The Black Janjaweed: Sudan's War within a War
Despite an initial peace agreement between rebels from the Darfur region and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the war goes on in Africa's largest country. Indeed, the carnage could even expand to include fratricide as thousands of young guerillas are recruited in refugee camps.
Insurgents of the Sudanese Liberation Army in Sudan's Darfur region, which is plagued by unrest.
He's surrounded by a group of fellow fighters, also dressed to the nines, together with influential benefactors lounging in rattan chairs. Cuban music drifts from the well-stocked hotel bar into the air-conditioned lobby, where it's a cool 68°F.
Minawi seems a tad insecure in this sophisticated hotel environment. He constantly taps his fingers on the arm of his chair, his restless gaze jumping from one corner of the room to the next, from a group of French navy infantrymen in their desert shorts to four Finnish businessmen playing cards.
Minawi is about to attend a meeting with the president of Chad, Idriss Déby. Déby is a moody man, nicknamed the "one-man Mafia" by one Western diplomat. According to statistics compiled by Transparency International, an organization dedicated to fighting corruption worldwide, Chad is the most corrupt country on earth, and Déby himself is its undisputed king of thieves.
The president summoned Minawi to N'Djamena to explain to him why the rebel leader signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government in Nigeria a few days ago. Since then, two different camps have called Minawi a peacemaker or a traitor, depending on their respective points of view.
The first camp consists of those with offices at the European Union in Brussels, the United Nations in New York and the State Department in Washington. The second group consists of refugees living in giant, dusty camps in the border region between Chad and Sudan and in rebel camps in Darfur, as well as Minawi's allies until recently, Eritrea and Chad.
Rebels in Sudan's Darfur province have been battling the government in Khartoum for many years. They're waging a desperate guerilla war against a battle-hardened, unscrupulous regime that uses tribal conflicts and Arab racism to further its cause. One of the Sudanese regime's most notorious tactics has been to arm murderous Arab bands traveling on horseback, the so-called "Janjaweed," using them to unleash a desert storm that has reached new heights of gruesomeness.
The rebels have fought back against the government's more powerful forces, capturing a broad swathe of the country. Nevertheless, they are wedged in between regions settled by Arabs and the border with Chad, Sudan's western neighbor.
Map: Sudan and Chad
This presents the rebel leader with a dilemma. He could become easy prey for his rivals in the resistance movement. For a time there were only two groups leading the rebellion against Khartoum, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
Although both groups are fighting for more rights for blacks in western Sudan, the members of JEM are also devout Muslims, many having been active in Islamist parties in the past. But another, far more dangerous potential breaking point exists on the rebel front. Many in Darfur's black population belong to the tribe of the Fur, which lends it name to the region. But Darfur is also home to the Massalit tribe and the Saghawa, of which Minawi is a member.
For many years, Abd al-Wahid Mohammed, a Fur, was the sole leader of the SLA. A jovial, well-fed man who spends most of his time in Nairobi, Minawi eventually grew tired of being under the command of a generally absent Fur and decided to form his own group.
A war within a war?
As if this division wasn't enough, there was another split within the Liberation Army when the rebels began negotiating with the Khartoum government in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Chamis Abdullah Abakr, a Massalit, together with a group of 18 other leaders, then left the old SLA and has headed his own, separate rebel group ever since. Minawi was the only rebel leader who signed the peace treaty in Abuja. Rather than peace, the document could in fact bring quite the opposite to the region, a fratricidal war among the black Africans in Darfur, a war within a war that was previously merely a conflict with Arabs.
Minawi says that he signed the treaty because he wants dialogue, and "because the people from the refugee camps finally want to return home, and because the bloodshed on both sides must end." He may have made himself the West's darling, at least for now, but at home he has lost the trust of his own people, who feel sold out. In the brutal reality of life in the desert, this sort of condemnation can amount to a death sentence.
The negotiations in Abuja took months. They began in October 2005. Each of the three rebel groups sent a delegation of more than 30 members, bringing the initial rebel faction at the negotiating table to about 100 people. They spent endless hours in discussion, had their prepared documents translated into a multitude of languages and engaged in plenty of heated debate. But most of the time they sat around in their baggy white Gallabijas, drinking sweetened tea at the Chida International Hotel. A room at the Chida goes for $120-300, and the luxury hotel also features a cocktail bar and a massage room. The rebels were clearly in no hurry to leave.
