Home | News    Sunday 6 May 2007

A furtive visit to Darfur rebels

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By Bernard-Henri Levy

May 5, 2007 (PARIS) — They come to get me in a windowless Toyota pickup without plates. It is nightfall in Bahay, the last town on the Chad border before Darfur. So as not to embarrass the humanitarian workers who are putting me up, the truck stops 100 yards away, in front of the dusty shack that serves as the police station. The driver, Otman, is very young. Four armed men are sitting in the back of the truck perched on bundles of bread, their long colourless turbans wrapped around their heads. There is a fifth man, their commander, who speaks a few words of English. In the dark he abruptly hands me his Thuraya satellite phone. At the other end of the line is Abdul Wahid al-Nour, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), with whom I have been in contact from Paris. His is one of the two rebel armies that rejected the Abuja peace accords in May 2006.

"Sorry for the delay," he says, barely audible over the sandstorm that has raged since morning. "Our telephones are tapped, so yesterday the corridor we were planning to use for you was cut off by a column of 4,000 Janjaweed. We had to find another way, you understand?" I do, but the Janjaweed, here? The terrible mounted militia of the Islamic regime in Khartoum have come to sow terror in this area just over the border, which I had been told back in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, had been won by the guerrillas. That’s my first piece of news.

Before we can get under way there is a short stop next to a thatched hut where fuel cans are stacked. Some children load them silently into the back of the truck. Then a little farther on, still on the Chad side of the border, another stop to pick up some blankets at a small hut that, like the road itself, is all but hidden by the sand.

Then we’re off into Sudan, into the province of Darfur, barrelling along at top speed, usually with our headlights off, through the desert of rocks, brambles, frost-hardened sand and dead trees that Otman avoids by swerving at the last second. It is cold and bumpy and the photographer Alexis Duclos and I take turns sitting next to the driver, where at least we can see the jolts coming. The men in the back smoke or doze, Kalashnikovs between their knees. From time to time one of them freezes for no apparent reason, looking around warily. Another shoots at an antelope and is yelled at for wasting a bullet. Soon, after the sandstorm has died down and the moon comes out, we can see for the first time the ruins of burned villages which the desert has begun to reclaim. Mere black circles of soot. Piles of branches and thorns tossed on to mass graves, like so many humble mausoleums.

Tonight these will be the only traces of humanity we see in this desolate land, as if, here in northern Darfur, the ethnic cleansing that is the principal issue in this conflict - pitting the "Arab" horsemen against the "Black" tribes of Zagawha, Tunjour and Fur, is in fact on the way to succeeding.

We see no roads or checkpoints, those minimal markers of space that at least tell you where you are. There is only the desert, and phantom armies skirting and brushing against one another. Our unit stops every half hour or so. Otman turns on his Thuraya, extending its antenna and locating the satellite like a diviner finding a well, and has cryptic conversations with his scouts. Depending on what he hears, whether the Janjaweed are present or not, whether or not, in the Jebel Moun zone, there are fighters from the JEM, the rival guerrilla movement, he will drive on, double back, or just stop. The men immediately get out, rolling up in blankets to sleep, and wait for another call telling them the danger has passed.

We drive for 14 hours, covering approximately 400km. We arrive in Um Rai around noon the next day, where we are welcomed by a small, elegant man who wears a blue parka over a pair of army trousers and is surrounded by sages in white robes. Mustafa Adam Ahmadai is the area’s political boss. He goes by "Rocco", his code name from before the war when he was a high-ranking officer in the Sudanese intelligence services.

Um Rai is a liberated area where the survivors of massacres in neighbouring villages have gathered. The scenario is always the same and confirms the stories told to me, along with French politician Francois Zimeray and the French delegation of Urgence- Darfour, when we talked to the refugees in the Goz Beida camps in Chad a few days ago. The Janjaweed come at dawn usually, hurling flaming torches into the huts. They smash the tall clay jars with their clubs, spilling millet and sorghum on to the ground and setting fire to it. They scream ferociously as they ride around the flames. They rip babies from their mothers’ arms and toss them into the bonfires. They rape the women, beat them, disembowel them. They round up the men and execute them with machineguns. When finally everything has burned, when all that is left of the village is crumbling, smoking ruins, they round up the terrified animals and drive them with them.

My witnesses have names. There is Hadja Abdelaziz, 30, who had six children, three of whom perished during the attack on the village of Khortial. And Fatmah Moussa Nour, 28, who lost her husband in the bombing of Birmaza last October. They are ordinary men and women whose stories can be added to those which human rights organisations have collected over the past four years. But their stories have two important differences.

