Re-Visiting North Darfur’s Arabs
This last week I was in Kutum—the first time I have spent more than a day in the north Darfur town since November-December 1985. It was fascinating to be back in the district after a gap of 22 years. The physical landscape is unchanged. The gardens of Wadi Kutum are as beautiful as ever, almost fully cultivated, forming a ribbon of dark green through the dry landscape. After working their gardens in the daytime, the farmers return to Kutum and Fata Borno at dusk to spend the night. The town center itself still consists of the same rows of shabby mud-built stores along one side of the wadi, with the run-down administrative buildings on the hillside opposite. A new mosque is the only sign of change. But most of the surrounding villages are now abandoned, their residents living either in the much-expanded outskirts of Kutum, or in the displaced camps of Kassab and Fata Borno. All was quiet while I was there, but a few days before some gunshots were reported on the outskirts of Kassab, and fifty miles to the north, rebels and government soldiers battled over a small outpost, with eight soldiers reported dead.
|One of the two only known photos of Sheikh Hilal (seen in his tent at his court at Aamo), taken by Alex de Waal|
My first host in rural Kutum in 1985 was the venerable sheikh of the Mahamid camel nomads, Hilal Mohamed Abdalla, then about eighty years old. I stayed with him in the last few weeks that he was still fully in command of his faculties, before he was rendered incapable by illness and the chieftancy of the Mahamid was left for his sons to contest. I took one of the only two known pictures of Sheikh Hilal in his tent at his court at Aamo, and on this visit I presented a copy to his eldest son, Hassan "Gerji" Hilal, when we met at a wedding. Two decades ago, Hassan "Gerji" lost out to his younger brother Musa over who should be the leader of the Mahamid. At first I didn’t recognize Hassan—and then I realized why. He is a gentle and unassuming man who (in contrast to his charismatic father) didn’t make a strong impression, then or now. It is Musa who inherited his father’s commanding presence and strength of character. But while the universal accolade for the late Sheikh Hilal is adil—"just" or "straight"—I have never heard this word applied to Musa. "It is Musa who destroyed all the land around here," said one of the leaders of the Fata Borno displaced camp.
We met at a wedding at Misrih, the center of the Ereigat Arabs—cousins of the Mahamid. Contrary to stereotype, the Arabs of Misrih have been settled for well over a century (though they were collected in this particular location during the colonial era). They cultivate millet and also herd livestock.
The most striking thing about visiting Misrih was how unusual the visit was. Many international visitors had come to Kutum over the last three years, but virtually none had come to talk to the Arabs. The Arabs’ story has simply not been told, and the Arabs themselves—through suspicion, through lack of educated people, and through outside disinterest or hostility—have rarely come forward to tell their story. We talked for most of the day and could have continued all night.
The second most striking thing was that the village looks exactly like any other poor Darfurian village. True, it has not been burned and people live there with reasonable security—and the villagers were well armed, possessing several Toyota pickups, one of them mounted with a machine gun. But the livestock herds are reduced and the camels are in poor condition. Normally, at this time of year, the camels would be at the desert edge, eating the succulent jizu grasses that grow there. The entire desert edge is controlled by the rebels so the herds cannot move north. The Ereigat lost both herders and camels at the hands of the rebels in the early days of the war. As the dry season progresses early next year, neither can the herds cannot move south, because of the insecurity in South Darfur. Confined to much restricted pastures, the camels’ health is suffering. Also, the best marketing routes—across the desert to Libya and Egypt—are closed, and the road to the market in al Fashir is plagued by bandits and the raiders of the SLA-Minawi group. Misrih is poor. The school is dilapidated. The young men are unemployed. The cost of maintaining their (fairly old) landcruisers has drained much of their income.
Next to Misrih is a Fur village, still intact, under the protection of the Ereigat. These people managed to escape the violence and depredation that swept across rural Kutum during 2003, when it was the early epicenter of Darfur’s war.
One of the sons of Misrih expressed his people’s frustrations and fears about what the international community has in store for them. "We are Darfurians, we have nowhere else to go." It is essential that the incoming UNAMID force establishes good relations with Darfur’s Arabs. It is essential that Darfur Arabs tell their story—they are as much part of Darfur’s social and political fabric as anybody else, and as much part of any solution.
This is such a vivid description. I really enjoyed reading it. Still, given that I’m not a Darfur expert, I’m left wondering: How is the Arab story distinct from the stories of other Darfurians? Are you saying that the impact of the crisis on their lives has been mostly economic? And if so, how exactly could this story affect the solution to the crisis?
The Arab story in Darfur has yet to be told properly. From the outset, Arabs were victims of violence, displacement and dispossession. At the height of the violence in 2003-04, they suffered–though not with the scale or intensity of the major ethnic groups targeted by the government-directed violence. Both the SLA and JEM committed serious atrocities against Arab civilians. Very few Arab displaced made their way to displaced camps and few have been receiving international assistance.
The disruption to livelihoods and the impoverishment that has accompanied it cannot be separated from the traumas of violence and social disruption. This is why, in many areas, we see local-led efforts by Arab and non-Arab leaders to reopen markets, establish local defence pacts, and negotiate joint use of land and water resources.
Many Arabs also feel a deep bitterness at the way they have been used and discarded by the government. There is a movement called “the neglected [or forgotten] soldiers” whose name encapsulates that sense.
The majority of Darfur’s Arabs stayed out of the conflict, despite the efforts of both sides to drag them into it. Those efforts at neutrality are increasingly jeopardized, especially in south-east Darfur, and we may yet see a serious war in that area.
In your book with Julie Flint you talk about the crucial role Nazir Saeed Madibu had been playing in promoting what sound like the forerunner of the local deals that are now being made by Arab and non-Arab leaders, what has happened to him and the Rizeigat as you now say war may break out in south-east Darfur?
Nazir Saeed Madibu is in an unenviable position. He has endeavored to keep the Baggara Rizeigat neutral, while all sides in this conflict have tried to pull them in to the war. The government has been the most persistent and capable in its efforts to undermine his neutral stand, using its powers to manipulate local government and the native administration (tribal hierarchy) to diminish his authority–most recently by creating a new locality of Bahr el Arab, carved out from within his domain. Its aim is to bring the Rizeigat militia onto its side in the conflict. The SLM has also been recruiting from the Rizeigat. And most recently, as the most substantial Arab militia in Darfur (headed by Mohamed Hamdan “Hamiti”, from the Abbala Rizeigat, Mahamid section) has declared itself against the government, the stakes have suddenly become much higher. Nazir Madibu’s neutral space is eroding quite fast, and this is cause for alarm.
Hi thank you for an interesting article on a too little focus dimension of the Darfur crises. I wonder if you know which rebel groups that the Government clashed with 50 miles North of Kutum.
Making a trip back to Darfur after 22 years must have been very fascinating. Thanks for the very interesting recap of your visit.
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