Earlier today, the AU Panel on Darfur met with a delegation of North Darfur Arabs, who had earlier convened a workshop to prepare their responses to a series of questions posed by the Panel, on the four subjects of peace, reconciliation, justice and Darfur in Sudan. Arab community leaders had come from all parts of North Darfur for what one of them said was their first extended discussion with foreign visitors. They chose Ustaz Hassan Abdel Aziz Hassan, who heads the Arab Coordination Council, as their spokesman (he is pictured below).
The key point that Ustaz Hassan presented was that the Arabs must be part of any solution and must be represented in any peace talks. This theme was picked up by others throughout the discussion: they were resentful and fearful of any attempts to imply that they were not full citizens of Darfur with the same rights as everyone else. Among the statements was, “We are an original part of Darfur. Our existence in Darfur precedes the existence of Sudan as a nation.” Another reflected on what he saw as the sinister implications of ethnically-exclusive armed groups calling themselves liberation movements: “What is meant by the liberation of Darfur? Liberation from whom?”
The Arabs felt themselves disadvantaged because they had few educated people. “Others have representatives in the government, civil society, the rebels. We don’t. We were absent due to lack of education.” Partly for this reason, they argued, the Arabs were not assisted by international humanitarian organizations.
The Arabs need peace. Abdel Rahman Abdalla Jadalla (pictured) said, “A person carrying his own milk will not seek a fight.” He underlined the point that livestock herders are certain losers whenever there is any conflict: “A person with animal assets is a coward, and will run away with his wealth. But if cornered he will have no option but to fight.” The Arabs were also seeking peace because they felt humiliated and demonized by the label “Janjaweed.” Said one, “If peace is in the sky we will climb and take it. If it is under the ground we will dig and find it. If it is in the market we will go and buy it. We are looking for peace like a thirsty person looking for water.” Another added, “We will accept any solution so long as we are part of it.”
But the Arab view of the conflict and possible solutions diverges in important ways from the views of Darfur’s IDPs and non-Arab leaders. President Thabo Mbeki challenged the Arabs on their view of the land question. Some disputed the view of the hakura as a tribal land and preferred to emphasize the way in which, in the old days, a single hakura could encompass people of many different ethnicities. Ustaz Hassan complained that the issue of hakura was being utilized to make it part of the problem, not part of the solution, and again emphasized that the Arabs need to be part of the negotiations. Others instead insisted that the Arabs had their own rightful claim to large areas of land, not properly recognized.
Responding on the issue of justice, the North Darfur Arabs framed their views in terms of a wide range of mechanisms for accountability and reconciliation. They stressed compensation, restitution, return of IDPs, and apology for crimes committed. They said that the Sudanese judiciary should be used for any prosecutions, rejecting any external process. They went on to say that on the completion of a reconciliation process, which laid to rest all that had gone before, there would be no need for trials.
The Arab representatives insisted they were in favour of democratic elections and said it would be possible to hold elections in Darfur.
President Mbeki also challenged the Arabs on their role in the war: “What is said, is that when the rebellion broke out in 2003, the government of Sudan armed the Arab tribes, which then acted in coordination with the Sudan armed forces, to attack the tribes of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa in particular, and remove them from their villages. After this, the land was occupied by Arabs, including some coming from outside Sudan. It is these groups that are described as ‘Janjaweed,’ which were an instrument of the government. What is the truth?”
Many in the room responded and the discussion could have continued all evening. No-one denied that the Arabs had responded to the government’s call, but they insisted that they had done so under proper military authority, in order to protect themselves, and had not destroyed villages or seized the lands of others. They rejected the label “Janjaweed” as referring to outlaws, and asked Mbeki in return, “If you had been forced to declare a state of emergency, what would you have done?” One remarked, “We want to sit with the other side and discuss this question.”
If the conflict in Darfur is to be resolved, the Arabs must be represented in any negotiations. Referring to the Abuja peace talks—which did not include Arab representation—as “chapter one”, Ustaz Hassan said, “If we are not taken into consideration, this will just be chapter two of the book of peace.” He underlined, “We are part of the solution.”