It is making headlines as what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today: the region of Darfur in western Sudan, where more than a million black Africans have fled a campaign of terror launched by Arab “janjaweed” militias. They now face hunger and possibly more attacks in scores of refugee camps.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have threatened sanctions against the Sudanese government. And 300 African Union peacekeepers are soon to be deployed to Darfur.
But what is often overlooked in the headlines is an issue that is the cause of many problems facing East Africa – the conflict over land between farmers and nomadic herders.
VOA’s Patricia Nunan spoke with the head of a Sudanese-run non-governmental organization (NGO) in the capital Khartoum and brings us a closer look.
It is an area the size of France and one of the most remote regions in the world.
Mohamed Majzoub Fideil, country director of the Intermediate Technology Development Program, says when his group first went to North Darfur in the 1980s, even government officials had not been there yet.
“We managed to reach those places and provide some development support like building of feeder roads, where after our roads were completed, vehicles reached there for the first time in life,” he said.
The ITDG, as Mr. Fideil’s group is known, is a British NGO run entirely by Sudanese, one of the few like it in the country, and one of the only ones that has been working in Darfur for more than 20 years.
Even during his childhood in eastern Sudan, Mr. Fidiel remembers hearing stories of disputes between pastoralists and farmers in the Darfur region – stories that only grew worse as he became involved in development work.
“During the mid-80s, as a result of the drought, so the size of pastures decreased,” he said. “The animal herders, mostly nomads - and most of the nomads are from Arab origin - they find it important for them to invade into farmers’ farms, to get their cattle grazing there.”
The dispute was about water and land resources, which aggravated ethnic tension.
“Since most of the animal herders are Arabs, so it became like an Arab against non-Arabs fighting,” said Mr. Fideil.
In February 2003, the conflict escalated. Two groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, launched an insurgency in Darfur against the government.
They say Darfur’s black African population had been marginalized through the predominantly Arab central government’s redistricting of Darfur into new administrative centers weighted in favor of Arab groups.
In April, a cease-fire was signed. But it was too late to stop a campaign of terror launched by Arab militias called the “Janjaweed” against Darfur’s civilian population.
The government denies charges by human rights groups that it has orchestrated the Janjaweed offensive, saying that the militias are outlaws taking advantage of a lawless situation.
At some point, analysts say, authorities and the rebels will have to hammer out a political solution to the conflict.
But Mr. Fideil says there are some creative but simple ways to address the competing demands for land that helped spark the conflict.
“There was an idea of opening corridors, so that in between the farms, nomads could move and at the same time have enough grazing areas along their routes,” he said. “Also some of the problems between farmers and animal herders, [are because] the animal herders come through the farms during say, Feb and March, and suppose during that time, the farmers have already harvested their crops. So that they can allow herders to come and to graze the agriculture residues.”
Mr. Fideil says another problem is that the culture in Darfur values victories on the battlefield more than averting conflict. He wants government and civil society groups to come up with songs to broadcast on local radio that praise peacemakers as leaders to be admired.