Email Our Editor

Join Our Mailing List

View Our Archives

Search our archive:

The Last 20 Days' Editorials

Email This Article  Printer Friendly Version

"Asking The Right Questions About Darfur, Sudan", Part VI, Exclusive Q & A With Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

It is virtually impossible to look into the Darfur crisis and controversy and not recognize the impact that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has had on raising the profile of the issue and shaping the debate over it. The influential nongovernmental organization's Africa division reports and research have been some of the most referred to by those who make the case, not only that genocide is taking place in Darfur, but who also charge that the government of the Republic of Sudan is directing and sponsoring the genocide.

In July, Human Rights Watch openly asserted that it had obtained evidence of a direct relationship between the Sudanese government. In a July 20th report, "Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support" the organization wrote, "Human Rights Watch has obtained copies of government documents whose contents sharply contrast with the Sudanese government’s repeated denials of support to the Janjaweed; on the contrary, the documents indicate a government policy of militia recruitment, support and impunity that has been implemented from high levels of the civilian administration."

To learn more about these allegations, and the details and conclusions of the Human Rights Watch reports on Darfur, Publisher Cedric Muhammad interviewed the two individuals most involved in the organization's research and analysis of the crisis, Leslie Lefkow and Georgette Gagnon. Leslie Lefkow is Human Rights Watch's lead analyst and researcher on Darfur, and Georgette Gagnon is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division.

The two prepared answers to questions submitted via e-mail.


Cedric Muhammad: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has written, "Since February 2003, the government of Sudan has used militias known as "Janjaweed" as its principal counter- insurgency ground force in Darfur against civilians from the Fur, Zaghawa, Massalit and other ethnic groups from which two rebel groups known as the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) are drawn". What exactly is the total ethnic group composition of the membership of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)- the two rebel groups in Darfur?

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow: The SLA/M-majority is from Darfur and from Fur, Zaghawa (predominant) and Masalit and a few other non-Arab tribes in Darfur such as the Dorok, Jebel etc. The JEM has same ethnic composition as SLA/M but Zaghawa predominate.

Also, please see our answer to your question re “Background to the conflict before 2003” below.

Cedric Muhammad: HRW has also written “The government-backed Janjaweed militias are derived from the “Abala”, camel-herding nomads who migrated to Darfur from Chad and West Africa in the 1970s, and from Arab camel-herding tribes from North Darfur.” Can you tell us more of the history of the “Abala” and how exactly you are defining Arab (is it a cultural or racial identity)? In footnote # 4 to your Summary Report, “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support” July 20, 2004, HRW writes of government-backed militias drawn from “nomadic groups of Arab ethnic origin”, what do you mean by that phrase, particularly "...Arab ethnic origin"?

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow: Ethnic identity is very fluid in Darfur and in Sudan and has been defined in two ways by anthropologists: by language and by occupation, however, these definitions are not rigid categories and there is overlap and much complexity in these labels. For instance, some groups and individuals move between different categories, for instance the Zaghawa are nomadic but non-Arab. Some individuals from the Fur tribe (traditionally agricultural in terms of occupation) have become herders of camel or cattle. In addition, over the past decades, many people who traditionally spoke their own languages have also come to speak Arabic. “Arab” is defined as a cultural identity and is a term of self-definition in Sudan. Sudanese define themselves as Arab or non-Arab, but there are also nuances within the meaning of “Arab.” For instance when people in Darfur refer to Darfur Arabs, they are often referring to the nomadic groups of Arabic-speakers who herd cattle or camels. One defining characteristic of the “Arab” self-definition is that the home language is Arabic. Locally, the Sudanese are very clear about who is Arab and non-Arab and what that means.

HRW’s two earlier reports “Darfur in Flames” and “Darfur Destroyed” contain more detailed information on this matter. Pasted in below is a footnote from “Darfur Destroyed”. Also, please see the answer to your question below on “Background prior to 2003”.

(footnote excerpt): The terms “African” and “Arab” have been used to describe the conflict in Darfur yet fail to capture the ethnically diverse society of Darfur and the nuanced relationships among ethnic groups. Especially since the beginning of the conflict in 2003, members of the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit communities have used these terms to describe the growing racial and ethnic polarization in Darfur, perceived to result from discrimination and bias emanating from the central government.

