email a friend iconprinter friendly iconLost in the Sahel
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The war in Darfur has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced more than two million. It may be the first genocide of the new century. But it also happens to be one of several similar, if smaller, conflicts boiling across the Sahel. Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal—low-intensity battles smoldered in each nation I visited. Niger was expelling its Mahamid nomads. Tuaregs were ambushing African soldiers in Mali. These clashes were parochial, obscure, yet part of an overarching quarrel: the eternal struggle over grass, water, and soil between pastoralists and settled peoples. Viewed this way, the Sahel represents the oldest killing field in human history. In the Sahel, Cain is still trading blows with Abel.

In Darfur the violence is infamous because Sudan’s government had cynically armed one side—the Beni Husseins, Ereigats, and other Arab herders—against rebellious African farmers such as the Masalits and Furs. These two rivals, both Muslim, had earlier evolved a complex entente. When a farmer speared a nomad’s camel, elders docked part of his harvest. The plaintiff usually claimed the grain in a hungry year. It was an antique food bank system. Murder between tribes was settled with a sliding scale of blood money—a hundred camels for a man, fifty for a woman.

A ten-pound machine with eleven moving parts has erased this legacy.

The flood of cheap Kalashnikov rifles into Darfur has devalued individual responsibility in warfare. It has undercut the tribal authorities. Young men who once sang songs to their favorite cows now serenaded their guns: “The Kalash brings cash / Without a Kalash you’re trash.”

“We used to get along,” Abakar said. “The Arabs would graze their camels on our fallow fields. They were my father’s friends.”

I asked when Arabs and Africans would be brothers again. Abakar looked at me with genuine incredulity. He then tuned his transistor radio to the BBC. The Israelis were bombing Lebanon. “Allah-u akbar!” the old Muslim tribesman said, cheering on the Israel Defense Forces. He raised George Bush’s chubby little arms in triumph.

Darfur—Towé village

On our first night in Darfur the gunmen forced Idriss and Daoud into a pickup truck and drove them off into the moonlight. They tortured them out there, tied to a thorn tree for three days. Me they pummeled without enthusiasm inside an abandoned hut in the burned-out village of Towé. Between sessions, I lay trussed on my belly, breathing hard against a dirt floor that smelled of rancid butter. I squinted out a brilliant doorway at two women.

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