Sunday, December 03, 2006

Careful where you point that gun

Careful where you point that gun… you may think it makes you look big and tough, but it looks to me like an accident waiting to happen

Who’s calling who a janjaweed?

I had a meeting today with local community leaders, and half the people turned up with whips. This must be one of the few places in the world where turning up to a meeting with a whip gets you fearful respect from your peers – if you have a whip it probably means you have a horse or a camel. And if you have a horse or a camel it means you are powerful enough to hold onto it. Those people who used to have them got them stolen by the ‘nomads’, or rather, by the sub-sector of nomads who are known to many as janjaweed.

The janjaweed identity is quite fluid – you need to ask yourself who’s name-calling and why. Linguistically I am told it simply means ‘men on horseback’. Negative connotations are not new, however, as there have long been groups of such men who roamed around this wild west rustling other people’s cattle. Now, JJ or janjaweed has become a label which is used by the ‘non-Arabs’ (or ‘Africans’) to describe all the Arabs, nomads, and cattle-herders. For example, when my driver points at someone on a horse and says JJ (or “Juliet Juliet Whisky”, as he likes to call them) I have to ask myself which tribe my driver belongs to. I don’t actually know the answer, though I have a few ideas –he must be ‘African’, certainly. To make things more complicated, though most of the ‘Arabs’ are also nomads, moving their herds of cattle from place to place, not all of them are; some of them actually farm the land. And although most of the Africans are farmers, some of them also own cattle, and they move with their cattle while leaving their families at home in the villages. So, the binary Arab/African distinction doesn’t match the nomad/farmer distinction.

I have read that ‘Arab’ was a hazier concept in the early nineties, and that individual tribal identities were given greater importance. Now, every tribe has decided which side of the Arab/African dividing line they stand on. This change was exacerbated by government policies that trained and armed nomads in the late nineties, trying to foster a pro-governmental force in Darfur who could suppress local rebellions and generally carry out dirty work for the government. Nomads were taught about Arab superiority, and that their allegiance lay with the Arabs in Khartoum. Nomads became Arabs. Some of them became full-time janjaweed. Prior to 1989 the nomads of Darfur apparently felt very little affinity with central Khartoum government. (For a good concise account of these fluctuating identities see the Minority Rights Group Report, Lessons from Darfur, at

NGOs generally talk about nomads and farmers; it sounds less political and is more precise than saying Arab or African. It seems the only time we can comfortably say Arab is when we’re talking about Arab Militias. Arab as a label seems like an insult here. Maybe it’s just because we spend so much time working with and talking to the mainly African IDPs.

So how do the nomads and farmers, who live side by side, interact in daily Darfur life? Here’s a painful example. At this time of year, the farmers are busy harvesting their crops. Many of those who have moved into the IDP camps go back to their fields in the daytime, on donkeys (they only have donkeys and goats now as their horses and camels have been rustled by janjaweed). At night they return to the safety of the camps. Last week I was out in the villages trying to organise training sessions with the few people who have stayed in the villages, but most people were too busy and worried about bringing in the harvest quickly before the cattle came to eat the crops. I saw fields being eaten up by herds of cows, the remaining wheat stalks still standing taller than the cattle as they munched their way through. Later I saw a group of men in dark green uniforms, (hell, let’s be rash and just call them janjaweed), relaxing in the long grass with their guns propped up next to them, as their camels had a good square meal in somebody else’s field.

Darfur is going through a particularly dry period, and the fight for natural resources has become more critical than ever. The scarcity of fertile land means that nomads with hungry cattle naturally find the grass is always greener when it’s been planted and nurtured by farmers. Ultimately everyone is just fighting to get enough to eat. However, sending animals into a wheat field which has been carefully fenced off with thorny bushes is undoubtedly stealing someone else’s hard-earned dinner.

But when my driver points at a straggly-haired child with a big smile, standing next to her cattle at the side of the road in brightly coloured clothes and waving for all she’s worth, and he says jokingly ‘Little Juliet Juliet Whisky’ I know for certain that we can’t just call all nomads janjaweed. Yet I also know what a powerful force that word has for at least half the population of Darfur, and just how difficult it will be to dismantle these increasingly established identities, and stop calling people names.