The Beja are nomadic people group with over two million members living in southern Egypt, northeastern Sudan and northern Eritrea. This area along the Red Sea has been the homeland of the Beja since the days of the pharaohs 4,000 years ago. Their crown of fuzzy hair (tiffa) has characterized the Beja for centuries. Their ferocity as opponents was immortalized a century ago in the verse of Rudyard Kipling as the "Fuzzy-Wuzzy", fearless and worthy enemies of the British, who fought with spears against machine guns. Traditional Beja beliefs mix Islam with fear of jinn, or evil spirits.
The Beja probably have lived in the Red Sea Hills since ancient times. Arab influence was not significant until a millennium or so ago, but it has since led the Beja to adopt Islam and genealogies that link them to Arab ancestors, to arabize their names, and to include many Arabic terms in their language. Although some Arabs figure in the ancestry of the Beja, the group is mostly descended from an indigenous population, and they have not become generally arabized. Their language (Bedawiye) links them to Cushitic-speaking peoples farther south.
The Beja are divided into five major tribes and many smaller subtribes, speaking several languages. On the Northern end in Aswan and South are the Ababda and the Bisharin. Somewhere in the middle and especially in Kassala and Port Sudan are the largest group, the Hadendowa and their smaller neighbors the Amarar. In the extreme south are the Beni Amir.
In the 1990s, most Beja belonged to one of four groups--the Bisharin, the Amarar, the Hadendowa, and the Bani Amir. The largest group was the Hadendowa, but the Bisharin had the most territory, with settled tribes living on the Atbarah River in the far south of the Beja range and nomads living in the north. A good number of the Hadendowa were also settled and engaged in agriculture, particularly in the coastal region near Tawkar, but many remained nomads. The Amarar, living in the central part of the Beja range, seemed to be largely nomads, as were the second largest group, the Bani Amir, who lived along the border with northern Ethiopia. The precise proportion of nomads in the Beja population in the early 1990s was not known, but it was far greater relatively than the nomadic component of the Arab population. The Beja were characterized as conservative, proud, and aloof even toward other Beja and very reticent in relations with strangers. They were long reluctant to accept the authority of central governments.
The 2.2 million Beja of eastern Sudan have been neglected by central governments for decades, leaving them vulnerable to malnutrition, famine and disease. The political wing of the Beja Congress was formed in the 1960s to voice grievances against marginalisation of the region, but, frustrated by a lack of progress, began an armed struggle by the 1990s. The Beja Congress is a sub-group of the insurgent National Democratic Alliance, and is a signatory to the NDA's 1995 Asmara Declaration. The Beja Congress has suffered internal tensions between the radical leadership of Sheikh Omar and that of Sheik Suliman Betay supported by traditional groups interested in dominating eastern Sudan.
The non-Arab Beja tribes complain they are being marginalised and that their region is left to poverty and neglect. Beja frustration reached new heights in the 1990s when Khartoum aggressively promoted its version of Islam in the region, launching army attacks on Beja mosques and religious schools. The Beja Congress effectively controls a swathe of eastern Sudan centred around Garoura and Hamshkoraib.
On 02 May 2000 it was reported that the Beja Congress had sabotaged the export oil pipeline to the port of Bashir. But the stored oil reserves in Bashir was sufficient to prevent interruption of exports. Sudan's stated media claimed that the damage to the 1,000 mile pipeline, inflicted at a point some 345 miles north of the capital city, Khartoum, had been repaired. This incident was the third time since August 1999 that the pipeline had been sabotaged.
The Beja Congress campaigned unsuccessfully to take part in negotiations in Kenya between the government and the SPLM/A, which were expected to lead to a peace agreement in January 2004. They rejected a deal on security arrangements signed by the two sides in October 2003, and shortly afterwards limited skirmishes resumed in the east after a break of several months. Military communiqués were issued in Asmara, capital of Eritrea, by the Beja Congress and the National Revolutionary Movement, claiming that on 14 October 2003 they attacked Tandalai Camp near Kassala, capital of the eastern region of the Sudan bordering Eritrea.
Sudanese authorities charge that Eritrea sponsored an effort to unify the Beja forces with another eastern Sudanese opposition faction calling itself "the Free Lions," made up of the Arab Rashaydah nomadic tribes.
The rebel movement in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), forged an alliance in mid-January 2004 with the eastern rebel group, the Beja Congress. A joint declaration said both parties would "continue their struggle together until they get rid of marginalisation, poverty, ignorance and backwardness." The Beja Congress is struggling for a federal arrangement for the region here in eastern Sudan where the people can govern themselves. And the Darfur people are also struggling for the same objective, that is a federal arrangement within a united Sudan
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