Darfur’s Unfinished Story

Questions without answers,  horrific suffering without end.

By Chris Herlinger

They recounted their experiences in camps they had grown to hate, surrounded by the very men who had driven them to the perdition the rest of the world now simply knew as Darfur. In villages not far from Gasilla in West Darfur, one set of killings and shootings in October 2003 was drawn out over four agonizing hours, survivors recalled. In one hamlet, 68 were murdered. A month later, some 200 villagers in another nearby area were forced into burning huts and burned alive; flame-throwers and matches were the weapons of choice there.

In the city of Um Kher, a conscience-stricken man lucky enough to have escaped brutalities himself recalled his efforts to stop the bloodletting. Warned about a January 2004 attack on the village of Kanyou, he called local authorities to alert them to the violence that eventually left some 100 dead. But he was crisply told it was outside their area of control and that the authorities would not respond. “We could hear it here,” said the man nearly a full year later in the shadows of a deserted village square. “The Janjaweed surrounded the village and they shot anybody who tried to escape.” He later realized the futility of his act. “They were sent to kill people, not to save people.”

The stories—and there were many more like these—followed a nearly identical pattern: paramilitaries known as the Janjaweed arrived on camels and horses, working in tandem with Sudanese government troops in trucks and cars. They looted the hamlets, murdered the men, and raped the women.

For the survivors who recounted the atrocities to me as I began a humanitarian assignment to Darfur last November, the stories were, in a sense, unfinished: those in the fetid camps find them-selves being watched, policed, and bullied by the same authorities and surrounded by the same paramilitaries. The result is benumbing shock and fear, a collective ennui of spirit and body. “The only thing they [the authorities] have done is grudgingly grant us permission to feed people,” said one exasperated European aid worker. “But they still feel they have the right to harass and kill.”

There are as many as 2 million people in Darfur experiencing such abasement, spending their days in what amount to concentration camps, burning with baleful and hateful memories and facing no immediate hope of ever returning to life as it was. “The people in the camps are stuck between a past they don’t want to remember and a future they cannot see or even glimpse,” said a Norwegian humanitarian worker. (For reasons related to safety, she and many others living and working in Darfur, Sudanese and non-Sudanese, survivors and aid workers, requested not to be identified by name.)

Not a few men compared themselves to being “hens in cages”—but that is a kinder fate, surely, than the one experienced by many women, who in wandering off the camps to search for the fire-wood needed for kindling, are often victims of rape.1 “It’s routine,” said one humanitarian official. “You go out for firewood and you run the risk of being raped.”

It is not easy for a white American man to talk to Sudanese women about these experiences, so it is necessary to speak discreetly to tribal leaders who know the women. This can be frustrating—the men themselves use euphemisms to describe the assaults. Still, the shame that rape casts on women and their com-munities is considerable and palpable. “How can she [a woman who had been raped] live a happy life now, among her sisters?” one tribal leader asked me. “And what will they do with these children? He will be an ‘enemy boy.’ What will we do with such a boy? He will be an outcast.” And if it’s a girl? “She will never marry.”

Especially galling to many are the memories of leaving behind the unburied dead, particularly grievous in a rural Islamic society. One local leader, or sheik, told me of losing a brother and a son, but he said he could not safely return to his village to bury the bodies that had been left in the open. “It’s shameful not to bury them,” the sheik said. But he could not consider returning. At least not yet. “I would be killed now,” he said. “We prefer to stay.”


How did all of this come to pass? how did a little-known and once largely ignored region of three provinces in western Sudan the size of France suddenly become synonymous with the first possible genocide of a new century?

Answering requires asking something even more fundamental, a question Michael Ignatieff posed earlier this year to Harvard students studying the ethical and moral dilemmas of intervention and human rights: What is Darfur? Is it a genocide that has parallels with events in Rwanda a decade ago? Is it a counter-insurgency campaign by the Sudanese government against Darfur rebels that has gone terribly awry? Or is it something else altogether?

The answers do not come easily. Darfur is still not an easy place for journalists, aid workers, and others to enter; there is not anything approaching a scholarly consensus on the region or its history. There are elements of politics (a feud by different parties over control of Darfur), environment (nomadic peoples from Sudan, Chad, and Libya being forced further south to eke out a living due to changes in the desert), grievance (longstanding neglect of Darfur by the central government), and identity (tangled and clashing visions of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism).

All of this is happening in a nation that itself remains highly contested: the crisis in Darfur has occurred against a backdrop of two decades of war that has pitted an authoritarian government in Khartoum—often advocating a strict interpretation of Islam in the name of a national identity—against southern Sudan, a region in which many people practice Christianity and indigenous religions.

