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The Tragedy of Darfur
Fighting in Sudan has killed at least 200,000. And now the man who was the best hope for peace has unleashed a new wave of violence
There is generally only one reason anyone goes into a refugee camp to conduct interviews. At Farchana, a United Nations facility overflowing with more than 17,000 villagers from Sudan, I imagine that reason hangs over me as clearly as if I were wearing a sign around my neck that read TELL ME ABOUT THE WORST POSSIBLE MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE.
Marion Mohammed Abdel Kharim sits next to me in an open courtyard at the camp. She has three distinct tribal scars under her left eye. When she speaks, she gestures with her hands, pulling at her stomach in grief and despair. Around us are row after row of aging brown tents ringed by crude fences made of straw and wood. The fences resemble the one that encircled Kharim's home, but the camp is not home. Behind some of the fences, just steps away from the tents, are piles of manure left by the cows, donkeys and camels that refugees managed to bring with them when they fled the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan, one of the poorest and most desolate corners of the world. Like Kharim, they were driven here by the janjaweed, a brutal militia armed and funded by Sudan's government. Backed by helicopters and Antonov planes loaded with shrapnel-filled bombs, the janjaweed have swept through hundreds of villages in Darfur on horseback and camel, looting, burning, raping and killing at will. In the past three years, the war has claimed more than 200,000 lives and left 2.5 million homeless, creating what the United Nations has called "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."
Before the janjaweed destroyed Kharim's village, she and her husband were farmers. Their five children went to school and helped their father in the fields. Located just sixty miles from Farchana, the village was home to several hundred people who lived in thatch-roofed huts of mud and rocks. In the evenings, after the work was done, people would gather to drink tea and listen to music.
When the janjaweed came, Kharim and her family set off running. "You just ran away with your clothes," she says. "You don't know how many people died." As she recalls the attack, her habit of using her hands to act out her words grows more dramatic. Describing how she watched the janjaweed toss children into a fire, she reaches out and briefly touches the arm of a little boy who is sitting next to me. She touches him, and then flings her empty hand toward the other side of the courtyard. For those few seconds, it is easy to picture just how easily that child, whose hands at that moment are buried in one of my boots, could be tossed like a doll into the air.
Kharim and her family walked for three days. In the afternoon they would sleep in the canyons because they didn't have enough food or water to carry them through the scorching heat of the day. Like hundreds of thousands of other refugees, they made their way here, across the western border of Darfur into neighboring Chad, where the U.N. has set up twelve camps to house hundreds of thousands of refugees. Many have lived here for as long as two years, in rapidly deteriorating conditions. Children suffer from malnutrition and dehydration. Tents leak during the violent rainy season, ruining blankets and mattresses. While collecting firewood, women in the camps have been raped by armed militias and local villagers, who see the refugees as competition for the desert's dwindling supply of fuel.
As Kharim spoke, others in the courtyard nodded their heads or clicked their tongues against the roofs of their mouths. They had all lived through the same thing. The following morning at Bredjing, the largest camp in Chad, I listen as Abdoulaye Yacoub Annour, an old man dressed in a tattered white robe, describes how his village was destroyed in a three-day onslaught. "The entire village was burning," he says.
I ask Annour if he lost any family members during the attack. "I lost eight of my family," he says. I ask who they were. His eyes, slightly bloodshot and surrounded by a web of lines that disappear into his gray and black mustache and goatee, begin to well up. Supporting himself with a walking stick, he stretches out his hand and prepares the sand at his feet with the tips of three fingers, running them back and forth along the surface until it is smooth and ready to be written upon. With one hand still on his walking stick, he draws four lines on the ground.
"Four children," he says. One line for each child lost.
He moves his hand over a few inches more. He waits a few seconds and then draws two more lines, each roughly the length of a finger.
He slides over a few inches and sweeps away a little more sand, as if deliberately trying not to crowd the dead, before drawing the last two lines.
Of all the world's ongoing wars, none has caused as much suffering or upheaval as the fighting in Darfur. Despite the hollow promises of "never again" following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Darfur has raged virtually unabated, drawing neighboring countries into an endlessly renewed cycle of violence - one that has the potential to create a transnational war equal to the one that killed millions in central Africa over the past decade.