First, the fact that these infernal columns, which Khartoum describes as uncontrollable hordes of bandits, are always under the supervision of officers of the Sudanese army. There were Sudanese in Tawila, Rocco tells me, in February 2004, when 67 were killed, 93 women raped and more than 5,000 people displaced. There were also Sudanese in Hashaba, which is a little higher up, but there were no deaths because a battalion of the SLA was able to evacuate the civilians. "And as for Disa... Let’s go there, to Disa. You will see with your own eyes."

Fifteen kilometres to the east, Disa is another village recently burned down. We go there in three trucks. A survivor, his eyes dilated with fear, wanders among the ruins of his house and tells how the Janjaweed came twice. Once to destroy the millet granaries, burn the huts and mosque, and kill. They came back the second time to demolish the school. "Both times," he says, "it was a captain from Khartoum directing the operation. Let the investigators from the International Court come here if they want, we’ll give them the evidence." So, could it be that the image of the Janjaweed, the much-discussed "horsemen of the Apocalypse", is perhaps just a convenient cliche? And could it be that the fundamentalist, Islamist, racist Sudan lies hidden behind that cliche?

As for the second difference, look more closely at these horsemen and you find that they are rather more "mechanised" than you expected. When they came back to Disa the second time, they were not on horses or camels, but brought a cannon mounted on a troop carrier to shell the school. Or here in Khour-Syal, 8km further west, there is a huge crater that was made by a bomb dropped from an Antonov aircraft last January 23 in utter disregard for the international no-fly rule. Hardly the work of Janjaweed riding camels. Or, over there under the palaver tree, where children are playing in the shell of an olive green truck that an elite company of the SLA took by force halfway to Djebel Marra.

"Look at this truck," says Rocco. "Make sure you get a photo of the make, Giad, and of the Sudanese license plate. This truck came right off the assembly line that President al-Bashir inaugurated near Khartoum seven years ago with, among others, you, the French." So, yet another myth? Is the long but rudimentary war of low intensity led by obscure tribes continuing ageless quarrels also a cliche? Here, in any case, I witness it: the paraphernalia, the big guns, and the smell of a hot war and large-scale crimes against humanity. It’s all there.

Rocco is standing under a canopy in Birmaza, 60km north of Um Rai. He introduces his commanding officers. I meet Mohamed Abdorahman, who is called the Tiger because of his bravery and, I am told, his cat-like speed at establishing contact between the fronts. Nimeiry, the intellectual, wears a turban rolled tightly at the forehead, in the Afghan style. There is the jovial Mohamed Adam Abdulsalam, also known as General Tarada, meaning General Two Cents or Low Wage because he was apparently hopeless in business as a civilian, whereas he has become something of a strategic genius in the war.

After last summer’s massacres in the Korma area, where about 100 villagers were killed, wasn’t it Tarada who took back Hillat Hashab and Dalil with only 30 men? And didn’t he, just a few weeks ago in the same zone, capture four vehicles from a column of SLA (MM) fighters, the rival army of Mini Minawi which accepted the Abuja peace talks and is linked to Khartoum? And isn’t he also the one who conceived the attack on Sudanese forces in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, in February 2003, which became the pretext for the government to unleash its total war? "Don’t be fooled by his teddy bear looks," says Rocco with a smile. "What I am telling you has been documented. He is our best commanding officer. Al- Bashir would give all his gold for that man’s head - or to get him to work for the other side."

We are still in the Birmaza area, in a circle of stones in which Rocco and Tarada’s men are training under an oppressive sun. There are 100 men, some bearded and some clean-shaven, small farmers who have come down from the villages and are being taught to salute, present arms, march. I am struck by how young they are (although I do not, thankfully, see any child soldiers) and by their awkwardness and slightly delayed reactions, like in a poorly timed operetta, when the sergeant shouts, "At ease!" or "Ready! Aim!" I see in them a mix of extreme seriousness (each one I interview will tell me he is here because he has lost a loved one) and spirited good humour (their way of swaggering and elbowing each other when they pose for photographs).

But there is also an ill-assorted, bedraggled, destitute aspect to this barefoot troop, whose vacant looks and lips cracked from thirst become apparent up close. I count only two mortars and three rocket-propelled grenade launchers for 100 men. Some Kalashnikovs, but not enough for everyone. For uniforms, they have a motley collection of parkas and burnouses (hooded capes), jeans and sweatpants, and occasionally, in the best of cases, a tattered camouflage jacket which I think I recognise as part of the Chad Army uniform.

