Sudan Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold

Africa's largest nation is being consumed by a civil war that has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. But despite the obvious crisis, the international community continues to drag its feet and refuses to intervene. A large portion of Sudan's troubled Darfur region is now controlled by rebels.

When disaster struck Khor Abeche, the town's mayor, Mohammed Abakir, 52, was sitting with his second wife, Mariam Adam, in front of his house in the eastern portion of the town drinking tea. It was probably what saved their lives. It was six a.m., the rising sun was just beginning to warm the earth after a cold night, and a light wind was driving desert sand between the town's straw huts. It was then that an inferno was unleashed at the opposite side of town.

Camouflaged fighters emerged from the morning haze to the West, marching on the town of about 20,000, followed by bands of Arab Janjaweed militias, bearing down on Khor Abeche on their camels and horses like hordes of apocalyptic riders. A third wave, consisting of pickups and large trucks, brought soldiers armed with heavy machine guns and bazookas.

Dozens of huts were set on fire within minutes, sending out clouds of dark smoke that foreshadowed the horror that was to descend on Khor Abeche on April 7, 2005.

Abakir, seeing the billowing smoke, grabbed Mariam and their children and ran as fast as he could into the hilly plains on the outskirts of town. After assaulting Khor Abeche from three directions, the attackers quickly surrounded the town, unleashing a fire storm and slaughtering everyone in their path -- men, women and children.

Abakir and his family survived by hiding in a cave, where they spent the entire day listening to the sounds of Khor Abeche being destroyed: the roar of artillery, rounds from Kalashnikov rifles, exploding bombs dropped from the Sudanese army's Antonov aircraft -- and the piercing screams of the dying. The sounds of the massacre continued until about 4 p.m., when an eerie stillness descended on the town in Sudan's troubled southern Darfur region.

It was at about this time that terrified cowherder Feisal Mohammed Wadi, 18, was sitting crouched behind a boulder in the countryside near Khor Abeche. He had just driven a herd of cattle out of town the day before in the hope of finding at least some half-withered grass in the rocky area. He slept outside with his herd that night, which may have saved his life.

As soon as calm seemed to have returned and a helicopter bearing the logo of the African Union (AU) flew across the devastated town, Wadi emerged from his hiding place and crept back into Khor Abeche. For a while he wandered helplessly among the ruins of mud huts. Only after stumbling upon the bullet-riddled corpses of his father and uncle in front of the family's demolished house did he gradually understand what had happened.

In a long series of massacres in the Darfur region, between the southern Sahara and the Gazelle River, Khor Abeche is the most recent town to be leveled by Janjaweed militias and Sudanese government troops. Those of the town's black African inhabitants -- members of the Saghawa, Massalit, Birgid and Tunjur tribes -- who didn't manage to flee were massacred.

When rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), which is battling the regime in Khartoum, arrived a short time later they found a ghost town. About 80 percent of the dwellings had been torched, most of the wells were destroyed and clay water jugs were shattered.

Even the poorly equipped hospital, managed by a French doctor until a few days before the attack, had been looted and lay in ruins. Four patients who were apparently too weak to flee the attackers had been slaughtered like cattle.

The refuge camp on the outskirts of town was also empty. It had provided shelter and protection against constant terror in Darfur to about 12,000 refugees -- at least until the terror caught up with them again. They've been hiding in the savannah ever since, where many will die a slow death in a region where daytime temperatures climb above 50°C (120°F) and nights are bitterly cold. The sparse, thorny acacia trees dotting the landscape offer little shade, and water has been scarce for a long time. Aid convoys have yet to reach the area since that bloody April day.

Has the international community failed Sudan?

But what the survivors of the Khor Abeche massacre have to report isn't just the chronicle of inevitable death. It's also the shameful and practically incomprehensible account of a global community that has done virtually nothing to intervene. The world knows exactly what's happening in western Sudan, but hasn't taken any serious steps to intervene and put a stop to the conflict between the Arab Islamist central government in Khartoum, together with its Janjaweed helpers, and the primarily black African population in the poverty-stricken western portion of Africa's largest country (by land mass).

Civil war is fast becoming entrenched in Darfur, much as it did before in southern Sudan where, after more than two decades of atrocities and 2 million deaths, a peace agreement was finally signed this January.

Black African tribes make up the majority of southern Sudan's population, whereas the north is primarily Arab. And even though the country's oil wells are in the south, most of the profits have traditionally been funneled to the Arab north, creating a climate of hatred and resentment. But the rebellion against Khartoum was also an expression of resistance to Sharia, the Islamic law that the country's radical Muslim regime wanted to use to quell resistance throughout the country, even in the non-Muslim southern regions.

In contrast to the Christians and animists in southern Sudan, Darfur's African tribes are Muslims, whose conversion to the Koran began centuries ago. Many ethnic groups have been living in the region for generations, farming millet and sorghum. Those who raise cattle, however, are forced to live a nomadic life, because of Darfur's often barren soil.