This conjunction of nationalism and religion has been enormously destructive to the social fabric of Sudan, exacting a cost of more than 1 million dead and the uprooting and displacement of some 4 million Sudanese. Writing about his country long before the crisis in Darfur, former Sudanese ambassador Francis Deng noted that the state’s religious agenda has denied “democratic freedoms to Muslims and non-Muslims alike and has adopted strategies that have led to gross violations of international human rights standards, all of which negate the spiritual and ethical ideals normally associated with all religions.”2

Religion itself may not be an overt cause of the Darfur conflict—unlike the north-south conflict, those fighting each other in Darfur are all Muslim—but issues of identity, fueled by a legacy of government-imposed religious strictures, are now front and center in the conflict. Always a place of multiple and often shifting identities in which labels such as “African” and “Arab” were often blurred because of intermarriage and easy commingling with neighbors, who you are and how others see you are now dynamics polarizing Darfur: the Darfur guerillas fighting the Sudanese government call themselves “African,” while those victimized by the violence will now call any nomad who might be Arab a Janjaweed. The pastoralists and nomads who once co-existed peaceably find themselves now hating each other.

The result may make long-term reconciliation difficult. Alex de Waal, a fellow at Harvard’s Global Equity Initiative, is more optimistic than others, saying that Sudanese “have an extraordinary capacity to reconcile.” But a United Nations official I met in Darfur feared the worst, saying, “The knives are sharpening,” a reference to potential reprisals by the displaced against anyone they believe is “Arab.”

If the bitterness that prompts such observations is easy to discern—in the camps and among self-described “African” Sudanese as they travel Darfur’s roads and see nomadic peoples making their crossings—the precise “why” of events in Darfur remains sketchy and a point of contention.

This much is clear: at least 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes and have been forced into displacement camps. But even approximate numbers of those who have died—either killed outright or perished from resulting food shortages and disease—remain in dispute. At the very least, 180,000 are believed to have perished; other estimates claim as many as 300,000 or more have died.

The Janjaweed stand accused as perpetrators of acts some have described as, at least, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and at worst, as genocide. United States officials have used the term genocide to describe events in Darfur, a term that Europeans have been reluctant to embrace. A report commissioned by the United Nations in early 2005 said of the government of Sudan, “The crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing.” But the report was also severe in its conclusion that the Darfur crisis “should not be taken in any way as detracting from the gravity of the crimes perpetuated in that region. International offenses such as the crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been commit-ted in Darfur may be no less serious and heinous than genocide.”3

The government of Sudan has systematically denied the charges of genocide and has also denied a link with the Janjaweed, saying the militias are no more than bandits who have long terrorized the Darfur countryside looking for bounty. Earlier this year, Khidir Haroun Ahmed, the Sudanese ambassador to the United States, told reporters his government had “never given any license to kill or to burn or to loot” in Darfur. At the same time, however, his government has said it has been justified in ending an anti-government insurgency it claims threatens the security of Darfur and the stability of all of Sudan.

Who the Janjaweed are exactly also remains contested: Musa Hilal, often described as a key Janjaweed leader, has spurned that particular title, but has also declared that the forces he is said to be aligned with have taken their orders from the Sudanese government. A one-time military official in Darfur who met with a group of European journalists in late 2004 said that unlike the traditional definition of Janjaweed—bandits of the old school who would “form, raid, and flee”—the new Janjaweed are, in fact, a creation of the Sudanese government. They were, he said, “recruited, equipped, and paid” and were needed because so many in the Sudanese armed forces are from Darfur and would not take kindly to uprooting or terrorizing their own people. This official also theorized, as have others, that forces within the government did not have genocidal intent in Darfur but had wanted to prevent the country from splintering. They “reacted out of fear,” he said, at a time when the government was engaged in sensitive negotiations over the north-south conflict and faced an insurgency by guerillas in Darfur—the non-sectarian Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Islamic-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). These groups are demanding that the government end policies of neglect and exploitation they claim have done grievous harm to Darfur, one of Sudan’s least developed regions.

Historians will debate conclusions like these and also note the irony that the Darfur crisis has occurred just at a time when the Sudanese government was both developing a better relationship with the United States and was liberalizing to an extent—the government was not, as Alex de Waal noted in The London Review of Books, “at the height of its ideological hubris” of the early 1990s. Rather, de Waal suggested that what has happened in Darfur is “the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years of power: it is a genocide by force of habit.”4


Leaving Darfur in December and joining the  Harvard community for a time of study just two months later, I was struck by the parallel and sometimes overlapping debates in both locales over the so-called “g-word.”

In Darfur, I had asked humanitarian workers their thoughts about genocide and there were decided shades of gray—one reason being that humanitarian workers, who provide basic materials for survival (food, medicine, and the like), and human rights workers, who investigate abuses and advocate on behalf of victims, have parallel but dissimilar missions. One aid worker, who had studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was cautious, saying the use of the term “genocide” in the context of Darfur had probably become too politicized and “required a very high threshold of proof,” she said. “If we value the term, we have to treat it very carefully.” She paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully. “If we have failed in Darfur and it is genocide, that will be enormously sad,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s genocide or not. But I’ve worked in a lot of post-conflict places—Iraq, Afghanistan—and this is the most suffering I’ve ever seen.”

