Do Not Cry, This Is Our Land

Jebel Marra is an impregnable fortress. It is accessed through steep rocky paths on which donkeys are faster than cars. The first ravines through which overflowing rivers run in autumn give way to green highlands strewn with orange trees, apple trees and lemon trees surrounded by pine forests. The few thatch-roofed villages hanging on the volcanic rock that covers the highest peaks of Sudan, rising to over 3000 metres, can only be reached after several hours of walking.

Far from being a paradise, these mountains and their black earth still bear the scars of the war, of the bombardments by Antonov aircraft, gutted houses, caves carved into the mountainside, used as shelters for civilians fleeing the combat zones. Under siege since 2003, this mountain range located in the heart of Darfur, its backbone, is a pocket of resistance under the control of the Sudan Liberation Army, one of the last armed rebellions of the country that has never been dislodged by the central authority.

It all starts with the land. A region of western Sudan, as vast as France, bordered by Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. “Dar Fur”, i.e. the land or home of the Fur, was from the XVIIth century a prosperous sultanate where different communities coexisted: Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa, Berti, Tunjur and others, as well as several nomadic Arab tribes, mainly Riziegat.

In the early 1980s, successive droughts led the nomadic populations, mainly Arab, to covet the lands of sedentary peasants. Territorial disputes about passage of herds, cattle theft, access to water points, formerly solved under customary law under a « rakuba », a straw yard, festered.

Omar al-Bashir’s regime, after seizing power by force in Khartoum in 1989, began to stir up and exploit these land conflicts, thus promoting the formation of militias from Arab tribes. Faced with increasingly frantic raids by these armed gangs and for fear of being dispossessed of their territories, the Fur, the Zaghawa or the Masalit formed self-defence groups that later gave birth to several rebel groups, among which the Sudan Liberation Army led by Abdelwahid Mohammed Nour. When the rebel groups took control of several towns in Darfur in February 2003, Omar al-Bashir undertook law enforcement and ethnic cleansing operations against the insurgents. Providing ground support to the aerial bombing by the regular army, his Arab back-up troops, militias known as Janjawid (devils on horseback) engaged in war crimes, looting, burning of villages and mass rapings against the local population.

Twenty years after the conflict flared up, Darfur has not regained peace. All the attempts to silence the guns failed to solve the land conflicts, to allow the return of the nearly 3 million displaced to their lands and to do justice to the over 300,000 dead. In April 2019, the fall of Omar al-Bashir, wanted for “genocide” and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, had given the population of Darfur a glimmer of hope.  It seemed that a page was being turned. The UN peacekeepers withdrew. Peace agreements were signed in Juba in October 2020 between the authorities in the capital and several rebel groups.

The region is however still the scene of bloody clashes. In October 2021, the coup by a military close to al-Bashir’s regime did not help. The issue of land, of its distribution and of its coveted riches has not been solved yet. The right of return of the displaced is but a paper promise.

An enduring spirit of resistance yet survives in Jebel Marra. Although the thousands of civilians who have found refuge in these hills where infrastructure is lacking are often caught in the crossfire, sometimes in infighting between dissidents of the movement supposed to protect them, many still continue to join the rebellion. Brothers, mothers, cousins or uncles whose families were massacred in the fighting, kids sometimes, whose weapons, slung across their shoulders, weigh twice as much as them, and who enlist for lack of alternative.

Isolated from the rest of the country, protected by a rock citadel, they condemn the military junta that took the reins of power. They demand equal rights for all Sudanese citizens, regardless of religion, skin colour or ethnicity. The land they defend and that resists the yoke of the central power is a source of pride. “This land, we have it in our souls. It is our colour and our blood”.

Text by: Eliott Brachet

In Sudan, Abdulmonam Eassa and Edouard Elias travelled to the Jebel Marra mountains to meet with the Fur who found refuge there from the Janjawid militias’ abuses in December 2021. 

They shot portraits and landscapes on black and white film with a field camera alongside the civilians and also their armed movement, the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army). 

Two views and approaches have been necessary to complete this project, from its planning to the shooting, where the two photographers combined their sensitivities and eyes. For each picture, the photographers asked the persons to pose in a familiar place so as to capture a moment in their daily life. After each shooting, a second picture was taken with an Instax instant camera (Polaroid) and given to them, whereupon each person photographed in Jebel Marra had the opportunity to handwrite what they wished about their life: their present, their past after years of war, or simply their hopes and their vision for the future.

Most of them wrote in Arabic, others in Fur dialect, and some, who could not write, dictated what they wished to convey. These texts are an integral part of the images, encompassing it. Thus, their words are whole and reproduced in their entirety. This method was designed to give them the opportunity to describe through their own eyes their self-image. Indeed, the photographer’s function is not only to freeze an image, to take it from those posing. The idea was to give a role to those accepting to go in front of the lens. They are then no longer subjects but players in their own photograph.