July 21, 2008
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recently published From Ethiopia to Chechnya: Reflections on Humanitarian Action, 1988-1999, a collection of essays by François Jean (1956-1999) translated by Richard Swanson.
Jean contributed enormously in the field and at headquarters to the evolution and direction of MSF for nearly two decades. Born in Sainte Ménehould, France, he received a doctorate in sociology from the Institute for Political Studies, or Sciences Po, in Paris in 1979, as well as a diploma from the National Institute for Eastern Languages in 1980. After joining MSF in 1982 to establish medical and surgical projects in war-torn Lebanon, he went on to oversee emergency medical interventions in a variety of countries, including Chad, Pakistan, Sudan, and Chechnya.
Throughout his time with MSF, Jean wrote prolifically about the difficulties and challenges faced by humanitarian aid workers in a shifting political landscape. He helped create and edit the series, Populations in Danger, a collection of essays that wrestled with defining the scope and limits of humanitarian action, and contributed to many books, such as Ethiopia, A Useful Famine.
Over the course of this year, excerpts of Jean’s collected works are appearing in Alert. The book is for sale on our website. This second excerpt is a portion of “The Sudanese Conflict,” which was originally published as an interview in Catholica, a French journal, in February 1993. His description here of Sudan’s violent history sheds some light on the region’s current, deeply rooted problems.
Catholica: For brief periods, Somalia and Bosnia made the ratings jump. Not so with Sudan. Is there nothing special at all going on there?
François Jean: Since 1983 the country has been devastated, once again, by war. Sudan has actually been through a series of wars, each rooted in the deep ethnic, religious, and historical cleavage between the Arab-Muslim north and the black-African south, which is mainly Christian and animist. The south has always been in a sense disadvantaged economically—not to mention being robbed, in a sense, by people in the north with no desire to share the nation’s resources.
The first war broke out even before the country’s independence in 1955 and lasted until 1972, the year the Addis Ababa accords were signed. Then there was a period of respite, but this was relatively brief. Fighting set in again as early as 1983; just recently it has reached such a level of intensity that it is now reasonable to speculate if it is not tantamount to genocide. The number of victims is estimated at about 10 percent of the south’s population—or roughly six hundred thousand people out of six million.
There have been three overall phases in this exceptionally bitter war. In the first, the conflict was “normal,” although it did bring about major population displacements. The second, so-called “democratic,” phase coincided with the coming to power of Sadek al-Mahdi. The new regime formulated a strategy based on exploiting ethnic antagonisms, and their first step was to arm tribal militias. There has always been friction between the shepherds of the north and those of the south, taking the form of raids and cattle theft. The regime deliberately stoked these antagonisms, arming a group of Islamized nomads known as the Baggara to do battle with those in the south who allegedly—and this is not entirely untrue—provide the base of support for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) created in 1983 by John Garang, then an officer in the Sudanese Army. This was a period of large-scale massacres, of which little was really known because they occurred in a remote, hard to reach region. Also, it must be added, there was a very serious famine following the 1988 drought that, unlike the famine in Ethiopia, has never been discussed.
A new phase began in 1989 when, to everyone’s surprise, the National Islamic Front came to power. The Egyptians, in any case, greeted the change with clear satisfaction, believing the new regime would be ready to negotiate an end to the conflict. But the reality was entirely different—it turned out to be no more than an Islamist takeover of power led by Hassan al-Turabi. Instead of being abandoned, the previous regime’s use of tribal militias instead became more widespread.
At this time, a policy of mass deportation was implemented, as well, with the aim of transforming the nation’s ethnic and religious balance. Over a million and a half people fleeing war in the south gravitated to the outskirts of Khartoum, seeking a measure of security and some means of subsistence. Under the pretext of urban planning and environmental conservation, the government targeted shantytowns, clearing them with bulldozers. The now-homeless inhabitants were forcibly transferred to the desert and left to the mercies of Islamist organizations, the only groups authorized to work in the new camps.
—Interview by Stéphen de Petiville
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)