Darfur: The history behind the bloodshed

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South Sudan, currently in the news because of its secession referendum, is not the only area of Sudan with a troubled history, as David Keys investigates.

Between 2003 and 2008, in a terrible conflict and humanitarian catastrophe, the Darfur region (in the western part of the country), up to 400,000 civilians were killed, another two to three million driven from their homes and 1,000–2,000 villages razed to the ground. Last year the international criminal court in the Hague made it clear they believe that the slaughter may have amounted to genocide. The roots of the catastrophe lie in three major historical developments – one in the early 20th century, one in the 1950s and 1960s and another in the latter part of the century.

Darfur was one of a string of powerful Black African states – including the Kanem-Borno, Songhai and Mali empires – which emerged along the Sahara’s southern fringe in the medieval and early modern periods. At its peak in the late 18th and early 19th century, Darfur was a well organised and successful empire – a Sultanate around seven times the size of England. It was Egypt’s largest single trading partner – and controlled the region’s salt, textile, iron, copper, and slave trades. Its capital was a thriving town called Al Fasher where the Sultan ran his far-flung empire from the comfort of his sumptuous palace.

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