But the Americans wanted -- and needed -- to see these negotiations succeed. The United States Congress attached the term genocide to the slaughter in Darfur back in July 2004.
And Minawi isn't the only rebel leader putting in an appearance at N'Djamena's Novotel hotel these days. Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the JEM, has just arrived in his chauffeur-driven, sparkling Toyota Land Cruiser. Two combat soldiers wielding Kalashnikovs jump down from the vehicle and tear open the door for their captain.
Nourain Minawi, who wears Mao jackets and black leather slips, usually accompanies Ibrahim. An educated man with degrees in anthropology and sociology, Minawi is Ibrahim's advisor and spokesman, and he too was present at the talks in Abuja.
He doesn't believe the Abuja agreement encourages peace. On the contrary, he says, "We're ready to fight. We do not respect the Darfur Peace Agreement. It's quite possible that the fighting will really escalate, now that Minawi has changed sides." Indeed, Minawi predicts a widening of the war, saying that "we will call upon our people in eastern Sudan to take up arms."
Minawi believes the negotiations in Nigeria were a farce. The outcome, he says, only reflects Khartoum's position, adding that many of the rebels' demands, including the insistence on providing compensation to the victims of the war, were ignored. "Under the peace agreement, we are to receive only one ministerial position in Khartoum instead of the three we asked for, only 12 seats in a parliament consisting of 450 members, and we're being denied the position of a vice president of Sudan," Minawi complains. "This agreement isn't worth the 120 pages it's written on."
A destroyed village in Darfur
A scene out of a B movie
At some point the crisis managers flown in for the negotiations by the United Nations, the African and European Unions and the governments of the United States and Great Britain decided to take things into their own hands. "Why don't you take a break," they told the rebels, and disappeared into their offices. After 15 days they reemerged with a long document they had prepared, gave the rebels one day to consider the draft agreement and then demanded their approval.
But the other side was unwilling to sign. "What about compensation for our people?" the Sudanese government negotiators wanted to know. They were also unwilling to give up their weapons.
US negotiator and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick had finally had enough. "He started waving his arms in the air and yelling," says the Justice and Equality Movement's Minawi. According to Minawi, Zoellick repeatedly shouted: "You'll be hauled before a war crimes tribunal if you don't sign."
The scene had something of the quality of a B movie. One by one, the leaders of the various factions were summoned into a room by representatives of the African Union. "Will you sign?" a man from the African Union would say. "No," Abd al-Wahid al-Nur responded, on behalf of the Fur, saying that he would first have to consult with his advisors. Chamis Abdullah Abakr, the Massalit leader, also refused to sign. And Khalil Ibrahim, the man from the JEM, said that the agreement was unacceptable because it represented "Khartoum's position." Minni Arkou Minawi was the only rebel leader to sign the document. In return, he was apparently promised that his name would be removed from the list of war criminals.
Minawi signed the agreement with Khartoum on May 5 -- the same day that his brother, Yussuf Arkou Minawi, was shot dead by government troops in the town of Labado in southern Darfur.
Minawi's solo effort has struck a sour note with the other rebels, including Massalit leader Chamis Abdullah Abakr's men. Some of them are sitting in the shade of a dusty veranda in N'Djamena, drinking tea. It's close to 104°F, and as the desert wind drives sand across the veranda, the men discuss the war.
"If Minawi's people allow themselves to be integrated into Khartoum's army, as stated in the agreement, and fight against us, there will be a civil war among the blacks in Darfur," says Adam Ali Shugar, the group's self-appointed spokesman. "Minawi has turned into a black Janjaweed." Shugar also has little faith in the Sudanese government's ability to disarm the Janjaweed. "The tiger is out of the cage, and he won't return voluntarily," he says.
It has long been believed that rebel leader Minawi's name is on the International War Crimes Tribunal's list of war criminals. He is said to be responsible for the murders of intellectuals and of having tortured one of his own tribal kings in May 2004. "He tied together his hands and feet and then had him hung upside down from a tree. The king was kept up there until he was dead," says Shugar. "And that was no isolated incident. Minawi knew full well why he was signing the agreement."
- Part 1: Sudan's War within a War
- Part 2: Next page: a tinderbox
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