“I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself.

” Dr Mercedes Taty, Médecins sans Frontières deputy emergency director [1]

One of the sensationalist themes encountered with respect to the conflict in Darfur is that it is a racial one in which light-skinned “Arab” tribes have been engaged in the “ethnic cleansing” of black “African” tribes. [2] These sorts of claims are particularly inflammatory and very questionable. Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, noted that “The implication that these are two different races, one indigenous and the other not is dangerous.” [3] The simple fact is that there is very little, if any, racial difference between the many tribes of Darfur, “Arab” or “African”. Both communities are black. The London Observer newspaper has reported, for example, that “[c]enturies of intermarriage has rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable”.[4] The UN media service noted: “In Darfur, where the vast majority of people are Muslim and Arabic-speaking, the distinction between ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ is more cultural than racial.”[5] This reality has also been confirmed by Dr Alex de Waal and other anti-government activists.[6] Ryle has noted that Arabs and non-Arabs “are generally physically indistinguishable”. [7] The New York Times has exemplified contradictory reporting on this issue, with articles on one hand by their columnist Nicholas Kristof alleging, for example, that “black Africans have been driven from their homes by lighter-skinned Arabs in the Janjaweed” [8] while also publishing subsequent articles such as “In Sudan, No Clear Difference Between Arab and African”. [9] Even “African” Darfurian anti-government figures such as Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi contradict the dangerously lazy shorthand of the New York Times. Speaking at a conference in Brussels he stated with reference to “Arabs” and “Africans” in Darfur that “we all look alike” and that one “can’t tell from the features if he is Arab or African”. He added that he, an “African”, had a lighter skin than many “Arabs”. [10]

Dr de Waal is one of the few recognised experts on Sudan, albeit from a clearly antigovernment perspective. [11] Described by The Observer newspaper of London as a “world authority on the country”, de Waal is a human rights advocate who has published widely on Sudan. He has also previously worked in Darfur. He has pointedly challenged the “Arab” versus “African” stereotype, stating that “Characterizing the Darfur war as ‘Arabs’ versus ‘Africans’ obscures the reality. Darfur’s Arabs are black, indigenous, African Muslims – just like Darfur’s non-Arabs.” [12] He has also said:

We will see that the story is not as simple as the conventional rendering in the news, which depicts a conflict between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans.’ The Zaghawa…are certainly indigenous, black and African: they share distant origins with the Berbers of Morocco and other ancient Saharan peoples. But the name of the ‘Bedeyat’, the Zaghawa’s close kin, should alert us to their true origins: pluralize in the more traditional manner and we have ‘Bedeyiin’ or Bedouins. Similarly, the Zaghawa’s adversaries in this war, the Darfurian Arabs, are ‘Arabs’ in the ancient sense of ‘Bedouin,’ meaning desert nomad…Darfurian Arabs, too, are indigenous, black, and African. In fact there are no discernible racial or religious differences between the two: all have lived there for centuries. [13]

A Policy of Ethnic Cleansing in Darfur?
There has obviously been a vast displacement of civilians within Darfur, especially amongst those communities from which the rebels have recruited and presumably sought other support. A sensationalist media and human rights industry has claimed that the government has pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. [14] The Sudanese junior foreign minister Najeeb Alkhair Abdelwahab has stated with regard to claims of ethnic cleansing in Darfur that: “The situation in Darfur is neither one of ethnic cleansing nor genocide. It is primarily a clash over resources.” [15]

Claims of ethnic cleansing have also been challenged by reputable groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF has been present in Darfur, at the heart of the crisis, since it began. As of November 2004, MSF has over 200 international aid workers and over 2,000 national staff working throughout the three States (West, North and South Darfur) and an additional 30 international staff and 160 national staff caring for Darfurian refugees in Chad. MSF has medical teams in 26 locations in Darfur. It is an organisation that is well placed to comment on allegations of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

Médecins Sans Frontières President Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, a noted critic of allegations of “genocide” in Darfur (describing such claims as “obvious political opportunism” [16], has also been critical of claims of ethnic cleansing, stating: “Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group. We have received reports of massacres, but not of attempts to specifically eliminate all the members of a group”. [17] Dr Bradol also warned of describing events as “ethnic cleansing”: “The social and tribal reality in Sudan is far more complex than such a simplification. Racist ideologies are widely present in Sudanese society and within the international community, and such simplifications do not help in understanding the situation here at all.” [18]

Dr Bradol’s views echoed those of Dr Mercedes Taty, the Deputy Emergency Director for Doctors without Borders, who speaking in April 2004, noted: “there is no systematic target — targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself. But, I think it’s important not to mix things…” [19] Hilton Dawson, chairman of the British parliament’s group on Sudan, has also contradicted claims of ethnic cleansing: “I don’t believe it’s the simple targeting of one ethnic groups by another. I’ve talked to people on the ground on all sides. There is a more complex mix of races than one would assume from simply being told that this is Arabs against Africans or vice versa.” [20]

