Overlooking Genocide (9/99)

The wide-spread and systematic abuses of human rights carried out by the current National Islamic Front (NIF) government in Sudan are well-documented. Most of what is reported by international human rights organizations concerns the extensive abuses, including genocide and slavery, that have occurred in the war-torn areas of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains.

These horrors certainly deserve the attention that they have received. But the NIF government has pursued similar policies with equally brutal results in other parts of Sudan, and these cases have been covered in only the most cursory manner. A glaring example is the brutalities meted out on the Massaleit people of Western Sudan, a campaign in which thousands have been killed and tens of thousands more forced to flee into neighboring Chad.

The Massaleit live in the extreme west of Darfur along the border with Chad. They are all Muslims and many of them speak Arabic, although they also speak their local language and continue to practice their own cultural traditions. Like other non-Arab ethnic groups in the region such as the Fur and the Zaghawa, the Massaleit have in recent years come under systematic attack by NIF-sponsored and armed Arab paramilitary militias. These militias have repeatedly massacred non-Arab civilians, burned whole villages to the ground, and caused a massive flight of whole non-Arab communities from their ancestral lands. In short, the NIF government in Sudan has actively pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing against the non-Arabs of Western Sudan.

Disguising Arabization

The long-standing civil war in Sudan is often represented as a conflict between the Arab and Muslim North and the African and Christian South. While there is some truth in this, it fails to account for the social and cultural complexity of either the North or the South. The NIF government is an Islamist regime, and part of its explicit and stated policy is the full islamization of Sudan. The NIF uses the term "jihad" to describe its war against the Southern Sudanese rebels, who are referred to as "infidels." Yet in Western Sudan, where all the people are Muslims, it has become apparent that the discourse of islamization is a code word for something else.

Behind the banner of islamization in Northern Sudan is a deeply racist policy of arabization. As a part of the logic of this policy, the non-Arab ethnic groups of Western Sudan have come under attack. Despite their deep roots in Islam, and their traditional loyalty to the Umma Party, the NIF regime considers non-Arabs to be potential fifth-columnists in the civil war because of their "African" identity and cultural heritage. Consequently, the NIF regime has sought to destroy the traditional bases of authority in these communities and change the ethnic composition of Western Sudan to preempt this imagined danger.

The government argues that the violence in Western Sudan in the 1990s is the result of tribal conflicts that have always existed. It is true that Western Sudan is a multiethnic region where numerous ethnic groups live side by side. It is also true that ethnic tensions and conflicts have periodically occurred because of competition over resources, especially between the semi-nomadic pastoralist peoples and sedentary farmers. Traditionally, however, conflicts of this sort were effectively mediated by traditional means. If the current violence in Western Sudan is but the continuation of long-standing tribal conflict in the region, as the NIF argues, one would expect to find that this sort of violence has long characterized the region. But this isn’t the case.

Since as far back as the colonial period, Western Sudan has been relatively peaceful. The real reason that violence has torn apart the lives of so many people in Western Sudan in the 1990s lies in NIF policy. By arming and financing local Arab paramilitary groups, the NIF has quite intentionally created ethnic (and in fact racial) conflicts across Western Sudan. Furthermore, the NIF has disarmed non-Arab groups, making them virtually defenseless against the well-armed government militias. The NIF has instigated nothing short of a racial war against the non-Arab inhabitants of Western Sudan.

A Systematic Campaign

The specific troubles of the Massaleit began five years ago when the NIF created 30 new positions (carrying the title of emir) in the traditional administrative structure of the Dar Massaleit area. The majority of the offices were filled  with people from Arab ethnic groups (in particular from the Umm Jallul Arabs). Many Massaleit saw this action as an attempt to undermine the power of their community and their traditional leadership role in the area, by raising members of minority indigenous Arab groups above them.

The Massaleit reacted angrily, and tensions mounted between them and local Arabs. Communal hostilities broke out and acts of violence became common. The government reacted by replacing the governor of Western Darfur, Muhammad Ahmad Fadul, with General Hassan Hamadein, thereby putting the area under de facto military rule. The new governor began a massive campaign of arrests, imprisonment, and torture targeted at prominent members of the Massaleit community, including those with education and members of the state council.

In this context of state repression, government-supported Arab militias began to attack Massaleit villages in the area beginning in August 1995. In one of the earliest incidents, a group of Massaleit villages  — known as Majmari — to the east of the regional capital, were attacked by Arab militias. The villages were burned to the ground and 75 people were killed, 170 were injured, and 650 heads of cattle were stolen. In a similar incident, Arab militias attacked the village of Shoshta, southwest of Geneina, on the evening of July 5, 1996. At least 45 people were killed, most of them women and children. Similar attacks occurred in villages such as Gadier, Kasay, Burta, Mirmta, Kadmoli, and the villages of the Birirabt Mountains.

Most of these attacks were undertaken late at night when village inhabitants were sleeping. Upon reaching a village, the attackers typically began by setting fire to all the houses. Villagers who managed to escape the flames were then shot by the Arab militias as they fled their homes. The timing of most attacks coincided with the agricultural harvest. By burning the fields just before they were ready to be harvested, or while the crop lay on the ground after first being cut, the militias destroyed the year’s crop and exposed Massaleit farmers to starvation. In short, the Arab militias systematically aimed to destroy the Massaleit people, expose them to famine, and force them to flee their ancestral lands.

This was much more than a tribal or ethnic conflict. The atrocities were well planned, and directed by the Sudanese military governor of the area. In one of the worst attacks, on the villages of Mount Junun, a number of militia members were killed by the Massaleit. From the identity cards found on some of the dead bodies, it was confirmed that the attacks were orchestrated by the NIF government itself. Included among the dead were a Syrian, a Libyan, an Algerian named, and a number of men from Chad and other parts of Sudan. The attacks were not only organized by the NIF government, but members of the Muslim Brothers themselves took part in the violence.