Another woman, from England, pointedly and repeatedly asked about the issue of intent, a key provision of the International Genocide Convention; intent, she said was still not clear, nor was the Darfur “endgame”: “Was it the deliberate destruction of the Fur people?” she asked of one of the largest ethnic groups in Darfur. (“Darfur” means “land of the Fur.”)

“In a technical sense, the bits seem to point to that,” she said. But at the same time, she noted, the term “genocide” had become over-used and popularized, so that to a public used to hazy references over issues of history and international law, the differences between, say, a Darfur and a Rwanda were becoming less and less distinct.

The most passionate—certainly the most impatient—of the three was a European worker who claimed he didn’t care what the Darfur crisis was called. “I don’t think labeling anything has been helpful at all,” he said.

In fact, he found the debate over genocide altogether maddening as it had, he argued, wasted precious time in stopping violence and protecting civilians. He said no one had yet determined how to protect those in the camps—there were still few African Union peacekeepers on the ground and their mandate was severely limited as it was; the assaults against civilians in the camps were reduced when outside humanitarian workers were present but there were too few workers to make any real difference.

“What’s protection by presence if a Kalma happens?” he said, citing an incident in November 2004 when the BBC taped incidents of harassment within the largest camp in Darfur. “Kalma is the most protected place there is, but in the end there’s not really that much protection at all. ‘Protection by presence’ becomes nothing but an empty phrase.”

Similar arguments were made at several public forums at Harvard in April of this year, when the University was host to a week of events and public forums focusing on Darfur.

One event contrasted welcome “grassroots” initiatives—the formation of a Genocide Intervention Fund5 to raise funds for the African Union (AU) peacekeepers—and continued problems and snares at the international level. Author Samantha Power, who has reported from Darfur for The New Yorker, and General Roméo Dallaire, the former United Nations commander in Rwanda and Carr Center for Human Rights Policy fellow, noted that the debate over genocide, however useful, overshadowed a more immediate problem: protecting the uprooted and those still at risk.

“There is no solution to Darfur without a protection force on the ground,” Dallaire said, suggesting at other appearances at Harvard during the spring that up to 44,000 peacekeeping troops might be needed to secure Darfur. As of June, only a fraction of that number had been deployed, and the troops’ mandate was still curtailed and limited.

That gap was a reminder of what one humanitarian worker told me. The world had done a pretty good job, he said, in providing food and other humanitarian assistance for the residents of Darfur. But it had failed miserably in protecting them from further threats. “You have a huge protection gap,” he said. “You don’t have a huge food gap.” (This worker spoke in late 2004, when the immediate humanitarian crisis in some areas had eased a bit because, after a period of delays, international assistance of food and medicines had finally arrived and been distributed. However, continued insecurity and violence in many parts of Darfur remains an acute problem in 2005, making it difficult to provide humanitarian assistance in many parts of the region.)

What of the Darfurians themselves? For those in the camps, the question of what to do remains basic: send in outside protection forces, preferably from the West. In the recent tangled history of Sudan, Eritrea is seen as an enemy by some, Chad by others. One man told me he wanted the United States to intervene and actually fight the Janjaweed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I doubted that would ever happen; the United States was otherwise preoccupied by a war in another predominately Muslim country. And besides, the international community had failed to act in Rwanda; a decade later, the world still had no consensus about how or when to intervene in places like Darfur.


In the end, whatever the crisis is called—genocide, ethnic cleansing, a counter-insurgency gone bad—Darfur is still experiencing a war. And as the anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom has written about earlier conflicts, in this type of “dirty war,” with its attendant casualties and death, its devastation of the life of the everyday, its landscapes “full of burned-out villages, maimed people, and families mourning their dead,” those who have experienced these horrors hold only a singular ideology: “an anti-atrocity ideology.”6 People merely want to survive.

In Darfur, such people included Adam Ali, 34, a man I met in an SLA held area. Weeks before he had been shot and wounded, as had 57-year-old Faddallah Mohammed Harif, an elderly man by Darfur standards. Both men had fled a camp where 12 people had been killed and were on their way to look for food and water.

Not far from where they sat, next to a lean-to covered with plastic sheeting to protect against the piercing afternoon sun and heat, sat Radija, a 20-year-old woman with six children by her side. The family was waiting for the return of their father and husband, who had gone to gather water. Displaced twice and looking for safety, Radija was not sure where the family would eventually land—for the moment she was preoccupied with the needs of her sick children, who were suffering from diarrhea.

