Say the word out lout: “Janjaweed”. The first set of images and word that tend to flash into people’s minds are “devil on horseback”, “militia”, “genocide”, “Arab”. But beyond these clips of words and phrases and images, do we really know who the Janjaweed are? Where they come from? What role do they truly play in this conflict and do they play this role? If we want to end the crisis in Darfur, we need to understand where these actors are coming from.
The Janjaweed come largely from a northern Darfur tribe called the Rizeygat. Very little is known about them except they are nomadic camel-herders. They are incredibly isolated and have been excluded, neglected, and manipulated by the Government of Sudan. They have little to no access to education, healthcare, political representation, etc.
As nomadic herders, the Rizeygats travel across Darfur and cross paths frequently with tribes more sedentary farming tribes like the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit. Over history, they have intermarried with these tribes, cooperated with these tribes, and have also competed and clashed many times with these tribes over issues of land. These clashes have intensified recently as the expanding Sahara desert has pushed the herders further into the farmers’ land.
So in 2003, when rebel groups from the Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa tribes attacked a government airbase in Darfur, the government decided to go to the Rizeygat and offered their militiamen salaries, weapons, and support for carrying out their military campaign against the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit. For many Rizeygat, particularly the youth who were facing bleak prospects for education and survival, the salary, security, and support offered by the government’s offer made sense. The government has also worked to highlight and leverage ethnic differences between the tribes, polarizing them greatly in a short time.
However, many Rizeygat have not been militarized and do not understand why the world lumps them into the category of “devil on horseback”. This has created a great amount of resentment among the Rizeygat who only see aid workers helping displaced Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa and not their tribes.
So now that we know where the Janjaweed come from, how do we bring them off the path of destructive and genocidal violence? The Rizeygat community who is not participating in the Janjaweed needs to be incorporated into the peace process and recognized as a significant player. We can encourage a new generation of leadership that stays away from militarization as a livelihood and way of survival. And we can encourage that culture of non-militarized existence by helping this community get access to water, good education, and political representation and accountability.
This is one way we can work to cool the flame of conflict not just in this generation, but in generations to come. It’s time to lay the groundwork for future generations of peace in the shifting sands of Darfur, and to do that we must know where all the key players truly stand.