In this report, Human Rights Watch uses the term “African” mainly to describe the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit, the principal victims of the government’s military campaign against the rebel insurgency in Darfur in 2003-2004. The term “Arab” is used to describe the Arabized, Arabic-speaking groups of nomadic and semi-nomadic people who have been recruited and deployed as Janjaweed militia. The use of these terms is not intended to gloss over the complexity of the ethnic picture in Darfur. Many of the smaller African and Arab ethnic groups are not direct participants in the conflict. See Appendix A for a summary of the only ethnic census in Sudan, taken in 1956.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you see what is taking place in Darfur as a clear cut case of genocide? Do you accept or agree with the characterization of Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and the mainstream media that this is an “Arab” vs. “Black African” conflict? I notice in footnote 3 of the summary, HRW places refers to African victims but places the word African in quotations ("African"). Why?

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow: HRW uses the term “genocide’ in its strict legal sense. HRW is not prepared at this point in time, for evidentiary reasons, to make a legal determination one way or the other whether genocide is occurring in Darfur. This may change as we continue to actively gather facts on the ground and elsewhere. In the meantime, debate over terminology should not mask or delay the international response that is urgently needed to relieve a situation that is atrocious by whatever name you call it—more than one million displaced, continuing atrocities and hundreds of thousands at risk of death. Ultimately, this is a question that underlines the necessity for an independent international commission of inquiry—the UNSC should immediately establish such a commission into the abuses committed in Darfur by all parties to the conflict with the aim of investigating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including allegations of genocide, and making recommendations for accountability.

Cedric Muhammad: HRW has referred to an important July 5th statement of Sudanese Interior Minister of the Interior (and the President’s Representative to Darfur) Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein, “we will not appease the Americans by capturing tribal leaders as every Darfur tribe has a militia.” Is he correct in reportedly stating that “every Darfur tribe has a militia”?

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow: No, this is not a correct statement. Every tribe does not have a militia. Many village inhabitants with property and livestock have formed self-defense groups. Many of these groups have existed for over a decade, formed in response to continuing attacks and cattle raids by Arab nomadic groups, and were generally composed of a few lightly-armed men, generally less than a dozen, who rarely possessed more than five or six automatic rifles per village. While self-defense group members have fought with Janjaweed militias in attacks, they do not appear to be organized as part of the SLA, although it is likely there are some links.

Cedric Muhammad: Before 2003 what was the nature of the tribal and ethnic conflict in Darfur?

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow:(See excerpt below from report, “Darfur in Flames”)

BACKGROUND - Greater Darfur, a territory composed of three states (North, South, and West Darfur), is located in the northwestern region of Sudan, bordering Chad to the west, Libya to the northwest, and Central African Republic to the southwest. The people living on both sides of the 1,000 kilometer-long border between Chad and Sudan have much in common. This border region is divided into three ecological bands: desert in the north, which is part of the Sahara and the least densely populated and most ecologically fragile zone; a central, fertile belt which includes the Jebel Marra mountains and is the richest agriculturally; and the southern zone, which, although more stable than the north, is also prone to drought and sensitive to fluctuations in rainfall.

Several of the region’s ethnic groups straddle both sides of the frontier between Chad and Sudan, and historically there has been significant migration and trade across the border.

While the region’s peoples are mostly Muslims, they are diverse ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. Two ways are often used to describe the ethnicity of the people of Darfur: by language and by occupation. The indigenous non-Arab or African peoples historically do not speak Arabic at home and came to Sudan from the Lake Chad area centuries ago; those claiming Arab descent are Arabic speakers.

Another classification distinguishes between agriculturalists and pastoralists. While there is some overlap between the two descriptions, there are also important nuances.

Darfur’s sedentary agriculturalists are generally composed of non-Arab or African ethnic groups known as “Zurga” or blacks, and include groups such as the Fur, Masaalit, Tama, Tunjur, Bergid, and Berti, who live and farm in the central zone.

The region’s pastoralists are mainly of Arab descent, and the northern belt, the most arid zone, is inhabited by nomadic and semi-nomadic camel herding tribes, including Arab ethnic groups such as the northern Rizeigat, Mahariya, Irayqat and Beni Hussein, and the African Zaghawa. The southern and eastern zones are largely inhabited by the cattle herding Arab tribes known as the southern Rizeigat (of the Baggara), Habbaniya and Beni Halba.

In the last year, since the conflict in Darfur intensified, the communities under attack, namely the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa, have begun to identify themselves as “African” and “marginalized,” in contrast to earlier self-definitions as Sudanese or Darfurian. They increasingly see the attacks on their communities by the Sudanese government as racially and ethnically motivated ones.

