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Darfur's less-known victims

Arabs are increasingly caught up in violence in the Sudanese region. Forced into camps, they can't follow traditions.

March 22, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

ZALINGEI, SUDAN — He was shopping for cooking oil when Arab gunmen attacked his village. Adam Abdalla Omar, 70, tried to rescue his cow, but the invaders shot off his left arm. Now he lives in a displacement camp, so desperate and bored he worries he's losing his mind.

It's a sadly familiar story in Darfur, except that Omar too is an Arab.

Arabs in the western Sudanese region of Darfur are usually depicted as the aggressors in a conflict with black African ethnic groups, but many Arabs now find themselves caught up in the violence, forced into camps by intertribal fighting and cut off from traditional migration routes they've relied upon for centuries to survive.

In the latest twist, Arab militias armed by the Sudanese government as part of its counterinsurgency strategy are turning their guns against each other.

In the last three months, such inter-Arab clashes have killed nearly 200 people in southern Darfur, officials estimate. Thousands of Arabs have been forced into makeshift displacement camps around towns such as Kas, Nyala and Zalingei.

The deadliest fighting has been between a powerful group of Arab pastoralists, known as Reizegat, and a smaller Arab tribe of seminomadic farmers, called Targem. Officials say the two tribes once were allies and have participated in the systematic attacks against non-Arab farming villages that have left more than 200,000 people dead in Darfur since 2003, mostly of disease or hunger in the early years, and an additional 2 million displaced.

About 32 Targem villages were torched last month by Reizegat attackers, African Union officials said. Four Targem children were executed in their sleep, the officials reported.

"This is absolutely new," said Mariam Sadiq Mahdi, daughter of former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq Mahdi, who is the leader of the opposition Umma Party.

Experts say Arab tribes used by the government as mercenaries are starting to panic about how they'll figure in Darfur's political future, particularly in light of a fragile peace agreement signed in May between some non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur and the Sudanese government.

"Arabs were not part of the negotiation," said Mohmed Izzat, who represents Arab nomad populations in the state government of North Darfur. "They got nothing." Such views have led to fighting over the land and resources that the government promised Arab militiamen, experts say.

"The cooperation with the government worked for a while, but the government went through the whole peace process without representing the people they once used," Mariam Sadiq Mahdi said. "That's left Arabs with a lot of tension. It's very turbulent."

Although conflicts among Arab tribes in this region date back hundreds of years, the recent clashes are unusual because of the high number of casualties.

"Yesterday they were using sticks," said Hassan Turabi, a prominent Islamist opposition leader in Sudan. "But the government gave them arms. Now they are using guns. Many more are dying."

There are also reports that the Sudanese government is fueling the inter-Arab conflicts, perhaps in an effort to keep the tribes vulnerable and therefore loyal to the government. In the recent clashes between the Reizegat and Targem, aid officials say, the government secretly intervened in behalf of both sides, providing guns, trucks and even soldiers.

With heavy international pressure on Sudan to allow the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers and with prosecutors from the International Criminal Court in The Hague threatening to deliver indictments soon, some Arab militia leaders fear the government in Khartoum will withdraw its support.

"They want what they were promised, but they're worried the government is going to hang them out to dry," said one Darfur political consultant who did not want to be identified.

The recent clashes are raising the broader question of what will happen to the more than 2 million Arab nomads, people who have lived in Darfur for centuries. Arab leaders here say only a fraction of the Arab population, from 10% to 20%, has participated in the government-led attacks. Most Arabs have remained neutral and some have even sided with Darfur's rebels, the leaders say.

Late last year, an Arab-led rebel group was formed that distanced itself from the tribes participating in the Arab militias backed by Khartoum.

Izzat said Darfur's Arabs suffered from a lack of education. He said fewer than 10% were literate or educated. "We cannot explain ourselves, so we are exploited," he said.

"Now everyone acts as if we are all killers. It's as if we are against all the world. People want to make us criminals instead of helping us."

He said characterizations of the Darfur crisis as stemming from a conflict that pits Arab herders against non-Arab farmers are overly simplistic. "We have African blood in our bodies," Izzat said.

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