Open war breaks out
The conflict continued unabated, albeit at a low level, until 2003, when it took the form of open warfare between African guerrillas and government-backed Arab militias. Death toll rose dramatically and the Darfur conflict struck the world with horror.
Initially, the government’s policy was to rule by dividing. Khartoum incited Arabs against blacks. Some Arab clans were given weapons and encouraged to form militias. The blacks called them janjawider (roughly “lawless riders”). Government fighter jets bombed villages, where the rebels were believed to have sympathizers, and then the villagers were attacked by the Janjawids. Women were systematically raped as part of the war.
The uprising in Darfur was started by two loosely allied rebel groups: the Sudan Liberation Movement / Sudan Liberation Army (SLM / SLA) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). SLM / SLA had the most supporters among the majority people fur. Its supreme leader was Abd al-Wahid Muhammad al-Nur. SLM / SLA soon split into a fur faction led by al-Nur (SLM-Nur) and a zagawa-dominated faction led by Minni Minnawi (SLM-Minnawi). A number of breakaway fractions have arisen since then.
JEM was led by Khalil Ibrahim from the Zagawa people, until his death in 2011. Khalil belonged to the same subgroup of Zagawa as Chadian President Idriss Déby and thus JEM has had the support of forces outside Darfur. However, the JEM emerges as an Islamist movement, which at least outwardly seems to place greater emphasis on religious than ethnic affiliation. A dozen other rebel groups have joined together in the Freedom and Justice Movement (LJM).
From the outset, the UN Security Council was divided over Darfur. At first, they contented themselves with issuing threats of “measures”, but in January 2005 the UN stated that the Sudanese government army and its allies had committed systematic abuses against civilians. However, the Security Council did not want to call it a “genocide”, which according to the UN Charter and international law would have forced the world organization to intervene.
International attempts at mediation had no effect. However, the Sudanese government agreed that the African Union (AU) would send a peacekeeping force named the Amis (African Union Mission in Sudan).
The 2006 UN attempt to replace Amis with a UN force was delayed by the Sudanese government. In the end, there was a compromise that the UN would take the lead over a force that would for the most part consist of Amis in a new form. The government only approved the participation of African countries, with the exception of Pakistan and China. It was not until the New Year 2008 that the UN took over responsibility for the force, now called the Unamid (United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur).
Relations between Unamid and Khartoum are strained. In 2015, al-Bashir ordered the force to leave the country after accusing a government-affiliated militia, the RSF (Rapid Support Forces), of committing mass rape in Darfur in the autumn of 2014. Despite the president’s order, Unamid remained in the region at the end of 2017., with 17,000 men in uniform. However, a
significant reduction in the number of soldiers and police was to be expected.
Bandit rule rather than war
In March 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir. He was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. In July 2010, the indictment was extended to include genocide.
Al-Bashir responded by expelling dozens of aid workers from Darfur, exacerbating the crisis and reducing the world’s visibility of what was going on. He demonstrated his defiance to the court through a series of visits to other African and Arab countries, whose leaders showed solidarity with him rather than with the international community and refrained from arresting him.
In December 2014, the ICC prosecutor dropped the war crimes indictment in Darfur. She said that the outside world’s lack of co-operation forced her to leave the matter to rest and accused the UN Security Council in particular of passivity.
A peace agreement concluded in 2006 between the Sudanese government and Minni Minnawi (see above) had no effect. Rather, the crisis was exacerbated by Minnawi’s faction of the SLM merging with the army and the Janjawids in attacks on the JEM.
The growing division among the rebels weakened virtually all groups, and in August 2009, the commanders of the UNAMID said that the conflict could hardly be called a war. Instead, he described it as bandit rule and local clashes over land and water.
In the outside world, many now saw the issue of land ownership in Darfur as one of the most difficult problems. The war had shattered the foundations of older customary law and made it impossible for internally displaced persons to return to villages taken over by land occupiers. These had sometimes received help from the authorities to obtain proof of ownership. Further confusion arose when returning refugees driven away from their home villages settled in other abandoned villages.
In recent years, Arabs in Darfur have accused the Sudanese government of betraying promises to give them land. Some Arab clans have attacked each other. Others have joined forces with black rebels, but it has been an expression of growing anarchy rather than increased cohesion among Darfur’s various ethnic groups.