"We have nothing," says the heavyset General Tarada, as though reading my mind. "No one helps us, so we have nothing. Chad? No, President [Idriss] Deby is too afraid of the retaliation the Sudanese would inflict via the infiltrated rebel groups, so he’s very careful. The truth is that all the weapons you see here were taken from the enemy. And as for our vehicles... " He points with a grand gesture toward two Toyotas that which have pulled up so that the officers can use the cigarette lighters to recharge their Thurayas - along with a third from which petrol is being siphoned for the truck that is going back to Chad. "As for our vehicles, you understand, yes? They are all spoils of war."

Then he lowers his voice, as if he is going to tell me an important military secret, "We have so little gas that when we go into battle, the men have to physically push the armoured cars up to where they can engage the enemy." He lowers his voice even further, hesitating, as if he isn’t sure he should be telling me this, "And look at this... " He signals to two of his fighters to come over, extremely impressive with wide, heavy cartridge belts around their waists and shoulders - until I see that easily half the loops on their belts are empty, holding grigris (amulets) or rolled-up verses of the Koran instead of bullets.

I am reminded of the Bosnians and the military embargo during the siege of Sarajevo which, in apparent but iniquitous symmetry, was imposed alike on the over-equipped aggressors and their nearly unarmed victims. I know the situations are not really comparable, and I know full well that these armed peasants - these men roused by an inexpiable fury and screaming in unison, "Long life to Tarada!", this captain who, when I ask him how he treats his prisoners, mutters that he really doesn’t take all that many - are themselves not shining examples of virtue. But a part of me does make the connection. A part of me cannot hold back outrage at the flagrant inequity of these pathetic weapons going up against the bomb crater of Khour-Syal, the barrels filled with gasoline and nails dropped from low-flying Antonovs, the villages reduced to ashes, the boneyards.

I cannot help but ask: if we are incapable of stopping the massacres, if we have neither the will nor the power to punish Sudan’s terrorist regime, if we do not even dare to pressure China, its ally in the Security Council, into accepting the introduction of UN peacekeepers, should we not at least be helping those who are defending these people with their own lives?

Here’s how I look at it. The villages of Disa and Birmaza which live under the protection of the SLA... The market in Beredik where we buy provisions for our return trip and which, with its onions, tomatoes, and biscuits laid out on brightly coloured mats, is almost jaunty... The tiny bazaar in Muzbad where I find soaps made in Libya... The camel market in Anka, where I am assured that the Arab nomads still stop to pay their passage and housing fees, the way they did in the old days... Or even - this is only a detail, but it says a lot - the fact that Rocco actually pays for what he gets in Beredik as opposed to just taking it, like other guerrillas do.

The liberated area of Um Rai is still of course a war zone. And I have met no one there who does not give off the terror, the overwhelming fear, which reveals the imminence of death in war. In fact the presence of the SLA actually seems to be a calming, steadying influence. For someone arriving from Chad, someone remembering the terrible plight of the refugee camps, the displaced persons in Goz Beida or in Djabal - for me, who has seen the humanitarian workers labour so hard to feed and care for these people, whose meagre treasures will surely be looted or trashed in the next attack - the least that can be said is that, yes, the question should be asked: would it not be better to keep these people where they are and, if need be, arm those who resist with them?

On the road back, I will have a last conversation with Commander Nimeiry. It will confirm this feeling. It is 5am. We have again been driving for most of the night. Suddenly, 50km before we hit the border, Otman sees some suspicious lights. He skids to a stop, whipping the truck around, and takes off in the opposite direction until he stops in the dry bed of a wadi. After the men get out and unroll their mats and go to sleep, I ask Nimeiry, "So, what in the best of worlds would be your solution for Darfur?" He replies, "In any case, it would not be secession. We do not want independence, but we do need a formula for equality within a federal Sudan." I ask what kind of government he seeks. "Our programme is very clear. It is democratic, secular, it is based on the principle of citizenship, and it is opposed to Sudanese fundamentalism, which goes against the spirit of Africa."

A programme is only a programme, of course. But as I listen to him I realise that I have seen very few mosques in devastated Darfur, and no women wearing the veil. I think back to that bombed-out school in Disa where they showed me the girls’ classrooms right next to the boys’.

It occurs to me that I am looking at a particularity of this war, and another incentive for mobilisation: perhaps this is about radical Islam versus moderate Islam. This is the regime which in the late 1990s chose to give asylum to Osama bin Laden over a Muslim population resisting Islamism. In the heart of Africa, in the darkness of what will soon - if we do nothing - be the first genocide of the 21st century, is another theatre of the true clash of civilisations, which is, as we know, that of the two Islams.

Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.

(Financial Times)

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