Darfur: The First Climate War

Photograph by Marcus Bleasdale / VII

Darfur: The First Climate War

Global warming is driving violent conflicts in Darfur and around the globe. 

By Harold Welzer
Published: 07/12/2012

First aircraft would come over a village, as if smelling the target, and then return to release their bombs. The raids were carried out by Russian-built four-engine Antonov An-12s, which are not bombers but transports. They have no bomb bays or aiming mechanisms, and the 'bombs' they dropped were old oil drums stuffed with a mixture of explosives and metallic debris. These were rolled on the floor of the transport and dropped out of the rear ramp which was kept open during the flight. The result was primitive free-falling cluster bombs, which were completely useless from a military point of view since they could not be aimed but had a deadly efficiency against fixed civilian targets. As any combatant with a minimum of training could easily duck them, they were terror weapons aimed solely at civilians. After the Antonovs had finished their grisly job, combat helicopters and/or MiG fighter-bombers would come, machine-gunning and firing rockets at targets such as a school or a warehouse which might still be standing. Utter destruction was clearly programmed.

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The air raids were not the end of the story. The violence then began in earnest. Janjaweed militiamen, riding horses or camels or driving Toyota Landcruisers, would surround the village, then move in to plunder it, rape the women, burn the houses down and kill any remaining inhabitants.

This was the opening act, in July 2003, to the genocide in Darfur, in western Sudan. 

What was first reported to Western TV viewers as a tribal conflict between 'Arab horseback militias' and 'African farmers' looks, on closer examination, to have been a war by a government on its own population, in which climate change played a decisive role. 

Ethnically speaking, Darfur is an intricate web of 'Arab' and 'African' tribes, where 'Arab' is usually associated with nomadic lifestyles and 'African' with settled farming. A further complexity is the distinction between 'native Arabs' and those who first entered the country in the nineteenth century, mainly as Islamic preachers and traders. This core group of a quasi-colonial foreign elite, as GeALrard Prunier puts it, was supplemented by slave and ivory dealers, who put themselves on the same level as the native Arabs. Although they had come from outside as conquerors, they eventually merged with the indigenous group, but to this day retain an elite position in Darfur society.

The Janjaweed, infamous for their brutality, first appeared in the late 1980s at various trouble spots, in a role 'halfway between being bandits and government thugs'. They are recruited from former highwaymen, demobilized soldiers, young men from mostly 'smaller Arab tribes having a running land conflict with a neighbouring "African" group', common criminals and young unemployed. These people receive money for their work: '$79 a month for a man on foot and $117 if he ha[s] a horse or a camel'. 'Officers - i.e. those who could read or who were tribal amir - could get as much as $233.' Their weapons are provided to them.

As in Rwanda ten years earlier, then, these were by no means men who killed spontaneously out of hatred or revenge, but rather 'organized, politicized and militarized groups'. At the time of writing, between 200,000 and 500,000 inhabitants of Darfur have died as a result of their work. There had been massacres in the earlier period too, but at least since 1984, when a disastrous famine hit the country, the history of violence has been closely bound up with ecological problems.

There have been conflicts for seventy years or more between Darfur's settled farmers ('Africans') and nomadic herdsmen ('Arabs'), but they have become increasingly severe as a result of soil erosion and greater livestock numbers. Elements of modernization and judicial dispute resolution, which were introduced in more peaceful times thirty or so years ago, swept away traditional strategies for problem-solving or reconciliation without establishing new or functioning forms of regulation. Instead, during the last thirty years, there has been a tendency for weapons to be used straightaway even in small local conflicts.

In the disastrous drought of 1984, the sedentary farmers tried to protect their meagre harvests by blocking access to their fields by 'Arabs' whose pastureland had dried up. As a result, the nomads were unable to use their traditional marahil, or herding routes and feeding places. 'In their eagerness to push towards the still wet south, they started to fight their way through the blocked off marahil. Farmers carrying out their age-old practices of burning unwanted wild grass were attacked because what for them were bad weeds had become the last fodder for

 the desperate nomads' depleted flocks.'

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Harald Welzer

Harald Welzer is head of the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen, Germany.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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