But while the world's attention has turned to terrorism and the conflict in the Middle East, the violence in Darfur has again erupted, this time virtually unnoticed, into a dark new phase. The rebels, who once rose up in unison for the same ideals of equal rights and security, have now turned on each other, introducing a wave of violence as ruthless as any that preceded it.
Ironically, tragically, the newest round of fighting is built upon a peace treaty that until a few months ago seemed to promise an end to the war. On May 5th, the leader of the largest faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army, Minni Arkou Minnawi, signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in Abuja, Nigeria. Overnight, Minnawi was transformed from an elusive rebel leader into an international statesman who enjoys the backing of the U.S. government.
If anyone embodies the conflicting nature of the war in Darfur, it's Minnawi. A poor village boy turned revolutionary, he is emblematic of any of the hundreds of men who have tried to lead a crumbling army into power in Africa, using violence and intimidation to simultaneously free and destroy their countries. Born in 1969, Minnawi taught grade school until 2001, when he became one of eighteen rebels in the newly formed Darfur Liberation Army, the precursor to the SLA. For two decades the Sudanese government had failed to provide even the most basic assistance to Darfur's black African tribes and had stood by passively as thousands were slaughtered at the hands of Arab militias. In 2003, Minnawi and the SLA issued a manifesto calling for a "united democratic Sudan," one that would grant equal rights and protection to all of its citizens, regardless of race.
The rebellion grew quickly, but by 2005, as rumors swirled that Minnawi was planning to kill the group's first president, Abdelwahid al-Nur, the SLA had split into two factions. One faction remained loyal to Minnawi, who is from the Zaghawa tribe, the other to al-Nur, who is from the larger Fur tribe. That split left Minnawi with more territory and soldiers than any other rebel leader, while at the same time dividing Darfur along ethnic lines, setting the stage for an inter-rebel war.
The peace agreement was supposed to bring calm to Darfur, but instead it has brought even more violence. Minnawi was the only rebel leader to sign the treaty, a move that further split the rebellion into warring factions. "The first rule of thumb in almost every profession is 'do no harm,' " says John Prendergast, a senior analyst who studies Africa for the International Crisis Group. "I think the mediators of the peace agreement potentially made things worse by securing a deal with only one rebel faction and leaving the other two outside the tent." Calling him a traitor, Minnawi's former allies began attacking his forces. In response, the SLA has killed and tortured hundreds of people in Northern Darfur believed to be sympathetic to the other rebels. According to Amnesty International, Minnawi's forces went on a four-day rampage in July, raping thirty-nine women and killing seventy-two people in the village of Korma. Even those in Darfur who once supported Minnawi now refer to his SLA as "janjaweed 2."
Some of the rebels have taken to forcibly recruiting refugees from the camps in Chad and pressing them into battle - with the assistance of the Chadian government. In March, one faction of the SLA kidnapped 4,700 boys from Bredjing and Treguine and herded them into trucks with whips and clubs. Suleyman Abdeulaye, who lives in Bredjing, had left the camp to walk to the nearby market when a group of rebels ordered him to get in their truck.
"They said, 'If you don't get in the truck we will beat you,' " Abdeulaye told me. "They had guns and knives. Twenty-seven people were already in the truck." After staying overnight at a Chadian military base, Abdeulaye says, the rebels drove the boys to the Darfur border. There, for the next twelve days, they were forced to march for hours at a time in the blazing heat. "We are going to fight against the janjaweed," the rebels told them. "We are going to kill them, take their guns and then bring those guns for you. Then we will go back together to fight them."
Abdeulaye managed to escape and return to Bredjing, but he remains terrified. "We don't feel safe here," he says. "But I can't go anywhere else. All I want is a moment of peace without fighting."
I had come to Chad on my way to Darfur, where I hoped to meet Minnawi face to face. For years, his forces have been the only thing separating tens of thousands of Darfurians from the janjaweed. Until the peace treaty, most photographs of him showed him behind the wheel of a jeep, surrounded on all sides by armed men with their heads and faces wrapped in cloth. Now, photos tend to show him dressed in a suit, shaking hands with Sudanese officials or President Bush. Minnawi finds himself trapped between the good intentions and unfulfilled promises of the West, and the unrelenting violence of the Sudanese military and his former allies who feel betrayed by his move toward peace. He helped create the violence and suffering in Darfur, and, in the end, he may be the only one able to end it.
