The Hidden Slaughter and Ethnic Cleansing in Western Sudan
An Open Letter to the International Community
Daowd Ibrahim Salih, Mohamed Adam Yahya, Abdul Hafiz Omar Sharief and Osman Abbakorah
Representatives of The Massaleit Community in Exile, (RMCE)
April 8, 1999
CAIRO. 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 deserve the attention that they have received but there are other parts of Sudan where the NIF government has pursued similar policies with equally brutal results, although these cases have not been reported on except in the most cursory manner. Here, attention is focused on the brutalities meted out on the Massaleit people of Western Sudan, a campaign in which thousands have been killed and tens of thousands forced to flee into neighboring Chad.
The Massaleit are a people who 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 operating in the area. 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.
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 dichotomy, 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 and it is a part of the logic of this policy that 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 NIF government argues that the violence in Western Sudan in the 1990s is the result of tribal conflicts which have always existed in the area. 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. However, traditionally, 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 is not 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 is that it is 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.
The specific troubles of the Massaleit began five years ago when the NIF government created thirty new positions (which carried the title of emir) in the traditional administrative structure of the Dar Massaleit area, and filled the majority of these offices with people from Arab ethnic groups (in particular from the Umm Jallul Arabs). This action by the government was rightly seen by many Massaleit 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 to this government action, and tensions mounted between the Massaleit and local Arabs. Communal hostilities broke out and acts of violence became common. The government reacted to this situation by replacing the governor of Western Darfur Muhammad Ahmad Fadul with General Hassan Hamadein, thereby putting the area under defacto 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, umdas, shaykhs, and Massaleit members of the state council.
In the context of state repression of the Massaleit community, the 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 Geneina, the regional capital, were attacked by Arab militias. These villages were burned to the ground and seventy five people were killed, one hundred and seventy people were injured, and six hundred and fifty 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 and at least forty five people were killed, most of whom were women and children. Similar attacks occurred in other villages including Gadier, Kasay, Burta, Mirmta, Kadmoli, and the villages of the Birirabt Mountains.
Most of these attacks were undertaken late at night when the village inhabitants were sleeping. Upon reaching a village, the attackers typically began by lighting fire to all the houses in the village. Those villagers who managed to escape the flames were then shot by the Arab militias as they fled their homes. Furthermore, the timing of the majority of the attacks coincided with the agricultural harvest. In this way, 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 Arab militias destroyed the year's crop and exposed the Massaleit farmers to starvation. In short, the Arab militias quite 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. These 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 these attacks were orchestrated by the NIF government itself. Included among the dead was a Syrian named Mahmoud Muhammad Shaghar, a Libyan named Fathy Abdel Salaam, an Algerian named Blunmi Hamaad, and a number of persons from Chad and other areas of Sudan. Thus, the attacks were not only organized by the NIF government, but members of the Muslim Brothers themselves took part in the violence itself. In light of this, the NIF government's claims that these events are merely tribal conflict is sheer nonsense.
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 of the area were destroyed including Ajibani, Andiring, Miriamta, Timbili, Haraza, Umm Kharaba, Buyuut Thalatha, Ashaba, Sabirna, Kasay, Shoshta, Kalkuti, and Kasia. In these attacks more than four hundred and forty people were killed, of which one hundred and fifty were women and fifty were children. A large number of people were displaced and their whereabouts is still unknown, although it appears likely that many were enslaved by the militia members. On April 4, 1997 the commander of the militia who was riding in the Toyota Landcruisor was killed and it was discovered that he was a colonel in the Sudanese Armed Forces.
Later in April 1997, 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 one hundred Massaleit villages were burned to the ground, more than five hundred people were killed, approximately three thousand Massaleit were displaced, and four hundred 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 four hundred and thirty Massaleit were killed, one hundred and twenty villages were burned, and three hundred and ninety 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.
The situation has only continued to escalate and it has become clear that the intention of the NIF government is the full ethnic cleansing of the Massaleit from their ancestral homeland in Western Sudan. On January 17, 1999, on the first day of the post-Ramadan festival "Eid al-Fitr," an incident occurred that sparked a full scale attack on the Massaleit throughout the whole area. On that day, 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 and they were also shot. Two were killed (the shaykh of the village Abaker and his son Ishaq Abaker) and the other was injured (a school teacher named Ustaz Osman Sandal). When more Massaleit farmers arrived on the scene, 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 try to restore calm, they also came under fire from the angry farmers and an Arab chief named Al-Hadi Muhammad Reifa was killed.
When news of this incident reached the government, they turned it into an 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 also 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 on the Massaleit.
A meeting was convened by the Arabs of Western Sudan, Arabs from other parts of Sudan and even Arabs from neighboring countries. 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 Massaleit people from fleeing. In the attacks which ensued at the end of January 1999, military helicopters from the Sudanese military were used to support the actions of the militias. More than two thousand Massaleit were killed in these actions and thousands more were wounded. Tens of thousands of Massaleit fled to Chad where there are as many as a hundred thousand Massaleit refugees at the current time. For the Massaleit who remain in Sudan, the campaign against them continues. In mid-March 1999, more than a hundred Massaleit were killed in a typical Arab militia attack.
The conditions for the refugees in Chad is 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 the Massaleit refugees in Chad is the active cooperation which the Sudanese regime receives from Chad in forcibly returning refugees whom the NIF regime considers criminals. In this broad category, any Massaleit leaders or potential leaders can be taken back to Sudan to be imprisoned, tortured, and oftentimes executed.
Less than a month after the beginning of the campaign against the Massaleit in January of this year, the governments of Chad and Sudan concluded an agreement committing the two sides to cooperate in security problems. In a document signed in the Chadian capital of N'Djemina between February 10-13, 1999 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 to strengthen existing extradition agreements so that refugees who are considered criminals in their home country can be extradited. Thus, it is clear that the Massaleit refugees in Chad can expect no protection from the brutality of the Sudanese regime, even in exile.
The Sudanese regime 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 genocide must be stopped. But it will not end unless international pressure is brought to bear on the NIF government of Sudan.