Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict

Suad M. E. Musa shares the story behind writing the 2019 Aidoo-Snyder Award winning book, Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict, Al-Hakkamat Baggara Women of Darfur, published by James Currey, 2018.

Readers please note that Suad M.E. Musa’s article records some harrowing and deeply upsetting events.

There is always a story behind any piece of writing and these stories, inevitably, differ in context, actors, and goals.

Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict is about a group of women called ‘al-Hakkamat’, in Darfur, Sudan. They are influential women with the authority to exercise power in setting the social and political mood and attitudes of their tribespeople. This book was influenced by accusations meted against these women to participate in conflict operations in Darfur and Sudan, motivated by ethnic consciousness and nationalism that pushed them to be complicit in the atrocities committed against women and girls. This book attempts to identify these women and their position within the socio-political context of their own communities and the political frameworks of ruling and governing elites in Sudan and how they manage diversity and armed conflict within the country. It presents another dimension of women’s experiences that contradict the prevailing notion and the narratives of women as peacemakers or victims of war. In this article, I tell the story that drove me to write this book.

Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict
Suad M.E. Musa, 2018

Women Visitors from the Camps

It was midday at the end of February 2006, when we heard a knock on the door of my family’s house in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State, and a group of seven women approached the day-canopy. I walked outside to greet them, and when they saw me, they all cheered together and hugged me with great joy, whilst tears streamed from their eyes. Drowned in sympathy, I found myself also bursting into tears. This happens every time I visit my extended family, usually after three or more years of absence. The women sat down on the chairs, staring at the floor in sadness, then one of them raised her head and asked me if I knew them. I peeked at the women for a moment and reckoned that they must be displaced women who live in Abshok and Zamzam camps in El-Fasher, and although their voices seemed familiar to me, I could not tell where exactly I had met them.

They saved me from my confusion by clarifying that they were from the Tawila area, a town located in the southwestern side of El-Fasher, halfway between El-Fasher and Kabkabiya town. As they told me this, I was able to recall some old events but only the names of three of them. I was embarrassed and I apologized blaming my long absence from the villages to have weakened my memory. Yet, their bodies’ features that I knew well from ten years ago had completely changed – their healthy bodies had become meagre, they looked exhausted and tired, their voices sounded as if they suffered from a sore throat and their cheerful faces had been replaced by distressful and anguished expressions. I noticed all this from a glance, and I wept. I realized that they are the blessed sisters I used to meet in Tawila during my work with Oxfam in the 1990s. Every time they saw me and my colleagues sitting at the Station Café during our crossing to the villages of Jebel Si and Kabkabiya town, they would insist on hosting us in their own homes, where they would generously serve us the best of their food and drink.

While serving the tea they did not want to bother me by explaining what they had been through and instead preferred to recall those wonderful joyous days that brought us together in Tawila and the surrounding villages. Yet, they promised that Fatima, the teacher, would stop by later to explain to me the details of their grievous journey to the camps where they have settled and become overwhelmed by misery, misfortune, and uncertainty for the future of their kids. Two days later, Fatima came in to narrate the tragic moments that they had encountered and the tale of how they had ended up in camps, a forced destination they never envisaged, and to become the witnesses and victims of unprecedented destruction of the entire Darfur villages and communities in rural areas.

Sudan with Darfur borders
Map 1.1 p. 11

The Attack on the town of Tawila

It was early morning on Friday, February 27, 2004 in the town of Tawila. The air was saturated with the refreshing fragrance of flowers mixed with scents of aromatic oils that is emitted from plants deep in the woods, and travel by the winds through the surrounding mountains of Jebel Si and the Baray Valley. On the outskirts of Tawila town, at the Café Station, some lights were glistening, and the smell of coffee stirred in the air. Tawila is a beautiful town southeast of El-Fasher, and it is recognized by its fertile soil and productive lands. During autumn, the beautiful scene of its farms usually captivates the travellers and entertains them. It serves as an important production site of staple food supply (millet) for El-Fasher community, and as a considerable strategic reservoir of food security in the North Darfur region.

Less than two hundred meters away from the Café, the residential area was deluged in deep tranquillity and serenity apart from dogs barking, donkeys braying, the neighing of horses, and the crowing of roosters. Inside the houses, the adults had just begun to wake up, especially women who would usually begin their domestic chores and rituals in the early morning, and children were still in bed as it was a non-school day. Suddenly, a cloud of thick dust was seen and an annoying fanfare of heavy horses’ hooves on the ground mixed with people shouting was heard coming from the western mountainous side that leads to the town of Kabkabiya. The people who were already awake tried to eavesdrop with great anxiety and vigilance to find out what was happening outside. It was not long until heavy gunfire was heard at the Café, followed by the screaming of people, then thick smoke was seen rising. The smoke soon covered the town skyline and the loud voices forced everyone to wake up.