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, has also stated that the term “ethnic cleansing” did not fit events in Darfur: “I think we have more reports actually of a kind of scorched earth [policy] – and that nobody has taken over….It’s complex, because some have said that it doesn’t fit the legal definition of ethnic cleansing. The same tribes are represented both among those who are cleansed and those who are cleansing.” [21] Mr Egeland’s views have been echoed by key human rights experts. Asma Jehangir, the UN rapporteur on extra-judicial summary and arbitrary executions, for example, has said: “I wouldn’t categorise as ethnic cleansing at the moment because that is not the impression that I am getting. It could be an unintended purpose but the numbers are staggering, the situation is terrible.” [22]

Allegations of ethnic cleansing have also been clearly contradicted by Sudanese government actions. Far from wishing to see the displacement of “African” Darfurian communities, the government has self-evidently been very eager to see these communities returned to their homes. In November 2004, Khartoum reported to the UN that 270,000 displaced people had been returned to their places of origin. The Sudanese humanitarian affairs minister, Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid, stated: “More than 270,000 people have voluntarily returned to their homes. This is a very good sign and indicator that the situation in Darfur is improving.” [23] Jan Pronk, the UN Special Envoy to Sudan, was said to be concerned because neither the UN High Commissioner for Refugees nor the UN Organisation for Migration had been consulted prior to the repatriation. While there may well be some concern as to whether all the returns were voluntary, Khartoum’s eagerness to return refugees to their place of origin is manifest. The United Nations has noted government pressure on displaced people to return home, and has undertaken profiling exercises which “will inform appropriate and timely planning of interventions when conditions for return are in place.” [24] Attempts to compare Darfur to Kosovo or any other example of ethnic cleansing fail to explain why it is that – unlike in Kosovo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, for example, where there were clear attempts by governments to permanently exclude people from their homeland – in Darfur the government is being criticised for trying to return people to where they came from.


1 “Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis”, News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004.
2 See, for example, “Arab Militias Destroying Schools in Sudan to Wipe out Black Culture”, News Article by Knight Ridder Newspapers, 20 August 2004.
3 “In Sudan, No Clear Difference between Arab and African”, The New York Times, 3 October 2004.
4 “Empty Villages Mark Trail of Sudan’s Hidden War”, The Observer (London), 30 May 2004.
5 “The Escalating Crisis in Darfur”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 31 December 2003.
6 John Ryle is Chair of the Rift Valley Institute and a Research Associate of the Centre of African Studies at the University of London.
7 John Ryle, “Disaster in Darfur”, The New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 13, 12 August 2004.
8 Nicholas Kristof, “Cruel Choices”, The New York Times, 14 April 2004.
9 “In Sudan, No Clear Difference between Arab and African”, The New York Times, 3 October 2004.
10 Comments made by Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi at the seminar “Confronting the Crisis in Darfur: A Transatlantic Assessment”, Transatlantic Institute, Brussels, 12 May 2004. Dr Ateem is the head of Darfur UK, an anti government group based in Britain.
11 Dr de Waal is a director of the human rights group, Justice Africa and a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of several books on human rights, famine and conflict in Africa, including Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984–1985, Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa and Who Fights? Who Cares? War and Humanitarian Action in Africa. He is editor of the ‘African Issues’ series with James Currey Publishers. De Waal was a founder and director of African Rights and chairman of Mines Advisory Group 1993-8 (co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize) and has worked for the Inter-Africa Group.
12 “Darfur’s deep grievances Defy all Hopes for an Easy Solution”, The Observer (London), 25 July 2004.
13 Alex de Waal, “Tragedy in Darfur: On Understanding and Ending the Horror”, Boston Review, Volume 29, Number 5, October-November 2004.
14 See, as but two examples, “Sudan: Government Commits ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in Darfur”, Human Rights Watch, 7 May 2004 and “Ethnic Cleansing Blights Sudan”, News Article by BBC News Online, 27 May 2004.
15 “Bashir Sets Up Panel to Probe Human Rights Abuses in Darfur”, News Article by PANA, 9 May 2004.
16 “From One Genocide to Another”, Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE)
17 “Thousands Die as World Defines Genocide”, ‘The Financial Times’ (London), 6 July 2004. See also, Bradol’s views in “France Calls on Sudan to Forcibly Disarm Darfur Militias”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 7 July 2004.
18 “We are looking at a second catastrophe”, Darfur Feature Article on MSF Australia Website,
19 “Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis”, News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004.
20 “Darfur: A Repeat of Rwanda?”, News Article by BBC News Online 23 August 2004, available at
21 “Interview with UN’s Jan Egeland on the Situation in Darfur”, News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 5 July 2004.
22 “Sudan ‘Neglecting’ Darfur Crisis”, News Article by BBC News Online, 8 June 2004, available at
23 “Sudan Claims 270,000 Displaced from Darfur Return Voluntarily”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 10 November 2004.
24 Darfur 120-Day Plan Report September to December 2004, Office of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator for the Sudan, Khartoum, January 2005.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
powered by