In 1989 a civil war began in the African nation of Sudan after an officer in the Sudanese army, Omar alBashir, seized power through a coup d’état. The roots of this war are complex, including struggle over limited resources following a serious drought and famine in the mid-1980s, conflicting conceptions of the use of land, ethnic tensions between southern and northern peoples, and religious tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. In addition, in a more recent development, the cultivation of oil fields in southern Sudan led the government to engage in widespread destruction of longstanding villages to profit from the production and sale of oil. Throughout the entire process the government used food and resources as weapons, often pitting different ethnic groups against each other and withholding humanitarian aid to force the population to abide by its policies. In the 17 years after the civil war began, fighting displaced more than 4 million Sudanese and killed at minimum 2 million, many of them targets of ethnic cleansing and starvation by their own government.
After 2003, government brutality focused on the western region of Sudan, known as Darfur. The tensions in this region were directly linked to the ongoing struggle between pastoral and sedentary communities over land use. In 1989 this region was divided into three states: North Darfur, with its capital at Al-Fasher; South Darfur, with its capital at Nyala; and West Darfur, with its capital at Al-Jeneina.
In February 2003, in response to insurrection, the, government sent in its troops, bolstered by Arab paramilitary groups known as janjawiid (roughly “armed men on horseback”), predominantly drawn from this region. In retaliation for the continued insurgency and the defiance of the civilian population, these two forces implemented a scorched-earth policy, eliminating both people and communities in a wide swath of destruction. They burned villages, destroyed crops, and stole livestock. Satellite imagery indicates that almost 50 percent of villages were completely destroyed in the western and southern regions of Darfur. Government forces and the janjawiid bombarded communities with aerial assaults, confiscated property, and poisoned local water supplies in order to displace millions of people. In addition to all these acts of destruction, government troops and the janjawiid murdered civilians, abducted thousands of villagers, and participated in hundreds of rapes of women and girls.
Conservative estimates place the death toll in the collective region of Darfur at 200,000; other estimates range to 400,000. The majority of the deaths were due to starvation and disease, exacerbated by the government’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid, safe passage, and distribution. In early 2006 violence persisted in the region as government troops and the janjawiid destroyed non-Arab villages and drove refugees into camps along the neighboring border with Chad.
The Sudanese government was directly connected to this process. The Sudanese government refused to allow humanitarian aid to flow freely into the region, to disband the janjawiid, to investigate consistently mass violence against civilians, to allow observers from the United Nations or nongovernmental agencies to document the crisis, or to permit United Nations peacekeepers on its soil.
See also Islamist movements; Sudanese civil wars (1970–present).