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(HOST) Reports of genocide in Darfur, Sudan, have commentator Peter Gilbert thinking about the terror of being attacked by men on horseback.

(GILBERT) In the Darfur province of Sudan, a large, mostly Arab country just south of Egypt and north of Uganda, systematic ethnic cleansing is aimed at killing all the non-Arab people in the region, which there means black people. Over 200,000 people have already died, an equal number have fled across the border to Chad and 1.6 million people have been displaced from their homes.

The instrument of this genocide and forced migration, besides the Sudanese government itself, has been the janjaweed, mounted Arab militia that terrorize the region, raping and slaughtering people at will. In Arabic, “jaan” means “evil,” and “weed” means horse. The evil horsemen.

When I heard of the janjaweed, I thought first of the terrifying Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings, the terrible Black Riders, Sauron’s nine evil henchmen, draped in black hooded cloaks and mounted on frenzied black horses. They also ride massive flying dragon-like creatures, like black pterodactyls that swoop down from above to wreck terror. When I saw The Lord of the Rings movies, I thought that these fearsome characters were merely imaginary creatures or perhaps projections of some universal Jungian fear. But they are just fictional versions of janaweed – evil horsemen.

Armed men galloping on horseback have terrorized civilians for hundreds, even thousands, of years. That was the way that shock and awe typically manifested themselves to peaceful villagers for eons. That was Genghis Khan’s modus operandi and that of the Cossacks and of General Custer’s 7th Calvary, sweeping down upon Indian villages.

Not surprisingly, we see images of armed horsemen in many places. In the Book of Revelation, for example, death and destruction manifest themselves in the form of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The rider of the first horse carries a bow and rides “out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” The rider on the second horse holds a large sword and has the “power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other.” The rider on the third horse holds a pair of scales, symbolizing famine, and on the fourth, pale horse rides, of course, Death itself.

In our peaceful affluence we continue to ride metaphorical horses – motorcycles, Mustangs, Pintos, Broncos, Rodeos, Wranglers, Trackers, Trailblazers and the like. We don’t ride flying dragons, but we do drive Plymouth Breezes and Siroccos, Firebirds and Tercels – a tercel, or TER-cel, being a male peregrine falcon. But blessedly, those of us in the developed world have mostly forgotten what it’s like for people on foot to be set upon by mounted warriors. And now the janjaweed of Darfur remind us of that timeless terror once again.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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