Historical Patterns of Conflict -Darfur has been affected by intermittent bouts of conflict for several decades. Pastoralists from the north, including the northern Rizeigat, Mahariya, Zaghawa, and others, typically migrate south in search of water sources and grazing in the dry season (typically November through April). Beginning in the mid-1980s, when much of the Sahel region was hit by recurrent episodes of drought and increasing desertification, the southern migration of the Arab pastoralists provoked land disputes with agricultural communities. These disputes generally started when the camels and cattle of Arab nomads trampled the fields of the non-Arab farmers living in the central and southern areas of Darfur. Often the disputes were resolved through negotiation between traditional leaders on both sides, compensation for lost crops, and agreements on the timing and routes for the annual migration.

In the late-1980s, however, clashes became progressively bloodier through the introduction of automatic weapons. By 1987, many of the incidents involved not only the Arab tribes, but also Zaghawa pastoralists who tried to claim land from Fur farmers, and some Fur leaders were killed. The increase in armed banditry in the region also dates from this period, partly because many pastoralists lost all their animals in the devastating drought in Darfur of 1984-1985 and, in turn, raided others to restock their herds.

There were also contentious political issues in the region. In Darfur, Arab tribes considered they were not sufficiently represented in the Fur-dominated local administration and in 1986, a number of Arab tribes formed what became known as the “Arab alliance” (Tujammo al Arabi) aimed at establishing their political dominance and control of the region. Meanwhile, Fur leaders distrusted the increasing tendency of the federal government to favor the Arabs. Arabs from the northern Nile Valley controlled the central government since independence.

This fear of Arab domination was exacerbated by the Sadiq El Mahdi government (1986-89) policy of arming Arab Baggara militias from Darfur and Kordofan known as “muraheleen.” Similar to the militias currently involved in the Darfur conflict, the muraheleen were a militia based in Darfur, employed by the El Mahdi government and its military successors for almost twenty years as a counterinsurgency force against the southern-based rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The muraheleen primarily focused on raiding, looting, displacing, enslaving, and punishing the Dinka and Nuer civilians living in SPLA territory—from which communities the SPLA forces were in part drawn.

One of the differences in the fighting was that the Sudanese government recruited volunteers to fight in the south on the basis of “jihad,” or a religiously-sanctioned war against the largely non-Muslim southerners. In Darfur, in contrast, the communities under assault are Muslim, but that has not proved to protect them from the same abusive tactics.

In 1988-1989, the intermittent clashes in Darfur evolved into full-scale conflict between the Fur and Arab communities. The situation also developed a more political character for a number of reasons. In a pattern that was to be repeated numerous times throughout the 1990s, rather than working to defuse tensions and implement peace agreements, the Khartoum government inflamed tensions by arming the Arab tribes and neglecting the core issues underlying the conflict over resources: the need for rule of law and socio-economic development in the region.

Conflict in 2003: Widening the Divide - The current conflict in Darfur has deep roots. It is but the latest configuration of a protracted problem, yet there are key differences between the 2003-2004 conflict and prior bouts of fighting. The current conflict has developed serious racial and ethnic overtones and clearly risks shattering historic if fragile patterns of co-existence. A number of ethnic groups previously neutral are now positioning themselves along the Arab/African divide, aligning and cooperating with either the rebel movements or the government and its allied militia. Remaining neutral and outside the conflict is becoming impossible, though some groups have tried to do so.

Overtly, the conflict in Darfur pits the government of Sudan and allied militias, the “janjaweed”, against an insurgency composed of two groups, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Initially, the rebel groups were mainly composed of three ethnic groups: Zaghawa, Fur and Masaalit. Over the past months however, members of some smaller tribes such as the Jebel and Dorok peoples have also joined the rebellion following janjaweed militia attacks on their communities. Additional Arab tribes and even some non-Arab tribes have also joined the government-backed militia.

The SLA emerged in February 2003. Initially called the Darfur Liberation Front, it captured the town of Gulu, and shortly thereafter changed its name to the SLA. Early political demands included socio-economic development for the region, an end to tribal militias, and a power share with the central government. Khartoum called the group “bandits” and refused to negotiate. In April 2003, the SLA launched a surprise attack on El Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, and damaged several government Antonov aircraft and helicopters and looted fuel and arms depots. The rebels required a captured Sudanese air force colonel to give an interview on the Arab satellite TV news station El Gezira.This was followed by another major attack on Mellit, the second largest town in North Darfur, where the SLA rebels again looted government stocks of food and arms. In May 2003, the Sudanese government dismissed the governors of North and West Darfur and other key officials and increased military strength in Darfur.

