedented and destroyed government bombers, helicopters, and other vehicles. The emerging military threat to Khartoum forming in Darfur could no longer be ignored by the government of Sudan.
With the war in southern Sudan still winding down, the military underneath the Bashir regime lacked the full resources it needed to put down the Darfur rebellion on its own. As government warplanes began bombing unarmed communities and rebel positions, the Sudanese military began recruiting, arming, and training large numbers of militiamen from Arab communities in Darfur. The militias later came to be known as the Janjaweed, or devil on horseback. They would be the backbone of the brutal genocidal killing machine against the non-Arab tribes which formed the core of the armed opposition groups - primarily the Zaghawa, Fur and Masalit.
Initial Janjaweed recruits to the government's war and genocide in 2003 came mainly from two Arab groups - nomads from North Darfur and immigrants/mercenaries from Chad. While many Arab communities remained neutral, specifically those that owned land, Sudanese government promises of war loot and new land encouraged thousands to join the Janjaweed.
By the end of 2003, government forces and large numbers of Janjaweed units mounted on horseback had unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against non-Arab communities across Darfur. They destroyed everything that made life possible, including clean water wells, orchards, markets, and mosques.
All Out War In A Burning Darfur: 2004-2007
The rapid destruction of Darfur led to swift criticism from an international community already focused on Sudan due to the conflict in southern Sudan. In an attempt to remove blame from itself, the Bashir regime ordered the Sudan Armed Forces to step back and allow the Janjaweed militias to become the spearhead of the genocide.
The Janjaweed campaign caused death, displacement and destruction on a shocking scale. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in the first few years of the genocide. Another two and a half million were driven into displacement camps, where small contingents of African Union troops had neither the mandate nor the resources to protect the people. Meanwhile, the Janjaweed continued killing and displacing with absolute impunity. More than 200,000 refugees fled across the border into camps in Chad.
In 2004, senior U.S. government officials began labelling the conflict as a genocide committed by the government of Sudan against non-Arab Darfuri groups.
The genocide promptly turned the tide of the war in favor of the government. As Darfuri rebel groups fractured underneath constant, mounting military pressure, they resulted to guerrilla tactics that focused on slowly strangling both the Janjaweed and official government forces. While this proved to be an effective new strategy, it did little in slowing down the Janjaweed and often times incited even more killing of innocents in retribution.
The Government of Sudan and a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) signed the Darfur Peace Agreement on May 5, 2006 after seven rounds of African Union-led negotiations. JEM and another SLA faction refused to sign, saying compensation guarentees and the disarmament of the Janjaweed were not a high enough priority in the agreement.
A handful of individual commanders and splinter groups signed Declarations of Commitment to the agreement but many were armed by the government and turned against their former allies in North Darfur. Subsequent attacks by signatories on non-signatories displaced tens of thousands of civilians. The government's divide-and-conquer strategy now had an expanding number of rebel groups fighting each other and the Janjaweed. Meanwhile, daily aerial bombings of communities paved the way for Janjaweed units to sweep in on horseback and pillage, rape, and kill on a horrifying scale.
In March of 2005, the United Nations Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court.
In mid-2006, the Bashir regime ordered the Sudan Armed Forces back to the frontlines in a new offensive against non-signatories of the Darfur Peace Agreement. For a brief time, many Darfuri rebel groups put aside their differences as government forces advanced in a massive offensive. This short-lived alliance between twenty Darfuri rebel groups led to a series of pitched battles and humiliating defeats for the government of Sudan. Despite the overall failure in their military endeavours against Darfuri rebels, the government offensive proved disastrous for the people of Darfur.
By September of 2006, Darfur had become one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the world. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were out of reach of humanitarian aid groups due to expanding violence. With accusations of a government-backed genocide on the rise, the United Nations began working with the African Union to replace the outgunned African Union peacekeeping force with a United Nations one.
