5 August 2004

Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap

Critically for Bashir, the central pillar of the Sudanese state - a cabal of security officers who have been running the wars in Sudan since 1983 - was still in place. Faced with a revolt that outran the capacity of the country's tired and overstretched army, this small group knew exactly what to do. Several times during the war in the South they had mounted counter-insurgency on the cheap - famine and scorched earth their weapons of choice. Each time, they sought out a local militia, provided it with supplies and armaments, and declared the area of operations an ethics-free zone. The Beni Halba fursan , or 'cavalry', which had been used against the SPLA in 1991, was an obvious instrument to employ in Darfur. The northern camel nomads, including former Islamic legionnaires, were also on hand. Some claim that their name - the Janjawiid - derives from 'G3' (a rifle) and jawad ('horse'), but it is also western Sudanese dialect for 'rabble' or 'outlaws'. Unleashing militias has the added advantage for the security cabal that it may derail the near complete peace process with the SPLA and allow them to retain their extra-budgetary security agencies; it also immunises them against being charged in the future with committing war crimes.

The atrocities carried out by the Janjawiid are aimed at speakers of Fur, Tunjur, Masalit and Zaghawa. They are systematic and sustained; the effect, if not the aim, is grossly disproportionate to the military threat of the rebellion. The mass rape and branding of victims speaks of the deliberate destruction of a community. In Darfur, cutting down fruit trees or destroying irrigation ditches is a way of eradicating farmers' claims to the land and ruining livelihoods. But this is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba was, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.

Sheikh Hilal's world, with its stable cosmos and its relaxed reciprocity between farmer and nomad, has disappeared, as he feared it would. Unrelenting poverty has been transformed into violence by misgovernment and imported racisms. What to do now in the face of genocidal massacre and imminent famine? Legal action - trying Musa Hilal and his sponsors as war criminals - is essential to deter such crimes in future. But condemnation is not a solution. The Janjawiid's murderous campaigns must not obscure the fact that Darfur's indigenous bedouins are themselves historic victims.

As they did twenty years ago, the people of Darfur face destitution, hunger and infectious disease. Apocalyptic predictions of mass starvation were made after the 1984 drought - up to a million dead, aid agencies said, if there wasn't food aid. The food didn't come, and many died - around 100,000 - but Darfur society didn't collapse because of the formidable survival skills of its people. They had reserves of food, they travelled huge distances in search of food, work or charity, and above all they gathered wild food from the bush. Today, food reserves and animals have been stolen, and what use is the ability to gather five different kinds of wild grasses, 11 varieties of berry, plus roots and leaves, if leaving a camp means risking rape, mutilation or death? Predictions of up to 300,000 famine deaths must be taken seriously.

A huge aid effort is grinding into gear. But the distances involved mean that food relief is expensive and unlikely to be sufficient. It's tempting to send in the British army to deliver food, but this would be merely symbolic: relief can be flown in more cheaply by civil contractors, and distributed more effectively by relief agencies. The areas controlled by the SLA and JEM contain hundreds of thousands of civilians who are not getting any help. As soon as an intrepid cameraman returns with pictures of this hidden famine, there will be an outcry, and pressure for aid to be delivered across the front lines. There's no reason to wait for the pictures before acting, although it's clear that cross-line aid convoys will need to carry armed guards.

The biggest help would be peace. In theory, there's a ceasefire; in practice, the government and Janjawiid are ignoring it, and the rebels are responding in kind. The government denies that it set up, armed and directed the Janjawiid. It did, but the monster that Khartoum helped create may not always do its bidding: distrust of the capital runs deep among Darfurians, and the Janjawiid leadership knows it cannot be disarmed by force. When President Bashir promised Kofi Annan and Colin Powell that he would disarm the militia, he was making a promise he couldn't keep. The best, and perhaps the only, means of disarmament is that employed by the British seventy-five years ago: establish a working local administration, regulate the ownership of arms, and gradually isolate the outlaws and brigands who refuse to conform. It took a decade then, and it won't be any faster today. Not only are there more weapons now, but the political polarities are much sharper.

In some ways this sounds like Ex-Yugoslavia where members of the national political elite used local ethnic identifications to build up their national power. Milosevic went from being an unknown central banker to the presidency by promising the Kosovo Serbs they would never be beaten again. The ecological fragility gives ethnic cleansing (even with ethic groups that essentially did not exist 20 years ago) a horrific scale. The African Union is considering military intervention with a force of 2000.

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