The conflict escalated in July 2003, with fighting concentrated in North Darfur. The government launched offensives against the SLA in Um Barou, Tine, and Karnoi, North Darfur, in response to the SLA attacks on El Fasher, Mellit, around Kutum, and Tine (the latter on the border with Chad and an important trade route to Libya). Government response consisted of heavy bombing by Antonov aircraft plus ground offensives of government troops and heavy equipment, including tanks.

Government armament has improved substantially since 1999 when it began to export oil, and it was available for full deployment in the west after it agreed with the southern-based SPLA to a ceasefire in the south in late 2002.

Janjaweed militias were also used, but on a lesser scale than later in 2003 in both North and West Darfur. The bombing raids in North Darfur prompted thousands of civilians to flee the area for Chad, which by August 2003 was host to more than 65,000 Sudanese refugees.

Cedric Muhammad: In your report summary it is written, “Human Rights Watch has obtained copies of Sudanese government documents that describe an official policy of support to the Janjaweed militia. These documents, which originate from the offices of the civilian administration in Darfur, implicate government officials ranging a deputy minister from the central government to the highest levels of the Darfur civilian administration – the governor or “wali” – to provincial commissioners and local officials in a policy of support to the Janjaweed. The documents illustrate the involvement, at the highest levels, of the state bureaucracy in the recruitment and arming of militia and the authorization of their activities that have resulted in crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

When you say “Sudanese government documents, and “highest levels” is it correct to say that you are clearly not referring to the Khartoum government, but rather only the state government in Darfur?

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow: No. We are referring to officials in the central/Khartoum government, including a deputy minister, as well as officials within the Darfur civilian administration Our paper makes reference to this as noted above in the text of your question.

Cedric Muhammad: In footnote # 11 of your summary report you state of these files that HRW has obtained, “These documents cannot be reproduced in full due to security concerns, however all of the documents bear official stamps, seals and/or letterhead of the respective office of origin that correspond with those seen on other documents from the same sources.”

When I read that I have to tell you that my mind could not help but go to the whole controversy of their being supposedly written documentation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I also thought of the apparently forged documents that were offered as evidence that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium from Niger.

Are you absolutely confident of the veracity and authenticity of the documents you have, and the reliability of your sources within the Darfur civilian administration? And lastly, will Human Rights Watch be willing to reproduce and officially present these documents to the Sudanese Government in Khartoum and the United Nations and call for it to launch a full-scale investigation of the matter, to prove or disprove the actual contents?

HRW, in the conclusion of its report indicates it would like to see an international commission of inquiry established by the United Nations Security Council.

Georgette Gagnon and Leslie Lefkow: HRW would never report on or refer to documents that it was not thoroughly convinced were authentic and had fully verified. HRW is convinced, for many reasons, that the documents are authentic including the signs, seals and letterhead that match other documents from the same source, the language used in the documents and the credibility and reliability of the sources. We cannot give details on how we obtained them nor publish or distribute the documents because of security concerns for the sources. For security reasons and to protect the sources, HRW will not reproduce the documents nor will we officially present the documents to the government of Sudan. The documents are on file with Human Rights Watch and available for inspection on request.

As noted above, HRW has called for the UN SC to establish an international commission of inquiry to be dispatched to Darfur to examine the evidence concerning crimes against humanity, war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties in Darfur in 2003-2004, including allegations of genocide, the nature of the crimes, the identity of the perpetrators, and the role of authorities in the commission of crimes; collect and preserve evidence of the crimes; and, make recommendations on appropriate action to ensure accountability for the crimes.

Part I: Exclusive Q & A With Professor Sean O'Fahey

Part II : Exclusive Q & A With Joe Madison, President, Sudan Campaign

Part III: Exclusive Q & A With Karen Kwiatkowski, Lt. Col. United States Air Force (ret.)

Part IV: Exclusive Q & A With Salih Booker, Executive Director, Africa Action

Part V : Exclusive Q & A With Dr. Kwame Akonor, Founder, African Development Institute

Thursday, August 19, 2004

To discuss this article further enter The Deeper Look Dialogue Room

The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

Copyright © 2000-2002 BEC