News feature: Ethnic cleansing in Sudan

Submitted by Janine on 23 June, 2004 - 6:11

By Cathy Nugent

Since February 2003 a brutal ethnic cleansing has taken place against some of the peoples of Darfur in western Sudan. It has been perpetrated by the military-Islamist government and the ferocious militia which it supports.

The non-Arab Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa communities of Darfur have been killed, raped and made homeless. Over a million people have now fled their homes, with 110,000 in Chad. According to UN estimates, 13,000 people have been killed.

Military and militia action in Darfur escalated at the beginning of this year when the government vowed to annihilate the armed opposition in Darfur (the Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement). They stepped up indiscriminate aerial bombardment of the area and militia/army raids of villages.

The conflict in Darfur runs alongside another bloody conflict in Sudan which has for twenty years pitted the Arab and Muslim north against the south, where more Christians, animists and non-Arab peoples live. In the south opposition has come from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). That conflict has receded, but not ended. US-backed negotiations, started in 2002, have resulted in a peace agreement, but not before the war claimed the lives of two million and displaced four million people.


Darfur's peoples are very diverse ethnically, linguistically and culturally. The indigenous non-Arab or African peoples do not speak Arabic, while those claiming Arab descent are Arabic speakers. Darfur is about the size of France, with an estimated population of four to five million. The people living on both sides of the 1,000 kilometer-long border between Chad and Sudan have much in common. Chad is home to Zaghawa and Masaalit, but also the Arab ethnic groups involved in the Darfur conflict.

Northern Darfur is home to camel-breeding nomads and the main Arab tribes. In the central and southern areas pastoral tribes live alongside peasants and these groups have regularly clashed, especially when rain is scarce. The clashes have grown more serious as the population has grown and the struggle for water and space has become more intense. But these clashes are nothing compared to the government-sponsored ethnic cleansing of recent years.

From the mid-80s the federal government increasingly favoured certain Arab tribes of Darfur. Arabs from the northern Nile Valley have controlled the central government since independence.

During the 80s Sudan was ruled by the Umma Party of Sadiq El Mahdi - a modern incarnation of an indigenous Sudanese Islamist movement. That government recruited volunteers to fight a 'jihad' in the south against non-Muslim people. They armed Arab militias from Darfur and Kordofan, known as the 'muraheleen'. The muraheleen raided, displaced, enslaved, and punished the Dinka and Nuer civilians living in SPLM territory.

The present government has continued a militia policy. In Darfur the communities under assault are Muslim but that has not protected them from terrifying abuse and slaughter.

The current Sudanese government came to power through a coup in 1989. The regime is a military-Islamist partnership, headed up by Umar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir and the National Islamic Front/National Congress, an organisation in which the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is dominant.

Founded in 1949 the Muslim Brotherhood was for many years led by Hassan Abdallah al Turabi, until his plot against el-Bashir in late 1999 failed. He was ousted by his party and then put in jail.

The government is reactionary in every kind of way - it has suppressed opposition parties, arrested student activists and closed down the independent press, even in the north of the country.

In 2001 Arab militia attacks in Darfur increased. The militias are now known as the 'janjaweed' (which roughly translates as 'devil's cavaliers armed with Kalashnikovs'). The government recruits for the janjaweed - some 20,000 men and boys - paying and arming them.

In 2002 African tribes launched the Darfur Liberation Front (becoming the Sudan Liberation Army in March 2003). At its foundation the SLA claimed to be a non-communalist organisation and stated that religion ought to be a 'private matter'. However, because the current conflict has developed such serious racial and ethnic overtones a number of ethnic groups, previously neutral, are now positioning themselves along the Arab/African divide, aligning and cooperating with either the rebel movements or the government and its allied militia.

In February 2003 there was a SLA-led uprising in the Jebel Marra mountains in the central-west of Darfur, and this started the latest bloodiest phase of the conflict.

During a short ceasefire in September 2003 a second rebel group - the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - began to gain influence. This group has many supporters of Hassan al-Turabi.

Fighting resumed in December 2003 and the government escalated its offensive. Government forces re-captured many areas. This most recent offensive has led to the huge refugee crisis. Despite a declaration of victory by the government, the militias' filthy work continues and the civilian massacres continue.

What are the elements of the ethnic cleansing?

