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Darfur’s Tribes are Killing One Another over Gold and Water

For the past seven months, warring tribes and armed factions have been waging an intense conflict in North Darfur over the region’s abundant gold mines and other natural resources.
Κείμενο Ronan O'Kelly

SLA-Minni Minnawi fighters in North Darfur. All photos courtesy of UNAMID.

It’s been four years since the UN declared an end to the six-year conflict in Darfur. So, of course, that means a new era of peace and prosperity has already totally swept through this once-ravaged region of Sudan, right? Sadly, no, it doesn't.

Since Darfur lost its spot as the focal point of fundraising ad campaigns at some point around 2009, a different type of conflict has begun plaguing the war-torn region’s road to recovery. For the past seven months, warring tribes and armed factions have been waging an intense conflict in North Darfur over the region’s abundant gold mines and other natural resources.


The crisis in Darfur’s northern state came to a head this year, when ongoing tensions between the Beni Hussein and Rizeigat tribes culminated in a bloody and protracted battle over gold mines in the Jebel Amir area. According to humanitarian organizations, the fighting left more than 500 dead and as many as 100,000 displaced—the largest displacement of civilians since the height of the Darfur war.

Over the past few years, warring factions that were typically divided between Arab and non-Arab, or herders and farmers, have splintered into smaller armed groups, all struggling to secure their own territories in the region.

Members of the Beni Hussein community have controlled the awarding of mining licenses in the Jebel Amir area since gold was discovered there in March 2012. But tribe members have since accused government forces of aiding the northern Rizeigat tribe, who is moving in on the disputed territory, by providing them with powerful weaponry.

Although the region is no stranger to tribal warfare, there's been a marked increase in violence and intertribal conflict over the past seven months, according to Christopher Cycmanick, head of media relations for the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). “The mission here began in 2008 and there had actually been a decrease in the amount of violence and civilians killed, but in 2012 we saw a serious uptick and it's continued right into this year,” he told me.


Notorious armed groups like the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-Minni Minnawi) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) had been gaining momentum in North Darfur for some time. However, according to Cycmanick, the current spike in violence began in earnest last August, when the assassination of a local district commissioner sparked violence between rival tribes in the Kutum area, 75 miles northwest of the state capital, El Fashir.

Over the following month, looting, arson, and firefights between armed groups and government forces left unknown numbers of local civilians and police dead, while some 25,000 people living in a nearby refugee camp were surrounded by an armed militia and forced to seek shelter in the surrounding areas.

Sudanese government forces.

Government forces are often brought in to quell tribal conflict, but, according to Cycmanick, they can also end up just exacerbating the situation further. “A lot of times the government is known to support one tribe over another, and while they may be trying to put an end to the violence, sometimes they can get tied into it,” he says.

By October, the fighting had moved northwards from Kutum towards the gold mining area of Hashaba. The level of violence intensified, as tribal militia and government forces used mortars, anti-tank weapons, and even air strikes to gain control of the local gold mines. In less than a week, the fighting had killed as many as 300 people, according to local media reports.


While disputes over gold mines tend to spark many of the area’s larger conflicts, tribal clashes over the region’s other natural resources also pose a serious problem, explains Cycmanick. “In the case of livestock, for example, you’ve got some populations that are nomadic, and they might venture off into an area where there’s been people settled and living there for a long time. Then they bring whatever type of livestock they have and start grazing in areas that belong to somebody else,” he says.

“So, you’ve got a competition over things like firewood or over areas where there’s water, because there’s a scarcity of water in Darfur. They’ve got very limited natural resources, and so when nomadic groups from one tribe sometimes come into areas that belong to another tribe, you’ll have fighting between the groups, because this is their livelihood, it’s the way they survive.”

Since the devastating tribal violence over gold mines in the Jebel Amir region in January, the region has begun to stabilize as fighting shifts from North Darfur to Central and South Darfur. But while the violence may have been suppressed, humanitarian groups warn that the overwhelming number of refugees who fled the area has created a potential humanitarian crisis in the region, with clean water and sanitation facilities in short supply.

UNAMID soldiers from Nigeria.

“We are talking effectively about 100,000 people who are displaced from their original settlements and are now scattered around the area,” explains Fernando Medina, coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Sudan.


Despite the multitude of problems plaguing North Darfur, there are some hopeful signals that the area may be in recovery. Though, for the time being at least, a solution remains out of reach. “Progress is very slow,” says Cycmanick. “It’s a good thing, of course, that we don’t have the problems that we had at the beginning of the year. Right now, there are peace negotiations going on in Doha, Qatar, between some of the armed movements. We’ve had several of the armed movements sign something called the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, but there are many large movements that still haven't signed.”

For humanitarian organizations operating in the region, the road to recovery has been made all the more difficult since the fighting in Darfur became overshadowed by all the other flashier conflicts that have dominated media space in the past couple of years.

“There are still some big problems in Darfur,” Cycmanick says, “but now, in many ways, the situation has been eclipsed by Syria and Somalia, and even Mali. There are so many things happening in the world—the Arab Spring and the surrounding countries it affected, and the economic crisis, of course—that our mission budget keeps getting cut each year, meaning we’ll be downsizing our troop strength over the next few months.”

It's difficult to predict when, and indeed if, a resolution will be reached between Darfur's warring tribes. But it's plain to see that, for as long as the stream of money continues to dry up, the harder it's going to be to achieve any kind of peace.


Follow Ronan on Twitter: @RonanOKelly

Photos courtesy of UNAMID

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