Much of the violence in Sudan, which has created over 1 million refugees, has been attributed to militias known as the Janjaweed. Who are the Janjaweed?
The word, an Arabic colloquialism, means "a man with a gun on a horse." Janjaweed militiamen are primarily members of nomadic "Arab" tribes who've long been at odds with Darfur's settled "African" farmers, who are darker-skinned. (The labels Arab and African are rather misleading, given the complexity of the region's ethnic history. For simplicity's sake, Explainer will stick with these inelegant terms.) Until 2003, the conflicts were mostly over Darfur's scarce water and land resources—desertification has been a serious problem, so grazing areas and wells are at a premium. In fact, the term "Janjaweed" has for years been synonymous with bandit, as these horse- or camel-borne fighters were known to swoop in on non-Arab farms to steal cattle.
The Janjaweed started to become much more aggressive in 2003, after two non-Arab groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms against the Sudanese government, alleging mistreatment by the Arab regime in Khartoum. In response to the uprising, the Janjaweed militias began pillaging towns and villages inhabited by members of the African tribes from which the rebel armies draw their strength—the Zaghawa, Masalit, and Fur tribes. (This conflict is entirely separate from the 22-year-old civil war that has pitted the Muslim government against Christian and animist rebels in the country's southern region. The Janjaweed, who inhabit western Sudan, have nothing to do with that war.)
Both victims and international observers allege that the Janjaweed are no longer the scrappy militias of yore, but rather well-equipped fighting forces that enjoy the overt assistance of the Sudanese government. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2004, a field researcher with Human Rights Watch stated that the Sudanese army was openly recruiting horse-owning Arab men, promising them a gun and a monthly salary of $116 in exchange for joining a Janjaweed cohort. The International Crisis Group says that money that gets paid to the Janjaweed "comes directly from booty captured in raids on villages," giving them an additional incentive to act with extreme brutality.
There are numerous reports from international aid workers maintaining that Janjaweed raids are preceded by aerial bombardments by the Sudanese air force, that Janjaweed commanders are living in government garrison towns, and that Janjaweed militiamen wear combat fatigues identical to those of the regular army. Those who've interviewed refugees from Darfur also allege that Janjaweed commanders are using racism as a rallying point, encouraging their charges to rape the dark-skinned villagers they encounter during their raids.
The Sudanese government has strongly denied offering any support to the Janjaweed.
Bonus Explainer: To read Rep. Frank Wolf's, R-Va., graphic report on the alleged atrocities of the Janjaweed, click here.