A region the size of Texas located in western Sudan, Darfur has a complex mix of more than 36 ethnic groups with an estimated population of 5 million people. Indigenous groups and Arab migrants have coexisted for centuries, each with their own dar, or homeland. Dominant tribes, including the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit, welcomed the settlement of other groups and recognized each in local governments.
But in the past 30 years, recurrent episodes of drought and desertification have plagued the region, leading to conflicts over resources and livestock within and between Arab and indigenous groups.
In February 2003, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups were formed by members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit to demand reparation of the marginalization of Darfur and denounce the government's failure to protect the indigenous population from Arab nomad raiders.
In response, a largely Arab guerilla force called the Janjaweed was created to target and attack civilian populations from the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit tribes. The earliest reported Janjaweed attacks occurred in March 2003, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the Sudanese government was responsible for the mobilization.
The violence has now mushroomed into a dire humanitarian crisis in which more than 1 million refugees have been internally displaced, while approximately 200,000 have sought refuge in bordering Chad from Janjaweed attacks.
A Janjaweed attack makes villages uninhabitable—its "scorched earth" campaign destroys vegetation, seizes livestock, and burns buildings to the ground. Villagers have found their drinking water contaminated by carcasses, both human and animal, that have been shoved into wells.
With a population of approximately 744,000, the Fur are the largest ethnic group in Darfur (Darfur means "land of the Fur"). Also called Fora, Fordunga, Furawi, Konjara, or Kungara, the Fur speak a Nilo-Saharan language that is used alongside Sudanese Arabic, which is mostly spoken for trade and commerce.
Fur practice their traditional rituals alongside Islam. Fur villages are typically composed of four or five households, and most are farmers who cultivate food both for the family and to sell at market. Their primary crop is dukhn (millet), which is used to make their staple food asida, a thick porridge paste. Dukhn beer is an important part of the Fur diet and is also payment for field work. This tradition has lasted even though Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
Fur husbands and wives remain in separate housing after marriage, and have separate fields for food. Polygamy is common and marriages are frequently arranged by parents, with a bride price given to the bride’s family.
Political power is determined by hereditary position. The village sheik (religious leader) serves for life and is typically elected by the villagers to serve in relation with higher government-appointed officials.
In the current conflict, an estimated 2,500 Fur have lost their lives and 400 villages have been burned, causing tens of thousands to flee their land in search for safety.
There are 145,000 Masalit scattered throughout Sudan, the majority of whom inhabit parts of Northern Sudan, Darfur, Dar Masalit, and the Nyala District. The Masalit language, also called Masalit, is part of the broader Nilo-Saharan group.
As agriculturalists, the Masalit grow millet, sorghum, peanuts, okra, and some fruits. They also gather honey and tree gum, and raise cattle, sheep, and goats to supplement their diet. Historically the Masalit have been both self-sufficient and self-contained, yet due to drought and increased pressure on the land, their contact with other groups in the Darfur region has greatly increased.
The majority of Masalit live in sedentary villages. Like other sedentary African farmers in Darfur, conflict with pastoral Arab groups over land and resources has been going on for generations. These age-old clashes were more or less contained by traditional methods of conflict resolution until the 1970s. During the last few decades severe drought, competition for scarce resources, easy access to firearms, and the lack of a democratic atmosphere in which such disagreements can be justly handled, have all contributed to the erosion of peacekeeping efforts.
Many Masalit whose land has been destroyed by the Janjaweed are former soldiers and policemen of the Sudanese government. Knowing that the government works in conjunction with the Arab militias, many of these men have quit their jobs and joined the SLA and the JEM.
Scattered throughout Sudan, Chad, and Niger, the roughly 171,000 Zaghawa live primarily along the border between Sudan and Chad in the northern Darfur region. The Zaghawa, who also call themselves Beri, are a semi-nomadic ethnic group who rely on camel and cattle herding.
Zaghawa lands are the most ecologically fragile in Darfur and are frequently affected by drought. The Zaghawa must wait nine dry months for a brief rainy season; the competition for access to pasture and water often creates conflict either with settled farmers or among themselves.
Due to lack of resources, some Zaghawa now grow tomatoes, onions, and okra in gardens around their homes. Women cultivate these gardens and also gather wild grasses, seeds, honey, and berries. Many men have become merchants and travel to southern and eastern Darfur to find manufactured goods and other foods. These migrant Zaghawa, part of the lower working class, are unable to sustain themselves with income and often depend on hunting for survival, although the introduction of firearms has limited the amount of game in the region.
In the 1600s, the majority of Zaghawa converted to Islam. This change greatly reduced the power of ruling chiefs and Zaghawa either completely abandoned their traditional religion or modified their religious practices to comply with Islam.
Zaghawa villages in northern Darfur in 2003 were the main targets of aerial bombs. The Zaghawa fled to wadis, or tree-lined riverbeds, where they were able to access hand-dug wells. Air and ground attacks in the recent conflict have followed the Zaghawa to their wadis and have forced many to find refuge in Chad and other lands in Darfur.