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The War at Home

Last summer I went to Al Fashir, Darfur, to visit my family in Sudan. It was my third trip home since I came to Penn in 1987, when I began my doctoral studies in folklore and folklife. I spent 11 years without being able to see my family due to the political situation in my home country.

In the past, whenever there was news of casualties in the civil war in southern Sudan, my American friends would ask about my family. I assured them my family was just fine and that the war was “far away” from home. This assurance changed suddenly in April 2003, when an opposition group attacked the army installation in my hometown. I experienced this in real time while speaking to family members over the phone with the sound of bullets and explosions in the background.

My trip to Darfur came days after visits to the region by the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a time when news about Darfur began to dominate reports on Africa. This was also a time of chaos and confusion, not only for the outside world trying to understand the Darfur crisis but also for the people caught in the middle of a struggle between a military insurgency and the Sudanese government.

This war started in February 2003 when a newly formed Darfurian opposition group rose up against what it sees as the region’s lack of economic development, political participation and wealth sharing. The insurgents also objected to the non-neutrality of the government in local conflicts.

The main misconception that I have tried to correct is the depiction of the crisis as an ethnic or racial conflict. This war is government-sponsored violence committed by the national army and ethnically based conscripts from some Arab militias, the Janjaweed. The targets of the violence are non-Arab inhabitants of Darfur, who are being forced to flee their homes. The government has used this strategy for many years to fight an insurgency in southern Sudan without criticism from the international community. It is now doing the same in Darfur, but this time the world is watching.

During my visit, I witnessed the global response to the humanitarian disaster. Al Fashir airport received an average of 18 airplanes a day during July and August. We should not forget the reasons for the international community’s engagement as compared to the response to the Rwanda genocide. Early reports of atrocities by U.N. officials and NGO representatives in Darfur have mobilized governments and organizations to help those in distress. This has also helped people move beyond the portrayal of the conflict as one of Arabs against Africans.

While I was in Al Fashir, there was sporadic fighting in the countryside. Since I have returned to campus, the deserted villages of the displaced were occupied briefly by the opposition forces, which were later expelled by the government army. I still call my family regularly. Amid the entire crisis, they tell me – philosophically –
that they are just fine.

- Ali B. Ali-Dinar

Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Gr’95, obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Khartoum. Since 1994, he has worked as outreach director for Penn’s African Studies Center. For more information on the Darfur situation, visit

Copyright ©2005 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated January 21, 2005