Some of the little boys came quickly, panting and said that masked soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs on horsebacks were coming, and others in army uniform attacked the Café and killed everyone inside, and they set fire to it. They were hunting men and boys who tried to escape and killed them. The disastrous news spread instantly, and the adults ordered the children to hide under beds and to stay calm and silent. Women, closed their doors and waited inside listening and trembling with fear. About forty minutes later, Fatima heard hooves of horses approaching her house. With tensed muscles and an accelerated heartbeat, she came out hesitantly to explore what was happening. Three masked horse-riders entered the house, and when they saw her in the middle of the house yard, they ordered her to stay silent and to hand them any gold and money she owned, threatening her that they know her well and advised her not to fool them. They explained, though arrogantly, that her money would be a ransom for the horse riders not to rape the girls hiding in her house and the others in the village.

Immediately, Fatima approached a line of flowerpots and removed one, in a hole under it she took out a box made of copper, opened it and pulled out a carefully folded bundle. She handed it to the men and said that this was all her money and precious belongings. They took it and advised her to take the children and alert the others to leave the village immediately, warning her that any delay from them would subject them to another more aggressive and ruthless group of men who were on their way to the area.

The people started shouting at each other to leave quickly and whilst leaving the village hastily heading towards El-Fasher on the north-eastern side, they were chased by horse riders, who whipped the people causing many elderly to fall to the ground unable to bear the pain, some broke their bones whilst others were crushed under the horses’ hooves.

At the time of the attack, the staff and students of the girls’ high school located on the outskirts of the southern side of the village, did not realize what was going on inside the village. They thought the smoke was just an ordinary fire, so they did not worry until several groups raided the school, raped more than four hundred of them and abducted and held more than a hundred in sexual slavery. No news has been heard of the girls ever since, nor has any trace of them been found.

A woman preparing land for the farming season, 1995
p. 27

My Baby Turned into a Pillow!

On the way to El-Fasher, some of the fleeing women experienced abortions and halfway to Tawila and El-Fasher, a young woman whose labour started hours before the attack, gave birth to a child under the poor shade of a shrub locally called Mukhait with the help of her neighbour Mrs Fatima. Fatima cut her tobe (Sudanese dress like Indian saree) in two, she gave one half to the mother who was lying on the sandy ground to cover her body and used the other half to cover the baby. Fatima left the mother and took the baby with her. She headed towards El-Fasher to join her people. It took almost ten hours to send medical assistance to the mother who was found almost dying.

Upon arriving in El-Fasher, the displaced people were initially hosted in the Plant Nursery of the Ministry of Agriculture. The exhausted women started to unload the luggage from their heads and unwind the children off their backs. Suddenly, a horrific cry was heard and a young woman screamed, “My baby turned into a pillow!”  Her companions immediately realized that as she was in a hurry to escape from the Janjawid, instead of her taking her six-month-old baby, she took the pillow that women customarily put next to their babies to protect them from falling off the bed. She collapsed and passed away two days later. The subsequent events endured, with no hope that the child would survive, because about an hour after the people fled, the entire town was burned to ashes with an aerial bombardment by Russian-made Antonov using incendiary bombs, under the command of government army officers. They destroyed the houses, crops, animals, forests, water points, to say the least. The terrified children and sick and elderly who could not leave their homes, all died in the blasts and the flames. The land invasion and airstrike on Tawila marked the launch of massive displacements of women and children in north Darfur and the emergence of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Similar systemic invasions, killings, rape and gender-based violence have been exercised all over other rural areas of Darfur. Now, there have been more than two hundred camps of IDPs in Darfur, and each one is inhabited by between two thousand to more than two hundred thousand displaced persons, most of them are women and childre

Arab Women Complicit in Rape and Gender-Based Violence (GBV)

The humanitarian crises in Darfur reached such unprecedented levels that it obliged human rights organizations and pacifists’ activists to step in to investigate and to call for humanitarian aid organizations to provide aid. Based on the testimony of more than 100 women who have taken refuge in camps in neighbouring Chad,  Amnesty International indicates in a report published on 18 July 2004,  that  African women were raped by Janjawid militias under the eyes and disdain of Arab women who were singing in joy. Furthermore, during an attack on Disa village in west Darfur, in June 2004, Arab women accompanied the attackers and were singing in praise of the government, and they ridiculed the black villagers. The report states that “Hakama appear to have directly harassed the women [who were] assaulted, and verbally attacked them,” and insulted them racially, by saying: “You are gorillas, you are black, and you are badly dressed.” Human Rights Watch provides that the songs of the al-Hakkamat or “Janjawid women”, as displaced people call them, incited racial hatred against African civilians and encouraged the militias to remorselessly commit the atrocities. These women also played the role of liaison during the attacks and participated in the looting.