Weeks later, not far from that spot—a small patch of a hill in an area but an hour’s drive from the city of Nyala—fighting broke out between the SLA and government troops. It was an area that I and several colleagues had come to know for a short time: Having been allowed safe passage in the region to get some idea of the humanitarian situation, we had stayed in the village of Um Seifa, the site of a small medical clinic and a water station, and had talked to women and others who had been displaced and were using the village as something of a safe haven.

We had also spoken to the young SLA members who manned the roads, on sentry duty at night and teaching school by day. Displays of personal warmth did not come easily to these young men, though they did speak passionately about the friends and relatives they had lost in the conflict. “When somebody comes to your village,  kills children, kills women in front of you, is that right?” one of them asked us.

Any sense of idealism that could be justifiably claimed by these men evaporated in our eyes as we left the area and saw youngsters—teenagers and some even younger—with Kalashnikov rifles strung around their shoulders. We couldn’t be sure they were SLA child soldiers who had seen battle. But we also couldn’t be sure, either, that they were mere mascots or hangers-on.

What happened to them or others we met—to Adam, Faddallah, Radija and her children—we don’t know. Um Seifa, we learned later, was eventually leveled—its small wood huts burned to the ground, the water station and clinic demolished. Other villages and cities we had visited, including the city of Labado, which had been an SLA headquarters and stronghold, had also been destroyed.

Fortunately, that was not the end of the story—nor should it be a kind of final word about Darfur. Optimism is still hard to come by: intractable problems remain unsolved. As I write this, in late June 2005, Darfur peace talks remain stalled, in part because of internal divisions within the two rebel groups. Perhaps most astonishingly, the displaced in Kalma camp—so exasperated by living conditions there—have threatened a hunger strike.

There are a few fragments of hope. The International Criminal Court is investigating human-rights abuses in Darfur and has said that there is sufficient evidence to try suspects. At several public appearances at Harvard last spring, Alex de Waal noted that quiet, nascent efforts are under way among local Darfur leaders to resolve longstanding conflicts without the help of outsiders—a needed reminder that indigenous efforts could yet prove as helpful in diffusing the crisis as international attempts.

Darfur continues to command the attention of a wide spectrum of religious groups and humanitarian organizations, not to mention elected officials: Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, local and federal figures—all want the Bush administration and the international community to act more decisively about Darfur, something that has overwhelming public support, according to a Zogby/International Crisis Group public opinion survey conducted earlier this year.

Activism at Harvard and other campuses is encouraging in regard to keeping the issue alive before the public—as was the decision in April by Harvard to divest from PetroChina, a China-based firm doing business in Sudan. Samantha Power told me in May she has been inspired by what Darfur “has brought out in people”—tempered of course, by the cautionary realization, she said, that domestic constituencies committed “to making noise” on the issue of human rights will always have to do battle against perceived national interests.

As for Labado, I learned in June that the charred remains of the city became the home for one of the AU’s bases, housing a contingent of peacekeepers from Nigeria, Malawi, and Namibia. Perhaps not coincidentally, former residents are now returning as a result: by one estimate, nearly a third of the city’s 60,000 residents who had fled had returned by mid-year. Other reports said that hundreds of families, tired of the harsh conditions at camps like Kalma, have begun taking the risk and returning home.

In late May, Labado had a visitor: United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. One European humanitarian official told Annan’s party of the need for a stronger protection mandate for the AU peacekeepers—“Security is still the main issue,” she said. Other Sudanese held aloft signs that read: “Bring us peace in Darfur.” Unfortunately, though, it seems to be Darfur’s cruel and singular fate that more than two years into one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, no one, including Annan, has yet found a way to do that.


  1. Among the studies chronicling the problem of rape in Darfur is the “Report on the Use of Rape as a Weapon of War in the Conflict in Darfur, Sudan” by Jennifer Leaning and Tara Gingerich, a study conducted by the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health. See, www.hsph.harvard.edu/fxbcenter. Another report, “The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Darfur” by the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontierès, is available at msf.org.
  2. Francis Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in Sudan. (The Brookings Institution. 1995), 498.
  3. Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, 4. January 25, 2005.
  4. Alex deWaal, “Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap.” London Review of Books, August 5, 2004.
  5. See genocideinterventionfund.org.
  6. Carolyn Nordstrom, “The Dirty War: Civilian Experience of Conflict in Mozambique and Sri Lanka” in Internal Conflict and Governance, (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 29–31.

Chris Herlinger was a resident fellow at Harvard Divinity School in spring 2005. In November and December 2004 he had been on assignment in Darfur for the New York-based humanitarian organization Church World Service, where he serves as a communications officer.  His reporting on Darfur has also appeared in The Christian Century and National Catholic Reporter and for the news agencies Ecumenical News International and Religion News Service.

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