On March 26, 1997 the violence escalated when an Arab militia attacked the Bayda area in southwestern Dar Massaleit, using horses and Toyota Landcruisers with mounted machine-guns. In the days that followed, most of the villages in the area were destroyed. More than 450 people were killed. A large number of people were displaced, and although their whereabouts is still officially unknown, it appears that many were enslaved by the militia members. On April 4, when the commander of the militia who was riding in the Toyota Landcruisor was killed, it was discovered that he was a colonel in the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Later in April, the same tactics and equipment were used to attack the villages of the Asrini area east of Geneina. In the course of five days, approximately 100 Massaleit villages were burned to the ground, more than 500 people were killed, approximately 3000 Massaleit were displaced, and 400 heads of livestock were stolen.

In 1998, at least four major atrocities were carried out by the government-directed Arab militias. These occurred at Gadier, Hashaba, Jabal, and Liberi. Approximately 430 Massaleit were killed, 120 villages were burned, and 390 heads of livestock were looted.

Throughout this period, the Arab militias were provided with weapons, equipment, transportation, military training, and military logistics by the government. At the same time, the Massaleit were disarmed, placed under curfew, restricted in their movements, subjected to mass arrests, torture, and extra-judicial killings by the government. Furthermore, Massaleit youths were forcibly conscripted into the Sudanese Armed Forces and sent to Southern Sudan to fight in the "jihad" against the Southern rebels, while Arab youths were allowed to stay in Western Sudan to carry out further atrocities against the Massaleit elderly, women, and children who remained in the area.

As the situation has escalated it’s become clear that the NIF intends the full ethnic cleansing of the Massaleit from their ancestral homeland in Western Sudan.

Springing the Trap

On January 17, 1999, on the first day of the post-Ramadan festival "Eid al-Fitr," an incident sparked a full scale attack on the Massaleit throughout the whole area. An elderly Massaleit farmer named Al-Hajj Ismail Ishaq Omar, from the village of Tabariek five kilometers from Geneina, found animals belonging to Arab herders grazing in his fields. When he attempted to chase the animals away, he was shot and killed by the owners of the animals.

Three Massaleit villagers quickly arrived on the scene. They were also shot. Two were killed (the shaykh of the village Abaker and his son, Ishaq Abaker), and the third was injured (a school teacher named Ustaz Osman Sandal). When more Massaleit farmers arrived, a large confrontation ensued and one of the Arab herders was killed. When some of the tribal heads from the Arab and Massaleit communities came to restore calm, they also came under fire from the angry farmers. An Arab chief named Al-Hadi Muhammad Reifa was killed.

As news of the incident reached the government, it became another opportunity to destroy the Massaleit. The Sudanese Minister of Interior, Abdel Rahim Muhammad Hussein, announced to the media in Khartoum that the Massaleit had assassinated all the Arab leaders in Dar Massaleit. He declared that the Massaleit were outlaws, opponents of the regime, and constituted a fifth column in Western Sudan in league with the anti-government rebels. With the official encouragement of the NIF government in Khartoum, and through the agency of the NIF officials in the state of Western Darfur, the way was clear for the Arab militias to begin a full and final assault.

A meeting was convened by the Arabs of Western Sudan, other parts of the country, and neighboring nations. War was declared on the Massaleit, and the government provided the local militias with more weapons — Toyota Landcruisers, communication equipment, money, etc. The government also sealed off the Dar Massaleit area and prevented people from fleeing. In the attacks at the end of January 1999, military helicopters from the Sudanese military were used to support the actions of the militias. More than 2000 Massaleit were killed, and thousands more were wounded.

Tens of thousands of Massaleit fled to Chad, where there were as many as a hundred thousand refugees already. For those who remained in Sudan, the attacks continued. In mid-March, more than a hundred Massaleit were killed in a typical Arab militia attack.

The conditions for the refugees in Chad is also desperate. Because they have received no assistance and protection from international refugee organizations, they face high mortality and the possibility of starvation. Perhaps most daunting for Massaleit refugees is the active cooperation that the Sudanese regime receives from Chad in forcibly returning those whom the NIF considers criminals. Basically, any Massaleit leader or potential leader can be taken back to Sudan, imprisoned, tortured, and even executed.

Less than a month after the start of this year’s campaign against the Massaleit, the governments of Chad and Sudan concluded an agreement committing the two sides to cooperate on security problems. In a February document signed in the Chadian capital of N’Djemina by the Sudanese foreign minister, Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, and the Chadian foreign minister, Muhammad Salih Nazief (who happens to be a member of the same Arab ethnic group that carried out the attacks on the Massaleit in Sudan), the two sides agreed to police refugees, prevent the Chadian or Sudanese opposition forces from operating in either country, and strengthen existing extradition agreements so that refugees who are considered criminals in their home country can be extradited. Thus, even in exile, it’s clear that Massaleit refugees in Chad can expect no protection from the Sudanese regime.

Sudan’s government has been remarkably successful in suppressing information about the atrocities committed against the Massaleit in Western Sudan. For this reason, it is all the more important that the news of this systematic and racist campaign reach the ears of the world. This real genocide must be stopped. But it won’t end unless international pressure is brought to bear on the government of Sudan.

Dawud Ibrahim Salih, Muhammad Adam Yahya,Abdul Hafiz Omar Sharief, and Osman Abbakorah are representatives of The Massaleit Community in Exile. They can be reached at(202) 485-0681. Inquiries can also be directed to Ali B Ali-Dinar at aadinar@sas.upenn.edu. This article was provided by BRC-NEWS.

You can subscribe by e-mailing "subscribe brc-news" to majordomo@igc.org.