Many female victims of sexual and physical violence have confirmed the presence of al-Hakkamat when the Janjawid perpetrated rape on women and girls. Large numbers of women and girls were kidnapped by the Janjawid to be used as sex slaves, and in some cases, they broke the females’ limbs to prevent them from escaping. Rape, as a socially constructed experience, has been politically instituted and legitimized by the Inghaz Islamist regime of Sudan as a weapon of war to dehumanize the female community and to stir fear in women who are accused of supporting the rebel groups, and force them to flee their homes. But also to humiliate and subjugate the rebel groups and exterminate entire rural communities in Darfur. This falls alongside other dimensions of the political economy of rape that stigmatizes and morally destroys communities. As such, following the Tawila incident, in subsequent attacks on the villages of Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa communities, rape incidents recurred and mass rape became widespread and intrinsic to systematic attacks on civilian populations in rural areas where thousands of females of all ages have become targets of sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminately, by both the Janjawid militias and army forces. The representation of al-Hakkamat in this brutal act against women inevitably identifies them as partners to the perpetrators.

Eventually, rape has been counted among the crimes committed against humanity in Darfur which led to the indictment of president al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009, of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, it has not been stopped, rather it has become a daily practice by the government’s formal army and informal militias. In October 30, 2014 and November 2014, more than four hundred women and girls were mass-raped in over 36 hours in the town of Tabit, south El-Fasher, by Sudanese army forces before the eyes of their loved ones.  

Six Baggari Hakkamat performing at a peace festival, 23 December 2014
p. 158

Research and the Book: ‘Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict.’

The representation of al-Hakkamat women in this terrible scene of the conflict in Darfur, as designated in the reports of human rights institutions, rang a bell in my memory and forced me to try to retrieve what I knew about them. The claim that al-Hakkamat women may come to the battlefields to incite tribesmen to remain put, and thereafter they praise the heroes and mock the cowards, that is, making and breaking reputations, is fairly known in Darfur. Besides, I fully comprehend that in war times, women get killed and they tend to fall victim to gender-based violence. However, what I just heard and learnt appeared alien to my resources, something anomalous that I never heard of happening in Darfur. The testimonies that indicate the involvement of al-Hakkamat in inciting and enthusing militias to commit violence and inhumane atrocities on women and girls and enjoy the state of their suffering without sympathy or remorse, is indeed alarming and worth further investigation and analysis!

I felt sad about these events, and worried, too, to see vulnerable women and girls being victimized (tortured, abducted and held in sexual slavery, etc) on one hand, and on the other, another group of women promoting the victimization of women. However, I avoided judging against al-Hakkamat by the narratives presented, because the term “Janjawid women”, was also mentioned, which suggests that these women may not be ‘al-Hakkamat’ per se!  Therefore, I decided to conduct an initial information gathering to be followed by a kind of ethnographic research that would allow me to meet al-Hakkamat themselves and members of their communities and the surrounding communities, including native administrative leaders and government personnel and officials. The purpose of this diversity of informants was to produce with exquisite sensitivity, rigorous, original, authentic and unbiased knowledge about all aspects of al-Hakkamat women and the nature of gender power relationships in their communities.

To pursue this goal, I started collecting data in Darfur in 2006, especially in South Darfur, a region densely populated by Baggara affiliates. I monitored the situation for almost ten years (2006 – 2016) to reach a level of data saturation and not to miss important parts, as well as to produce a grounded convincing conclusion. During this decade, especially at the start, the security situation in Darfur was precarious, the Inghaz regime was sensitive to investigations, and security personnel were impeding and harassing investigators, especially women.

I formulated research questions around who, what, how, where and why? But I also extracted a host of other questions during these interviews and conversations. I was surprised and excited about the findings and the results of the research that led to the production of my book, “Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict in Sudan. Al-Hakkamat Baggara Women of Darfur,” which won the Aidoo-Snyder Prize for 2019. Thanks to James Currey, to the Aidoo-Snyder Committee, 2019, and the ASA Women Caucus, to the readers and the reviewers.


This guest post was written by Suad M.E. Musa (PhD), a Freelance Consultant on gender and women’s issues. She worked with the government of Sudan and with CSOs and INGOs in the Horn of Africa and Britain. She also worked as Assistant Professor of Sociology at Qatar University.

Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict
by Suad M.E. Musa
9781847011756, Hardback, £39 or $52

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