One night, outside one of the refugee camps, I dial the number of a satellite phone given to me by one of Minnawi's supporters. The rebel leader answers. He is exceedingly, almost excessively polite, while at the same time evasive and paranoid. There is a strong wind blowing, and I picture him standing in the wind-swept desert, his phone pointed eastward into the sky.
I ask Minnawi if he will be returning to Chad. He accuses its government, which until recently was one of the SLA's biggest supporters, of sending troops into Darfur to attack his forces.
"No," Minnawi says. "I will not be going back to Chad anytime soon."
The conversation is brief. "I am in Northern Darfur," he finally tells me. "If you come to Darfur, I think we will meet."
There is no easy way to get into Darfur. Since the beginning of the war, the Sudanese government has sharply restricted access to journalists, often making them wait weeks or months to travel to the region. As a result, Darfur has become one of the most underreported wars in the world. By the time I arrive in late June, only a handful of reporters are still in the region.
To enter Darfur, I have to cross the border illegally from Chad with the assistance of Bakhite Dabo Hashime. Hashime was once the umda, or mayor, of Furawiya, the village where Minnawi was born. He is now a refugee, along with 25,000 others, at the sprawling Oure Cassoni camp just across the border in Chad. Within an hour of crossing into Darfur in the back of the pickup truck that Hashime has arranged for us, the flat, sandy landscape of the Sahel Desert gives way to a range of red hills rising in the distance. The first rains of the season have already fallen, and all around, a golden shade of grass is breaking through the earth. The land seems to contain a bit of everything: barren desert and grassy plains and jagged mountains. Every refugee I spoke to in Chad had been desperate to return to Darfur, even though their villages were destroyed and their homes were gone and their mothers and sons and grandchildren had been raped and murdered, and now I understand why. Darfur is beautiful.
Hashime asks me if I want to see some of the burned villages on the way to Furawiya. We had passed several abandoned ones the previous evening, but all of them had been left intact, and as Hashime clearly knew, an empty village passed at night reveals nothing. We turn off the sandy road and head toward a red, rocky hill in an otherwise open plain. As we approach the hill, I see a series of nearly perfect circles standing roughly waist high. It is only when the pickup truck pulls closer that I realize what is missing: the pointed, thatched roofs of straw and wood, and the surrounding fences made from long, thin wooden poles, that had once made each of these emptied-out circles home.
For all that I have read and heard about Darfur, nothing has prepared me for the silence that comes with my first few tentative steps into the village of Hangala. The vague, general emptiness that hangs over Darfur is suddenly distilled into these hollowed-out homes, outside of which there would once have been small fires burning as the 500 people who lived here began their day with a cup of tea heaped with sugar.
Hashime and I enter one burned-out house after another, rummaging like archaeologists through the remains of broken clay pots, stopping to kick away the sand and thick layer of ash covering the floor of each home. I begin to fill my notebook with descriptions of pots and pans. I begin to count the number of burned shoes I see lying on the ground, because there is something about shoes lying scattered on the earth that is suggestive of flight and panic, of people running desperately with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Hashime walks a few feet ahead of me, surveying the remains of each house. He picks up a blue teapot, burned along the edges, and pours out the sand. He picks up a red clay jar and holds it up in the air. Each time he finds something, he says the same thing, as if my eyes alone are not enough to confirm what is already obvious. "You see," he says in his broken English. "It is burned."
This is the phrase he turns to the most, straining and twisting it in different ways to make the same insistent point over and over.
"Everything is burned."
"They burned it."
"It is all burned."
We're each trying to do the same thing, me with my useless shoe counting and Hashime with his random objects and insistent repetition.
I ask Hashime to point out details that could help me imagine what life was like here before the Sudanese army and its militia set it ablaze.
"Ahamad Abrahime Tigel used to live here," he tells me.
"This used to be a sugar store," he says, picking up a large black block of burned sugar and holding it up again to the light.
In another house, Hashime, along with our driver, rummage through a pile of ash. They find half of a tiny jawbone, a few pointed teeth still perfectly intact. "A pet cat," Hashime says, as he gently places the bones in my hands.
