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Janjaweed Peace

By David Warren

Peace negotiations are always good news, to those whose view of the world is simplistic, and while they are not covering them in detail, the Western media are nevertheless already smiling on peace negotiations over Darfur. These are happening in Arusha, Tanzania, under the aegis of Jan Eliasson, the U.N. special envoy for Darfur, and are at best preliminary. Representatives of eight distinct armed factions in this region of western Sudan have, according to reports, reached a tentative agreement among themselves over what they want to negotiate with the central government in Khartoum. Western diplomatists then have the task of sitting only two reluctant teams around the next table, and a heavy investment in getting something down on paper, even if the horrific reality to which it refers will continue unaltered by the paper.

Or, altered for the worse. The word "genocide" ceased to be used in describing what was going on in Darfur, after the last Sudan Peace Agreement was signed in Nairobi, Kenya, 31 months ago. The Khartoum government then used the embarrassment of the various U.N., U.S., E.U., and NGO officials, celebrating that deal, as cover for an even more murderous assault on the guerrilla militias of Darfur, in which countless civilian "bystanders" of unknown political affiliation were also slaughtered. What that peace agreement achieved, principally, was to make it impossible to continue delivering emergency food and medical aid to parts of the western Sudan that had previously been accessible.

I have not the space, in this short column, to enter into the deeper history of the Darfur conflict, which in turn requires some knowledge of developments in the region over the last six centuries. But the first thing to clarify is that Darfur -- a distinct geographical and historical entity, but with an extremely complicated ethnic and tribal make-up -- is not to be confused with the Christian and Animist south of that vast African territory that poses as a nation state, and is marked "Sudan" in our atlases.

Darfur, centred in the heights of the Jabal Marrah, is at the south-eastern edge of the great Saharan desert expanses, but not really part of them. Nor is it part of the Nile or Nubian historical centres far to its east, across the region of Khordofan. Darfur became part of "Sudan" under British tutelage during the First World War, largely at the insistence of the French, who wanted some responsible power patrolling the bloody eastern edge of their own African holdings. This was at a time when the common enemy was the Kaiser's Germany and his Ottoman Turkish ally.

The region had been for all practical purposes an independent, heterogenous, Islamic-syncretic "empire" until that time. (A lot of crow-quotes are needed to discourage cultural assumptions that hardly apply to non-European polities.) It was less nomadic then, than now, thanks to several intervening ecological disasters, essentially man-made. Its cultural shape had been determined by Arab adventurers in the 14th and 15th centuries, arriving to proselytise Islam, trade, and hunt southward for slaves and elephants. They brought a written language; and native African and imported Islamic customs became densely overlaid and interwoven. The very word for "Arab" is, as I understand, an ambiguous one for most of the inhabitants of Darfur today, who may use the term to mean "us," or "them," depending on context.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the prehistory of modern "Islamism" was laid down, in Mahdism and similar millenarian movements that crossed regional frontiers. In the late 20th century, the development of ancestral slave-raiding into a viciously racialist, and utterly ruthless Jihadi ideal, was abetted by such revolutionaries as Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. He recruited in Darfur for his campaigns against the "Christian" regime in neighbouring Chad, while the Islamists of Khartoum have recruited for raids in Sudan's south, and moreover, Khartoum and Tripoli have frequently been at each other's throats over Darfur itself.

"Janjaweed" is the blanket term used to describe the men on horseback who descend, like riders of the apocalypse, on peaceful villagers in eastern Chad and southern Sudan as well as Darfur's own least Islamic districts, raping all the women, killing all the men, and setting fire to crops and hovels. They are racially black, but their slogan is "Death to all the blacks!" -- for they mean the term to apply to non-Arabs, in the sense in which they consider themselves to be Arab. They also consider themselves the descendents of the Perso-Arabic equivalent of feudal knights, although they are entirely unconstrained by the codes of honour that governed such predecessors.

The battle is essentially between Janjaweed factions, intoxicated by Islamist ideology. The very violence of the conflict is an indication of its internecine nature. And the final danger of any successfully-negotiated "peace" between Khartoum and the Darfur factions is that it will free up resources and let them combine forces to turn on the defenceless Christians and Animists of Sudan's south.

© Ottawa Citizen

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