  • Aerial bombardment, combined with a 'scorched earth' campaign by the militia, and denial of access to humanitarian assistance.
  • Government forces and militias forcibly displacing, murdering, pillaging, and raping.
  • Children abducted in large numbers.
  • Villages destroyed, usually burned, with all property looted. Key village assets, such as water points and mills destroyed in order to make the villages uninhabitable.
  • Civilians fleeing are subjected to systematic attacks, looting, and violence by militias in government-controlled towns and at checkpoints that dot the roads.
  • Collective punishment of certain villages in which militia summarily execute and assault whole communities perceived as SLA supporters. Human Rights Watch report women having their breasts cut with knives and parents being given the choice as to whether their children will be shot or thrown in the fire
  • Camels, cattle, sheep and goats belonging to Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa villagers are stolen. Without restitution or compensation thousands of families have been rendered destitute.
  • Unless refugees return to their lands and plant within the next planting season, April-June 2004 at the latest, the 2004 harvest will be drastically reduced. These people face a man-made famine.
  • Refugees arriving in Chad describe arduous treks of days and weeks to reach the border, often at night; deaths of livestock and sometimes family members along the way looting and attacks by janjaweed patrols.



'Peace in Sudan Doubtful', Dan Connell, MERIP, July 2002
Sudan: war in Darfur, Jean Louis Péninou, Le Monde diplomatique May 2004

Darfur in Flames, Human Rights Watch Report. April 2004


The Muslim Brotherhood

One of the factors behind the brutality of the government in Darfur may be their fear that the long-time leading Sudanese Islamist Hasan Turabi will find his way back into power by using the Darfur conflict.

In his former organisation, the National Islamic Front, the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood - universal application of sharia law and the establishment of an Islamic state - have been taken to their most extreme and brutal conclusion.

Hitching a ride on a corrupt and fundamentally unstable political system, the Brotherhood has been responsible for extreme violence against the Sudanese people, both through the brutal suppression of regional conflicts and through the strict application of sharia law. In Sudan limb amputation is a regular punishment, adulterers are whipped, and people are executed for apostasy from Islam.

Under the Bashir-Turabi government, until 1996 Osama bin Laden was given a safe haven.

Turabi, now ousted from power, has formed his own party, the Popular National Congress (PNC), which he claims represents the true Islamist movement. In jail until late 2003, he and fellow PNC members were rearrested on 31 March 2004.

Sudan ought to be a salutary lesson to the SWP and others on the left in Britain who actively build or condone alliances with the Muslim Association of Britain, a British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sudan shows the Brotherhood in power: extreme violence, ethnic cleansing, and the oppression of non-Muslims, and indeed all opposition, Muslim or not.


The north-south divide

Sudan has seen intermittent civil war from the moment it gained independence in 1956. The roots of division lie in decades of grossly unequal development of the Arabised north and the black African south, first by British colonial forces and then by Arab-dominated northern Sudanese governments.

Much of the southern third of the country is now under the control of the SPLM. The SPLM has a political counterpart in the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and includes the Sudanese Communist Party.

After 1989 the conflict, which was bad enough when it was between the Arabised, Islamic north and the less-Muslim African south, became worse - a dogmatic drive by an Islamist movement at the country's centre to outlaw any challenge to the government.

The army of the SPLM was established in 1983 by military mutineers who joined a revolt in the south against the then government's move to rescind the limited autonomy won in 1972. The imposition of shari'a law on the Christian and animist southerners that year was another factor.

When exploitable oil wealth became possible in the south in the late 1990s, the government stepped up its military terror campaign. They aimed to displace the inhabitants in order to provide 'security' for foreign oil companies in the lands claimed by the SPLM. Before US brokered peace negotiations, most western oil companies were wary of investing in Sudan. The main investor is China National Petroleum Company.

Oil has enabled the Sudanese regime to build a powerful army and to heavily finance the militias. Schools and hospitals in the war zones have been closed.

In the peace talks the US brought together the government and the SPLM, but excluded other NDA parties. The plan is to hold a referendum in the south on unity or independence. But who can guarantee a fair process? In all other respects right now it is NIF business as usual. Crucially the central government maintains control over the oil wealth.

Peace agreements have been signed but the fighting continues between the SPLM and the southern militias.

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