No talk of peace

Rage mixes with hope for a new Sudan among the well-equipped rebels in Darfur.

Published September 28, 2004 1:44PM (EDT)

Under a nearly full moon, rebel fighters lept on to the sand from the back of their battle wagon -- a Toyota pickup truck with a machine gun on its cab and an anti-tank missile launcher slung from the wing mirror. The moonlight picked out every rock, bush and dune for miles, but these men had no fear of being seen or heard.

This region of northwestern Darfur is controlled by the Sudan Liberation Army, the rebel movement that prompted the Sudanese government to unleash the Janjaweed militia.

A cease-fire was agreed to in April, but it has been repeatedly violated by both sides; on Sunday, two policemen were shot dead in a rebel attack on a police post in south Darfur. Peace talks in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, collapsed a fortnight ago over a rebel demand that the Janjaweed disarm before they do.

In the SLA's camps, there is no talk of peace. Young men from Darfur's shattered villages have come to find an outlet for their rage. Khalid, who wore a camouflage vest and a long knife at his waist, said: "I am very angry because my father was killed, and one of my brothers, and my uncle. In the refugee camps, I have no work to do. I want to fight." He claimed to be 15 but looked younger. Rebel officers have refused to let him join up because they say he is too young, but he will not go to live with his mother, who is in a refugee camp in Chad. Instead, he helps fetch firewood and carry water for the fighters.

The war in Darfur began last April, when the SLA raided the town of El Fashir, the capital of north Darfur, where fighters captured some military officers and destroyed a number of warplanes. In retaliation, the regime in Khartoum armed the traditional militias of the Arab tribes in Darfur, which have come to be known as the Janjaweed, and gave them air support to attack the villages from which the rebels drew their backing.

A million people have been driven from their homes and nearly 200,000 more have fled across the border into Chad. But the rebels have not been defeated. Instead, they have found fresh recruits as a result of the government's onslaught.

One such recruit is Ismail, 22, a tall man in a gray tunic who joined after the Janjaweed killed his family last July. "At the time I didn't know who the SLA were," he said at a rebel camp in Darfur. "After they killed my father and mother, and my two brothers, I heard that there were people who were fighting against the government. I kept asking for them until I arrived at a [rebel] camp. Now I'm fighting the Janjaweed." He was a cowherd before the war. Now he carries an American-made automatic rifle and an ammunition belt with cotton pouches tied around his chest. Looped beneath the belt are strings of leather pouches holding lucky charms. Each talisman protects against a different menace: scorpions, snakes or bullets.

The rebellion is well equipped. There are Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and Belgian-made automatic rifles. The rebels say all their weapons are looted from the Sudanese military, but they admit buying camouflage uniforms on the black market from Chadian soldiers. This may also be a route for weapons.

The backs of their pickups are loaded with drums of petrol, and there are several boxes that they describe as "medicines," but from their weight appear to be ammunition. Rebel officers call each other on satellite phones, paying with phone cards sent from fundraising offices in Europe and the Gulf. Some funds come from expatriate Darfuri communities, but the war also sustains itself through looting.

The SLA's strategy is to mount hit-and-run raids, striking at government convoys, checkpoints or towns when they have the strength. The aim is to disrupt supply lines, destroy the Sudanese military's equipment and steal weapons, ammunition, cars, food and medicines for their effort. They cannot hold on to towns or villages because they cannot fight the government's air power.

The rebels have attacked mainly military targets, but are also accused of intimidating local civilian leaders who cooperate with the government. In April a tribal leader was abducted and murdered by the SLA after accepting food aid from the government. The rebellion has brought ruin on the people they claim to be fighting for, but the fighters are unrepentant.

One of their officers, Izzedine Yahya Hamid, 25, said the choice was between exile or death at the hands of a government bent on their destruction. "If we fight then our people will become refugees. But if we do not fight, then our people will be killed by the government of [Sudanese president Omar] el-Bashir and the Janjaweed."

Hamid, a former medical student who spoke fluent English, sketched a map of Sudan on a sheet of paper. He marked Darfur on the map, then pointed to other zones of rebellion: the south, where a peace deal has been concluded after 21 years of civil war; the center, where the Nuba people have clashed with the government; and the east, where the Beja people are threatening fresh strife. Then he drew a circle north of Khartoum to show where the Arab tribes who dominate the country originate from. "We don't hope to be independent," he said. "We just hope that Sudan will become a new Sudan, with the Nuba people, and the people in the south and our people all balanced. But not the Janjaweed, because they are criminals."

For some, the rebellion is an adventure. Many young men in Darfur are accustomed to living a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Living in a rebel encampment is not far removed from this. There is laughter and camaraderie here, and a freedom they do not enjoy in the crowded refugee camps.

But among the younger fighters, there are far fewer smiles and little laughter. A generation is being reared in an atmosphere of hatred and violence. The longer the war goes on, the more brutalized its fighters will become.

By Jeevan Vasagar

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