In the last 20 years, droughts and desertification have gradually reduced pastureland, leading to growing rivalries between crop and cattle farmers. The conflicts became all the more explosive because many camel and cattle nomads have gradually come to identify themselves as Arabs, and no longer as Africans.

The government in Khartoum took advantage of these tensions to further its own interests, and began arming the nomads in the 1980s. The former "spear-carrying oxen knights," as ethnologist and Sudan expert Bernhard Streck has dubbed the nomads, had thrived on the slave trade for centuries. Once it became defunct, they began pushing southward where the soil was more fertile. By as early as 1991, the invaders caused such havoc in Darfur that the Sudan Democratic Gazette called it a "genocide-like attack."

The roots of the conflict

The struggle over water and pasture intensified in the 1990s, when the government of President Omar al-Bashir decided to promote the Arabization of Darfur. Government troops in helicopters soon began firing on villages and farms, and the Janjaweed were given license to kill. In February 2003, when rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army and their allies took up arms to defend themselves against what had become constant attacks, a violent civil war erupted.

What began as a rivalry over natural resources has since turned into a war of attrition. The US State Department has long since classified what it calls the "crimes against humanity" committed in Darfur as genocide. Amnesty International speaks of "unlawful murders of civilians, torture, rape, abduction and destruction of villages and property." Both a British government commission and various aid organizations estimate that between 180,000 and 400,000 people have lost their lives since early 2003. Of a former Darfur population of about 6 million, 2 million are now wasting away in hopelessly overcrowded refugee camps. Another 200,000 refugees have fled to nearby Chad.

And still no one intervenes. Everyone -- the United Nations, the European Union, the United States -- is calling Darfur the African Union's problem. The Africans, for their part, are complicating matters by insisting that they should have the sole mandate for resolving the conflict -- and they're charging hefty sums for the privilege.

The European Union alone has contributed €92 million. The Germans gave another €3 million and communications equipment worth €100,000. At a donor conference in May, Canada and the United States announced a joint commitment to contribute $184 million to Darfur. But the African Union has done little to solve the problems of Darfur. It claims that it needs the whopping sum of $460 million to triple the number of AU peacekeepers in Darfur to 8,000, and almost three-quarters of a billion dollars to expand its force to 12,000 by next year.

Meanwhile, both the AU's crippling inactivity and the world community's wait-and-see attitude are costing more and more lives in Darfur -- lives that could have been saved, in places like Khor Abeche.

NEXT PAGE: The Killing Continues as the World Watches

Sheik Dawudalbeit Abdulbanat stands in the town's ruins. His white robe and cap slowly darken from the ashes constantly being stirred up by the wind. Two years ago, says the poker-faced cleric, government troops armed Arabs from the Massiriya tribe and ordered them to "kill the slaves."

A month before the attack on Khor Abeche, says Abdulbanat, an African Union helicopter suddenly arrived in town, producing enough noise upon landing to drive away a horde of terrified children. An AU observer who emerged from the helicopter told local officials that the Massiriya were planning something horrible, and that they were accusing the locals of cattle theft and were preparing to attack Khor Abeche in retaliation. The AU official reported that Massiriya militia were assembling at government barracks in the village of Niteago, only seven kilometers to the south.

But the uniformed emissary also warned that it would be up to the townspeople to defend themselves. The AU, he said, had no protective mandate, and its soldiers are merely observers of a cease-fire that was never put in place. His advice to the inhabitants of Khor Abeche, who have little understanding of the intricacies of intervention law: "Ask the SLA rebels for help."

They followed his advice and, for a time, a few militaristic-looking adolescents actually patrolled the streets of the town, carrying rusted Kalashnikovs and wearing turbans at rakish angles and amulets to protect them from enemy fire. But after 20 days the SLA band withdrew. The people of Khor Abeche saw the AU helicopter one more time before the massacre, but only from a distance. Then came the killers, and the African Union's observers only had the courage to return to Khor Abeche the next day, when they took a few photographs and disappeared as hastily as they had arrived.

On May 5, almost a month after the massacre, a few dozen Nigerian AU soldiers pitched their tents near the ruins. Since then, they've been guarding little more than themselves, and have only left their camp in search of liquor and women.

The African Union and the United Nations issued a joint press release about the massacre, in which they condemn, "with utter shock and disbelief, the relentless daylong attack" on Khor Abeche.

The statement is a worthless piece of paper, especially since it neglects to mention such salient details as the Sudanese government's arming of the Arab militias, the gathering of militia in the army barracks and the fact that Sudanese military aircraft were seen circling the town during the massacre.

What's also missing is an explanation as to why no one stepped in, despite the fact that the Massiriya militia's plans to destroy the town had been known weeks in advance. Another issue that no one has addressed is why the AU observers were initially skeptical when they heard the news of Khor Abeche's destruction, even though the attack was reminiscent of hundreds like it in the past. The same Massiriya militants had just razed the nearby village of Hamada in January, killing 119 people, including many children, and raping more than 60 women. SLA rebel Ahmed Adam Suleiman, who discovered the surviving women and helped bury the dead, believes the AU is in cahoots with the Sudanese government. "They know exactly what's going on here," he says, "and they consciously allow it to happen."

