Darfur Crisis – Questions and Answers

QUESTION: When did the war begin?

ANSWER: The war began in early 2003 when two rebel groups, the ‘Sudan Liberation Army’ and the radical Islamist ‘Justice and Equality Movement’, attacked towns, government facilities and civilians in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. The Government of Sudan, as well as several of the “Arab” tribes in Darfur targeted by the rebels vigorously, responded to these attacks. The war has subsequently spiralled out of control.

QUESTION: What is the conflict about?

ANSWER: The Darfur rebels claim that the conflict is about underdevelopment and marginalisation within Darfur. What is clear, however, is that the ‘Justice and Equality Movement’, widely seen as the leading partner in the rebellion, is closely allied to the party of extremist Islamic leader Dr Hasan al-Turabi. Dr Turabi has admitted supporting the Darfur insurrection: “We support the cause, no doubt about it…we have relations with some of the leadership.” (1) He has also admitted that 30 members of his party have been arrested in connection with activities in Darfur. (2) Sidelined in 1999, Turabi has objected to the Khartoum government’s assistance with the United States’ war on terrorism and concessions made by the government in ending the war in southern Sudan. Khartoum believes Turabi is using the Darfur rebellion to destabilise and try to overthrow the government.

QUESTION: What about environmental factors?

ANSWER: Darfur is an ecologically-fragile area and has been subject to growing – and often armed – conflict over access to water and pastures. The UN media service has noted: “The conflict pits farming communities against nomads who have aligned themselves with the militia groups – for whom the raids are a way of life – in stiff competition for land and resources. The militias, known as the Janjaweed, attack in large numbers on horseback and camels and are driving the farmers from their land, often pushing them towards town centres.” (3)

QUESTION: Is the war ongoing?

ANSWER: A ceasefire agreement was signed on 8 April 2004 in Ndjamena, Chad. (4) The Government and rebels have agreed to international monitoring of the ceasefire. (5)

QUESTION: How serious is the humanitarian crisis?

ANSWER: The Darfur crisis is very serious indeed. One million people have been affected by the war and are in need of humanitarian assistance – food aid and water, shelter and health care.

QUESTION: What is the most immediate problem?

ANSWER: The war has badly affected subsistence agriculture in Darfur. There is likely to be a serious food shortfall as a result. This means that several hundred thousand people will be dependent upon food assistance for at least 18 months until the next harvest. The upcoming rainy season will also complicate the delivery of food aid in parts of Darfur.

QUESTION: What about claims of “ethnic cleansing”?

ANSWER: All war, and particularly civil war, lead to human rights violations. The conflict in Darfur has been no exception. And as is so often the case in war, the conflict has inevitably been caught up in the propaganda and misinformation that comes with it and that has certainly characterised previous coverage of Sudan. Several anti-Sudanese groups and activists and some journalists have alleged that government- supported “Arab” gunmen, known as the “Janjaweed”, have been involved in “ethnic cleansing”, deliberate attacks upon “African” tribes such as the Fur or Zaghawa in order to force them out of the region. ‘The New York Times’, for example, has claimed that the “Janjaweed” have been purging “villages of their darker-skinned black African inhabitants”. (6) Nicholas Kristof of ‘The New York Times’ has claimed genocide in Darfur asserting that the “Arabs” have been targeting “blacks”, citing claims that “The Arabs want to get rid of anyone with black skin…there are no blacks left” (7) and that “black Africans have been driven from their homes by lighter-skinned Arabs in the Janjaweed”. (8)

QUESTION: What is the reality?

ANSWER: The London ‘Observer’ newspaper has reported with regard to “African” and “Arab” tribes in Darfur that “[c]enturies of intermarriage has rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable”. (9) Even “African” Darfurian anti-government figures such as Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi have stated with reference to “Arabs” and “Africans” in Darfur that “we all look alike” and that one “can’t tell from the features if he is Arab or African”. He added that he, an “African”, had a darker skin than some “Arabs”. (10)

QUESTION: What about claims of “genocide”?

ANSWER: There have also been several claims that events in Darfur amount to genocide. These have been challenged by seasoned aid workers with hands-on experience of events within Darfur. One such observer is Dr Mercedes Taty, deputy emergency director of the world-renowned Medecines Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders). Dr Taty worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina and Zalinge at the height of the Darfur emergency. Asked if comparisons between events in Darfur and Rwanda were justified, her answer was blunt: “I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself.” Dr Taty was also asked if the “ethnic cleansing” label was appropriate for events in Darfur. She said: “That is not necessarily accurate. There are several different tribes and clans and families and not all of them are persecuted or executed just for the sake of their tribe.” (11)

QUESTION: Who are the “Janjaweed”?

ANSWER: The “Janjaweed” is a blanket term for armed “Arab” civilians. It has historically referred to bandits and criminals. Nomadic gunmen have been responsible for much of the criminality and banditry that has dogged western Sudan for several years. Many are originally from Chad. The government has referred to the “Janjaweed” as “outlaws”, and has previously bombed them from the air. There is no doubt that Khartoum has armed some pro-government tribes as part of its response to the rebellion. And there is considerable evidence that “Janjaweed” elements have taken full advantage of the conflict for essentially criminal ends.

QUESTION: What can be done by the international community?

ANSWER: The international community has an important role to play in resolving the Darfur conflict. Sudan’s neighbour Chad has been instrumental in mediation between the Government and rebels, and this has resulted in several ceasefire agreements – most recently the one signed on 8 April 2004. The African Union has agreed to deploy observers to monitor the ceasefire. There will also be internationally-mediated negotiations between the Government and rebels to secure a political solution to the conflict. The United States, Britain, the European Union and the African Union must bring as much pressure to bear as possible to keep all parties committed to a peaceful solution. In the meantime the United Nations will need to be heavily involved in the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance to war-affected communities in Darfur and Chad.


[1]. “Peace Still Some Way Off in Sudan”, Middle East International (London), 8 January 2004.

[2]. “Al-Turabi Denounces US Role in Peace Process”, News Article by Al-Hayat (London), 26 January 2004.

[3]. “Widespread Insecurity in Darfur Despite Ceasefire”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 3 October 2003.

[4]. See “Sudan government, Darfur rebels sign ceasefire deal”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 9 April 2004.

[5]. “AU Observers Due in Sudan’s Darfur Region in Next Few Days”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 25 May 2004.

[6]. Marc Lacey, “In Sudan, Militiamen on Horses Uproot a Million”, ‘The New York Times’, 4 May 2004.

[7]. Nicholas Kristof, “Will We Say ‘Never Again’ Yet Again?”, ‘The New York Times’, 27 March 2004.

[8]. Nicholas Kristof, “Cruel Choices”, ‘The New York Times’, 14 April 2004.

[9]. “Empty Villages Mark Trail of Sudan’s Hidden War”, ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 May 2004.

[10]. Comments made by Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi at the seminar “Confronting the Crisis in Darfur”, Transatlantic Institute, Brussels, 12 May 2004. Dr Ateem is the head of Darfur UK, an anti-government group based in Britain.

[11]. “Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis”, News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004.