By 2007, international action concerning Darfur continued to grow amidst ongoing killing and a government-enforced humanitarian blockade in large areas Darfur. The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Ahmed Haroun, a senior Sudanese government official, and Ali Kushayb, a high-ranking Janjaweed leader on dozens of counts of war crimes charges. In 2008, the court would also issue an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's sitting dictator.
Meanwhile, the struggling African Union peacekeeping force deployed in 2006 could barely protect itself, much less the now millions of terrified Darfuris seeking protection from the Janjaweed. By May of 2007, the entire force was on the verge of collapsing due to a lack of resources and an increasingly hostile environment. Throughout the rest of the year, African Union peacekeepers would come under attack by Darfur rebel groups and government-aligned forces. The force would be transitioned to a stronger, United Nations-led command in 2008 that would see thousands of more peacekeeping reinforcements arrive in Darfur.
As Darfur continued to burn, the government of Sudan began actively resettling Arab tribes into areas of Darfur that had been "cleansed" of Darfuri African tribes such as the Fur.
Attempted Government Overthrow: 2008
In May of 2008, a JEM strike force swept out of Darfur eastwards towards the center of the country. Their target was the the twin cities of Omdurman and Khartoum, the seat of the Sudanese government. The attack took the Sudanese government by surprise as JEM forces advanced deep into Omdurman en route to Khartoum. A last minute surge of government reinforcements and the deployment of Bashir's personal militia repelled the attack.
Following the attack and with the United Nations force deploying to Darfur in larger numbers, the international community slowly began to lose interest in Darfur. International arrest warrants for Sudanese war criminals went unimplemented, UN peacekeepers soon found themselves facing a major Sudanese government campaign to block their efforts through intimidation, and, even though violence had slowed, a lack of humanitarian access threatened many Darfuris.
Aid Expulsions & Coverups: 2009-2014
As early as 2009, it became clear that international efforts in Darfur were facing serious challenges from the government of Sudan. United Nation's peacekeeping patrols were often times blocked by government soldiers and Janjaweed militiamen. While mass violence had eased somewhat, peacekeepers still could not access areas of Darfur in which conflict was still ongoing. Meanwhile, lawlessness and banditry across Darfur were increasing amidst ongoing conflict.
Things only got worse in March of 2009 when the government of Sudan began expelling international aid organizations from Darfur, leaving hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable without international support. These expulsions continue to be a part of the government's genocidal strategy to destroy the non-Arab peoples of Darfur.
Meanwhile, United Nations peacekeeping officials, under intense pressure from the Sudanese government, began taking a series of devastating steps that would undermine the integrity of their mission and cause great harm to the people of Darfur. Rather than challenging ongoing government war crimes being reported by their peacekeepers, United Nations officials covered them up instead. Evidence points that these coverups began as early as 2009 and continue today. Whistleblowers from within UNAMID have since emerged decrying these actions, but United Nations officials have taken no concrete steps to address these issues.
Mass government crimes continue today in Darfur underneath a near complete media blackout and widening humanitarian blockades. Government attacks against civilians are accelerating at an alarming pace. Rape as a weapon of war has become a daily occurrence. Continuing violence has displaced people at the highest rate since the crisis peaked in 2004. In 2014, over 450,000 people were displaced by growing violence, largely at the hands of the government of Sudan. UNAMID has begun preparing an exit strategy despite the worsening environment in Darfur. The people of Darfur stand on the verge of being completely abandoned.
There is a desperate need for the international community to reengage in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. Despite multiple chances to arrest indicted Sudanese war criminals, world leaders have refused to take decisive action. This lack of impunity has reinforced Sudanese government official's thinking that there are no consequences for committing genocide. By working hard to arrest known war criminals, fixing and strengthening UNAMID, and ramping up pressure on the Sudanese government to allow unfettered humanitarian access across Darfur, the international community can save lives and begin helping Darfuris get the peace and justice they deserve.
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