The devastation in hangala is emblematic of the janjaweed and the Sudanese military. When they attacked villages throughout Darfur, they did so with the intention of not only emptying them but annihilating them. The government had employed similar tactics in its previous civil war in the south, and it had learned its lesson. It wasn't just enough to destroy the rebels - the very idea of rebellion had to die with them.
Nowhere did the janjaweed and government seem more intent on destruction than in Minnawi's village of Furawiya. When the Sudanese army and its janjaweed attacked in 2004, they did more than just bomb and burn; they sat and pillaged for days, killing dozens, feasting on the remains of the animals they had captured, looting houses and stores and burning nearly everything that stood in their way. They destroyed vital wells and stuffed them with corpses so they could never be used again. Several bombs left craters at least nine feet in diameter; one of the bombs still sat on the edge of the town as a sort of tourist attraction for journalists.
At the border post that guards the entrance to Furawiya hangs a chalkboard sign. SLA it reads, and beneath that, in Arabic, an inscription that translates loosely into "Don't mess with us." This is the "liberated territory of Northern Darfur," and Furawiya, as one rebel soldier tells me later that evening, "was the birthplace of the revolution." It was in this part of Darfur in 2001 that Minnawi helped found the rebel army that would later become the SLA. With the exception of the soldiers, there are almost no signs of life, even though the village was reclaimed by the SLA almost immediately after it was destroyed. Furawiya, like Hangala, like hundreds of other villages across Darfur, has been laid to waste, and the guards that now stand outside it seem to be here to protect not the village itself but its memory.
As I walk into the village, I wonder what Minnawi would think of his home now. Would it inspire equal parts of guilt and rage? Or would the wholesale destruction of the village you had been born and raised in leave you feeling that human life is expendable, that a little more death, in the end, doesn't matter much? By this time, the scorching heat of the day has begun to take its toll on me, but Hashime walks on, determined to show me every burned building and house in Furawiya. He takes me to the remains of the school. "We built this school," he tells me, pointing to the rubble. "Minni went to school here."
Later, Hashime walks me over to what had once been the town's market district. Scattered on the ground are a dozen safes that have turned dark brown with rust, their doors either shot or hacked open with an ax. Of the ten stores that once lined one road, none are still standing. A few stray sheets of tin stand upright near a toppled tree, burned entirely black along one side. Hashime walks over to the fallen wall of tin, most of it now buried in sand, and declares proudly, "This is my store."
For the most part, the janjaweed are gone from Northern Darfur, but they have not vanished. They have simply moved across the border into Chad, employing the same deadly techniques they used in Darfur. A few days after arriving in Furawiya, I head for Adre, a Chadian village less than two miles from Darfur, to visit a hospital run by a small team from Doctors Without Borders. The war has spilled across the border, unleashing a wave of lawlessness where anyone with a gun and a military uniform can kill and steal with impunity. The hospital in Adre is the only surgical hospital within a hundred miles; everyone injured along the border, whether they are rebels or janjaweed victims, ends up here if they're lucky.
At the hospital, I speak with Mohammed Omar Adam, a young boy who claims to be twenty-five but who looks no older than sixteen, his small legs curled beneath him as he sits upright to talk to me. He has a large bandage on his chin and another on the left side of his neck, just beneath his ear. He is one of six patients in the room, each bed roughly a foot away from the next, leaving little space for the visiting family members huddled around the beds. A week earlier, Adam was herding his cattle and those of eight other villagers in eastern Chad when a group of men in military fatigues attacked him and stole his cattle. When I ask him who was responsible, his older brother and gray-haired father standing around him declare casually, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "It was the janjaweed."
When I ask how they know it was the janjaweed, Adam replies, without any irony, "Because of their clothes. They were wearing military uniforms." Before he could ask them who they were or what they wanted, one came up to him, and without a word, shot him in the head. The bullet entered Adam's chin and exited through his neck.
Muzbat is the last village I'm able to reach in Darfur. It is just a few hours away from where Minnawi was when I first spoke to him. By getting here, I am hoping that I can persuade him to have members of the SLA, who are constantly pulling in and out of the town in jeeps mounted with guns, to take me to him. The rebels who control the village have little to fight for, but they will fight until there is nothing and no one left. Muzbat is one of the few villages in Northern Darfur that remain relatively untouched, with hardly any burned homes, its tiny market still catering to the few who remain.
