THINGS WILL BREAK LOOSE FROM THE HANDS OF THE WISE MEN DARFUR, SCARCITY, AND CONFLICT
In 1985, with the Darfur region of Sudan deep in drought, a doctoral candidate named Alex de Waal met with a bedridden and nearly blind Arab sheikh named Hilal Abdalla. The elderly nomad and his tribesmen had pitched their camp across an unforgiving wasteland of rock and sand. Broad black tents rose like sails against the rough horizon. Thorn trees broke ground at lonesome intervals, sparse grazing for the tribes camels. The student was long-limbed and gangly, bent forward with the eagerness of youth. The sheikhtall, stately, stooped by ageasked him in. His tent was hung with the paraphernalia of a lifetimes nomadismwater jars, saddles, spears, swords, leather bags, and an old rifle, De Waal recalled years later. He invited me to sit opposite him on a fine Persian rug, summoned his retainer to serve sweet tea on a silver platter, and told me the world was coming to an end.
They dined on goat and rice and ate with their hands. De Waal was studying indigenous reactions to the dryness that gripped the region. The elderly nomad described things he had never seen before. Sand blew over fertile lands. The rare rain washed away alluvial soil. Farmers who had once hosted his tribe and his camels were now blocking their migration; the land could no longer support herder and planter both. Many of the sheikhs tribesmen had lost their stock and scratched at millet farming, relegated to sandy soil between plots of fertile land.
With his stick, the nomad sketched a grid in the sand, a chessboard de Waal understood to be the moral geography of the region. The farmers tended to their crops in the black squares, and the sheikhs people stuck to the white, cutting without conflict like chessboard bishops through the fields. The drought had changed all that. The God-given order was broken, the sheikh said, and he feared the future. The way the world was set up since time immemorial was being disturbed, recalled de Waal, now a program director at the Social Science Research Council. And it was bewildering, depressing, and the consequences were terrible.
Nearly twenty years later, when a new scourge swept across Darfur, de Waal would remember the meeting. Janjaweed fighters in military uniforms, mounted on camels and horses, laid waste to the region. In a campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting the regions blacks, the armed militiamen raped women, burned houses, and tortured and killed men of fighting age. Through whole swaths of Darfur, they left only smoke curling into the sky. At their head was a six-foot-four Arab with an athletic build and a commanding presence. In a conflict the United States would call genocide, he topped the State Departments list of suspected war criminals. De Waal recognized him. His name was Musa Hilal, and he was the sheikhs son.
On the path from worried elder to militant son lie the roots of a conflict that has forced 2 million mostly black Africans from their homes and killed between 200,000 and 450,000 people. The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the distinction between Arab and black African in Darfur is defined more by lifestyle than by any physical difference: Arabs are generally herders, Africans typically farmers. The two groups are not racially distinct. Both are predominantly Muslim. The fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. The aggression of the warlord Musa Hilalforged in a time of desertification, drought, and faminecan be traced to the fears of his father and to how climate change shattered a way of life.
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