Darfur: Between two wars

Twenty years of conflict in Sudan, from Darfur to Khartoum and back.

Rebel soldiers, Abu Gamra, Sudan
Rebel soldiers in Abu Gamra, Darfur. April 2023 [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]
Rebel soldiers in Abu Gamra, Darfur. April 2023 [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

In 2003, the Darfur war began. In 2023, a new conflict has engulfed the streets of Sudan's capital, Khartoum, while violence escalates in the restive western region. Where does this leave Darfur? Jérôme Tubiana, who has reported from the region numerous times since 2004, returned in March and early April 2023, just before the new conflict began.

I. Twenty years of war

It is 2023 and Darfur has officially been in conflict for 20 years.

But since January, speculation about tensions within the fragmented military apparatus in the Sudanese capital had funnelled attention away from this grim anniversary and towards worries about the immediate future. Then, on April 15, the fighting began - first in Khartoum, then the rest of the country. Now Darfur is embroiled in another conflict - or the extension and escalation of an old one.

There had been tensions between Arab and non-Arab communities in Darfur for decades. But in 2003, full-scale war broke out across the region. Some say the conflict started in February that year, when unknown rebels attacked government buildings in a village in the Jebel Marra mountains and announced themselves as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA); others contend it was in April, when they went on to attack North Darfur’s capital el-Fasher and destroyed government aircraft at the airport. The attacks humiliated the government in Khartoum, which responded with mass violence against Darfur’s non-Arab communities.

Since Sudan’s independence in 1956, the ruling elite in Khartoum had neglected the huge country’s peripheries, including Darfur in the west. Both Darfuri Arab and non-Arab communities were underrepresented within successive regimes - whether military or civilian, leftist or Islamist. Rather, Khartoum’s elites - benefitting from the blurred boundaries between the state and private business - continued dragging wealth (including mineral and agriculture resources) from the peripheries without providing their people with services and development in return.

Tukumare village, Sudan, in 2011
Tukumare village in North Darfur, shortly after it was destroyed in 2011 [Jérôme Tubiana/Al Jazeera]

The rebels’ aim was to overthrow the Islamist military government which had been in power since 1989, and end Darfur’s marginalisation. But then-President Omar al-Bashir’s largely pro-Arab government depicted the rebels as “racists” and recruited Arab militias, soon nicknamed the “Janjaweed”, to fight them. At least 400,000 people were killed, and three million displaced by the joint efforts of the army and the militias.

Yet, the rebels survived, and the conflict endured. In 2013, Khartoum decided to form an enhanced paramilitary body among Darfur Arabs, named the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohamed Hamdan Daglo "Hemedti", then a junior leader among Darfur’s Arab militias. By 2019, he, allied with a few army generals, including Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, had become powerful enough to get rid of al-Bashir and share power – Burhan becoming president and Hemedti vice president.

After four years of constant power-sharing renegotiations, the two men are now fighting each other. This is not just a war for power between two generals, but rather one between the two heirs of the not-yet-defunct regime: the legitimate and illegitimate sons of one father, at the head of two fundamentally different forces. On one side, an army long headed by officers hailing from Sudan’s ethnic and political centre (the northern Nile Valley); on the other a paramilitary corps that is the latest avatar of Darfur’s Arab militias, and the main by-product of 20 years of a remote war.

With Hemedti, who rose amid that remote war, now front and centre in what is happening in the capital, where does this leave his region? And as conflict spreads across Sudan, is Darfur on the margins, or is it at the heart of this new war?

Source: Al Jazeera