Minnawi's safety has been entrusted to a force of 7,000 soldiers supplied by the African Union that is charged with keeping the peace in Darfur. But the troops - underfunded and without the numbers to undertake such a large task - are failing miserably. It is clear that Minnawi's ability to bring peace to Darfur is gone, but here in Muzbat, at least, he is still something of a hero. "Minni was one of the first people to start the revolution," Al-Sadiq Yusif Hamid, a former literature student who now serves as a commander in the SLA, tells me on my last day inside Darfur. "For four years Minni carried the revolution on his shoulder."
While waiting to get in touch with Minnawi again, I spend the day with a group of ten teenage soldiers responsible for guarding the village. We stretch out on the sand under a tree, not far from the dozen or so small wooden huts that make up Muzbat's market district. I ask them why they are fighting. "Because they burned our houses and took our property," says Azara Galo, a sixteen-year-old who has earned a particularly fierce reputation for killing Sudanese soldiers.
"We've all been revolutionaries from the beginning," declares Abubakar Adam, who wears his short hair twisted into tiny locks. "All the civilians are revolutionaries. We don't have armies like you do." I ask them what they will do if peace ever comes to Darfur. All but one say the same thing, without the slightest hesitation: school. They will all go back to school.
But the longer we talk, the more the optimistic chatter falls away. "You," Adam says, looking at me. "You have a future. We have no future. We're fighting now for the next generation. After all the fighting and what I've seen, I don't want to stay here anymore." He wants to go to America, for what he calls "the three W's: wine, women and fucking."
Minnawi, it turns out, is not anywhere near Muzbat. When I finally reach him on his satellite phone later that afternoon, he tells me he is somewhere in Southern Darfur. When I tell him I am in Muzbat, though, he sounds genuinely happy, and there is something almost parental in his voice when he asks me how everyone in the village is doing. He offers to arrange for an African Union helicopter to bring me to him. "When I want to get around," he tells me, "I have an AU helicopter take me. Let me talk to my guy at the AU and see if he can get you."
But when I press Minnawi for more information about his childhood, his mood shifts abruptly and he beings to yell. "What's wrong with you?" he shouts. "You know you're not the only one listening on my phone?" His fear comes across clearly, proof of his increasing isolation and paranoia. This war - which erupted three years ago with a rebel attack on a military base and spiraled into the mass slaughter of civilians -- is only still beginning. Minnawi, poised to take control of all of Darfur despite the peace agreement, knows he is increasingly hated and rejected by the millions he claims to be defending.
In July, three weeks after I leave Muzbat, I receive an e-mail from the photographer who accompanied me on the trip. He returned to Darfur to spend more time with the soldiers we met -- only to find that an alliance of rebel armies opposed to Minnawi and the peace deal invaded the region, routing Minnawi's SLA out of its strongholds. "Muzbat," his e-mail says simply, "is gone."
When I finally meet Minni Arkou Minnawi, it is not in a desert in Darfur, but in the lobby of the Melrose Hotel in Washington, D.C. Minnawi, who has come to the capital for a meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office, is staying at the hotel as a guest of the State Department. I catch him as he is walking into a conference room, dressed in a suit that hangs far too loose on him. I remind him of our conversations in Darfur and he grasps my elbow and grins widely, asking me to wait for him at the bar.
Not long before midnight, Minnawi arrives and takes a seat at a table directly behind me. I am sitting at the bar with Hassan Fashir, who is in charge of external affairs for the SLA's political wing. A heavyset former academic with a large stomach and slightly disheveled appearance, Fashir has been telling me that Minnawi is the only rebel leader who is impervious to corruption by the Sudanese government. "He may not have that much education," Fashir says, "but" -- rather than finish his sentence, Fashir taps his head and heart.
When Minnawi arrives, Fashir holds his hand up. "Wait," he says. "I will arrange it." After waiting for a signal that Minnawi is ready to be approached, Fashir speaks with him for several minutes in Arabic about me. Minnawi keeps me waiting. He orders a pot of tea, smokes a couple of cigarettes and makes a few phone calls that Fashir assures me are "very important." Finally, after almost half an hour has passed, Fashir tells me I can approach Minnawi.