"No one here trusts the African Union"

Sixty kilometers to the north, in Dar al-Salam, a rebel leader is holding a meeting. SLA secretary-general Minni Arkou Minawi and his men have moved into the small town. Grim-faced sons of the desert peering from turbans crouch on at least a dozen fully-packed pickup trucks. Others proudly haul automatic weapons and bazookas through the streets and flaunt German G3 assault weapons and Yugoslav-made Kalashnikovs. Their enemies in Khartoum contemptuously call the SLA rebels the "Tora Bora," a reference to ragtag Taliban fighters at terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's heavily bombed Afghan mountain stronghold.

The rebels' loosely-wrapped, sand-colored turbans cover all but their eyes. These young men, many of them teenagers, clearly relish playing the role of hero. The residents of Dar al-Salam ("House of Peace," in Arabic) believe that the presence of these young adventurers can protect them against Arab attackers lurking in nearby camps. Occasionally one of the guerrillas, intoxicated by his own power -- or just drunk on date liquor -- fires a volley of gunshots into the air.

On this day, the town's rebel protectors must do without one of their Chinese-made rocket launchers. The old Toyota on which it was mounted, captured from the Sudanese army, broke down somewhere in the town's desert-like surroundings. Now the rebels in their pickup trucks are parading through cheering crowds in the town's marketplace.

SLA leader Minawi is an aloof, haggard, uncharismatic man. He normally lives in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, far away from the dreary so-called liberated territories, where people have neither power nor roofs over their heads. Today he is trying his hand as a tribune of the people, speaking to an astonished crowd of people who have never experienced anyone quite like him.

"We want 50 percent of Sudanese oil," he shouts into a faltering megaphone. Just before the batteries finally die, he manages to announce that the rebels are relentlessly marching on Khartoum.

These rebels feel strong, now that they've received weapons shipments from abroad and that the central government is coming under growing international pressure. Minawi's rebels control a corridor in northern Darfur that extends from neighboring Chad all the way down to southern Darfur. In western Darfur, they have captured the Marra Mountains, whose peaks range up to about 10,000 feet.

The government garrisons in Fashir, northern Darfur's most important city, are practically surrounded, as are those in the towns of Nyala, Kutum and Mallit. At this point, they can only be re-supplied by air or by heavily guarded convoys. When Khartoum began providing military support to rebel movements in neighboring Chad, the Chad government retaliated by arming the Darfur rebels.

SLA leader Minawi holds the international community partly responsible for the suffering in Darfur. "No one here trusts the African Union," he says, "it's corrupt. I know what these people are like. After all, I'm an African myself." He believes that the AU has no experience in crisis management, and that all it's doing in Darfur is bureaucratically counting corpses. "How many villages were destroyed in full view of the AU?," he asks rhetorically, indignantly adding that hardly anyone knows anymore. It's hypocritical, Minawi says, for the world to turn over responsibility for resolving such a conflict to an incompetent group of nations, adding that apparently no one learned anything from the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan genocide.

Under these circumstances, is it any surprise that the rebels refuse to disarm? They feel abandoned by the world and believe they must take their fates into their own hands.

There seems to be no end in sight to what the UN is calling "currently the world's worst humanitarian crisis." Human rights organizations have received reports of the rebels themselves committing crimes, attacking police stations and civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, the rebel movements are "responsible for direct attacks on civil installations, as well as for dead and wounded in the civilian population."

To add to Darfur's woes, the SLA is deeply divided and on the verge of falling apart. The name Darfur means "Land of the Fur." When researcher and adventurer Gustav Nachtigal visited the region in the late 19th century, he wrote that members of the Fur tribe are "of moderate height and coarse-featured; their character is arrogant, irascible and vindictive, and they have a tendency to quarrel and commit acts of violence."

The Darfur region has long been inhabited by a few dozen ethnic groups, and they haven't always lived in harmony. The Fur and Saghawa tribes, for example, clashed as recently as last November. The Fur control the encircled Marra Mountains, the Saghawa the vital corridor in the Chad border region and the Massalit a narrow strip of territory in western Darfur.

It appears that the Saghawa, lead by the secretary-general, are considering starting an internal rebellion against the president of the SLA, Abd al-Wahid, a member of the Fur tribe. Al-Wahid spends most of his time in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, attempting to direct his fighters via satellite mobile phone. Indeed, the Darfur rebels themselves say that they spend up to $300,000 a month on satellite phone charges.

Abd al-Wahid firmly believes in joint victory for the estranged rebel factions. "The government in Khartoum," he says, "is as isolated as the South African Apartheid regime once was. This unifies us."

In fact, the Saghawa seem to be gaining the upper hand in the rebels' fraternal feud, thanks to reinforcements from Chad, whose president, Idriss Déby, is also part of the Saghawa tribe. As a result, Minawi has no lack of self-confidence. "We will not rest," the speaker promises the people of Dar al-Salaam, "until Khartoum falls and the capital is in our hands."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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