DARFUR/CAIRO: With peace negotiations moving along, the Sudanese government is claiming that stability has returned to Darfur, but whether that holds true for all its people remains to be seen.
On a trip accompanying the Arab League to the war-torn region on Feb. 13, Egyptian and foreign press were exposed to a carefully stage-managed presentation of the Darfur the Sudanese government wants to be seen; a secure region with a people living in peace and beginning the road to redevelopment and prosperity.
The League were holding an extraordinary session of its permanent representatives there, as well as inaugurating projects funded by the Arab League, mainly the opening of two villages, Habila Canary and Muwari Ganki, for returning refugees who had fled their homes during the conflict.
The trip took in visits to Al-Jeneinah in West Darfur, Niyala in South Darfur and the session was held in the capital, Al-Fashir in North Darfur. Finally, the delegation met with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir behind closed doors at his compound in Khartoum. Al-Bashir has had an arrest warrant issued on him by the International Criminal Court (ICC), but that doesn’t seem to have registered within the higher echelons of centralized power in Sudan, who have rejected it as a Western conspiracy.
The delegation – led by the league’s Secretary General Amr Moussa – and accompanying press were treated to a festive occasion, with Darfur citizens deployed to give a colorful show of festiveness, with singing and dancing, on foot, on horses and on camels.
The celebrations were carefully choreographed by the military soldiers present – in uniform and in civilian dress – who were directing the people on where to go and when to start and stop.
At every inauguration, the delegation would be led into the new village’s main building for a Sudanese feast. However, the people singing and dancing in the oppressive heat were not allowed inside. In Niyala, an officer prevented women in colorful red costumes from going inside, much to their chagrin. Inside, army soldiers partook in the feast alongside the delegation.
The Sudanese government maximized the potential benefit of the League’s trip, to show a prosperous and safe Darfur. Feb. 13 also marked the beginning of the Sudanese presidential elections, with 13 candidates running for the post including incumbent Al-Bashir, an election described as unparalleled in the region by Moussa.
Approaching the Darfur reality
Is that the case for the people of Darfur? Many say yes. Bashir Hamdan, from Al-Jeneinah and working for the company that constructed Habila Canary, said, “Things have been calm here [in Habila Canary] for three years. In the north there was trouble up until a year ago. There was fighting about 300 km from here. We live together now, Arab and Zurga (Darfur name for non-Arabs derived from the word black).
Yet it wasn’t hard to ascertain that people being interviewed were afraid of deviating from the government line. A correspondent for a foreign news service said there was a sense that there was a “climate of fear. People are afraid to talk.
This sense of fear to talk was apparent when one man walking past overheard Daily News Egypt asking a man from Niyala about whether there was still trouble between Arabs and non-Arabs.
“Be careful, he said, “This talk is prohibited. And then when the interview continued he told the interviewee not to answer any questions.
It also depended on whom you were talking to, and whether they were Arab or non-Arab. Hawa Gatar, a non-Arab from a village in Al-Jeneinah, was one of the few to say something contrary, telling Daily News Egypt, “There is no security here in Al-Jeninah, and there is still trouble in my village.
“How can we live here with all this trouble? The situation is not better, the Arabs are not good to us, they shoot at us, she added, “The situation is still not good. They shot at the school in our village.
The micro-management of the government representatives in all their forms did not stop there. A photojournalist from the press was forced to erase footage taken in Al-Fashir Airport when a man stormed into their bus after seeing them film.
There is much beauty in Darfur; Al-Jeneinah (which is Arabic for The Garden) is dotted with greenery you wouldn’t expect to see in a desert. Life ticks along for the residents of the towns, many of who live in thatched huts. In the surrounding villages there are no brick buildings, all homes are basic huts of straw to keep out the glare of the sun.
Supermarkets display the most basic of necessities, with at most four or five types of goods, and then only four of each ware. Haircuts are to be had on tables in the street with a cloth overhead to keep out the sun.
Seven years to this month marked the recognized beginning of the conflict in Darfur, but it has always been a region mired in troubles. However, the fighting that began in earnest in 2003 brought a new bloody era to the history of the region in Western Sudan.
Roughly the size of Spain, and half the size of Egypt, Darfur is a region that broadly encompasses two main groups of people, nomadic Arab shepherds and non-Arab farmers. There have been sporadic points of conflict between the two, mainly over grievances that the shepherds appropriate farmland for their grazing animals.
In 2003, two rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement, began an armed uprising against what they felt was the discrimination of the Sudanese government in the treatment of the non-Arabs in Darfur. After initial success, including an attack on a garrison in the capital Al-Fashir, the government began arming Arab militias known as the Janjaweed to counter the rebel groups. The Sudanese government, however, has always denied that it supported the Janjaweed.
“The conflict was terrible, and a lot of people left their homes. Things are still happening but they are nowhere as bad, said Ibrahim Eissa Abdurrahman, 58, in Niyala.
The resulting fighting led to a grave humanitarian crisis, with villages razed to the ground. The estimates are that 250,000-300,000 people lost their lives and some 2.5-3 million people were displaced. The Sudanese government claims that the death toll in the past seven years was 10,000 at the most.
Yet the Sudanese government, continues to insist that it is foreign meddling that has exacerbated the situation in Darfur more than anything.
Presidential Advisor and former Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters in Khartoum after Moussa met Al-Bashir Feb. 14, “The President said the situation in Darfur was escalated by powers that do not want stability in Sudan, but want to split it.
On the ICC arrest warrant, he said, “The Sudanese people have refused the ICC decision and it is no longer valid. It has become a diplomatic war between the ICC and us and luckily we are being supported in it by the Arab League, the African Union and the Non-Alignment Movement. We believe that the ICC is part of the conspiracy against Sudan. It is a racist, anti-African court.
Alongside him, Moussa said, “We saw stability in the security situation in Darfur and people are beginning to return. Three-thousand families have returned to Southern Darfur.
And yet it seems that the conflict is still present in some areas. Gatar said, “Problems happen between people and there is no security to intervene. There is no protection in our village.
If anything augurs well for the future of Darfur, it is the warmth and generous spirit of its people, who have suffered endless turmoil but have not lost their dignity in the morass of atrocities and armed conflict.