Minnawi is not a man who trusts easily or speaks openly. While we talk, he sits with his back pressed against the wall. He has a broad, flat face, smooth, dark skin and large, bloodshot eyes. When he becomes impassioned, he waves at least one hand in the air; when and if he begins to trust you, he leans in closer and folds his hands together. He has a habit when speaking of introducing a question, then answering it forcefully, as if it were the clearest and most obvious thing in the world, a habit that reflects his years as a schoolteacher.
I ask him why he went from being a teacher to a rebel.
"This is the basic question of everybody," he says. "Why? Because the answer is very simple. Whatever your job is, if your people, your community are being killed by the regime, everybody should take the arms to provide, to protect, to organize."
Minnawi has learned to speak like a politician, as a man for and of the people, and as far as he is concerned, the people are all behind him. "I never choose myself," he insists. "I never promote myself. The people choose me." It is easy to see why he believes that. Minnawi, with his boyish features, has a charm that is less about putting you at ease and more about making you feel grateful for having been granted an audience.
I ask him what the fighting that has erupted between the SLA and other rebel armies means for the peace deal.
"So far, after that peace agreement, I think international community is absent from Darfur," Minnawi says, waving a hand. "No report, no pressure, even no investigation. Everything is stopped in Darfur. And I think it very negatively reflect to the international community later on. Maybe Darfur going to be Rwanda."
Rwanda. The reference is an obvious play to the guilt the international community still feels for having done nothing to stop that genocide. It is also, strategically, a way for Minnawi to wash his hands of any further bloodshed. Everyone except himself and his SLA, he seems to suggest, is guilty in the newest round of fighting. The international community, for not doing enough. The other rebel armies, who are against the peace. The Chadian government, for sending in troops and guns. This is a revolution, in Minnawi's view, and like all revolutions, civilians will have to die and villages will have to be destroyed.
As for the accusations of murder and torture made against Minnawi and his troops, "This is not true," he says bluntly, repeatedly. And even if it did happen, the crimes must have been committed by a few isolated soldiers. "We need the verification why, so as to prove to the specific person, either the commander or the troop," Minnawi says. "And after that we will take action as the leadership of the movement against them. We will jail them. We will try them."
Since the war in Darfur began, not a single member of the janjaweed, the Sudanese government or any rebel has been punished for their atrocities. The government and Minnawi have both been able to kill with impunity, in no small part because they are aware of history's greatest lesson when it comes to conflicts in Africa -- namely, that the world's attention lasts only so long and runs only so deep. Neglected by the international community that had once promised to support him, Minnawi has chosen the path of fiercest resistance, opting for power over peace. As the sole signatory of the peace treaty, he has more to lose than any of his rivals, and as his recent attacks demonstrate, there is no room for dissension.
My final words with Minnawi are about his personal losses during the war. Like everyone else, he says, he has lost those closest to him: "Many. A lot of friends. A lot of brothers. Many." And many more keep dying. In July, when Minnawi's forces attacked Korma, eleven schoolchildren were among the dead, shot while trying to escape.
Minnawi and his faction of the SLA have not only gotten away with murder, the U.S. and Sudanese governments have rewarded them for it. Less than two weeks after I left Minnawi, he returned to Khartoum in a new and surprising role. His return was not a triumph of diplomacy or justice, but the final proof that the hundreds of thousands dead in Darfur had died for nothing. The Sudanese government that had orchestrated the genocide remained untouched and had resumed its aerial raids on villages -- and now it was Minnawi's turn to join the government. It is an all-too-common turn of events that grants power to those who not only least deserve it but are most willing to abuse it. Minnawi, like dozens of other rebel leaders who have ascended to power before him -- from Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia -- has slipped into a role that seems virtually preordained because, in the end, it's easier to settle on a semblance of peace than to demand the real thing.
On August 6th, 2006, almost exactly three months after he signed the Darfur Peace Agreement, Minni Arkou Minnawi was appointed special assistant to the president of the Sudanese Republic. He is now the fourth-highest-ranking official in the government of Sudan, and the most powerful man in Darfur.
Posted Sep 07, 2006 1:38 PM