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Darfur rebels driven by sense of duty, desire for revenge By Emily Wax, The Washington Post

5/17/2005 10:38 pm

MUHAJARA, Sudan, May 17, 2005 -- Tarjab Jalab, a sinewy, bearded rebel commander in the Sudan Liberation Army militia, limped across this scarred and half-empty village on a bandaged foot. Dozens of leather pouches hung from his arms and legs, each containing Koranic verses. The amulets had not saved Jalab from being shot by pro-government militiamen, but he was still eager for battle.

"We will keep fighting," he vowed one recent morning, as young men clanking with guns and grenades listened to his combat instructions, then clambered into three pickup trucks and roared off in clouds of dust. "Darfur is not over."

Forty miles away from Muhajara, in another charred village called Marla, Mussa Mohamed Hassab, a hulking tribal militia leader, sipped tea and surveyed Darfur's war from the other side. Hassab, 47, said his tribal security force had pledged its allegiance to the Sudanese government to keep fighting the rebels.

"It's a war," declared Hassab, who wore a billowing white robe and leopard-skin slippers. "We were told to fight by the government. We also wish for this. Why would we stop now?"

In some ways, the towns of Muhajara and Marla are virtually identical. Both swarm with teenage soldiers, swimming in baggy camouflage outfits and lugging Kalashnikov assault rifles. Both are half-deserted, haunted by hungry, sick people who have been pushed off their land into sweltering camps. Both groups of inhabitants resent the combatants' presence and wish the fighting would end.

But neither militia, it became clear after visits of several days to each town, is in any hurry to put down its guns.

Even though the International Criminal Court in The Hague is seeking to prosecute a number of Darfur's war crime suspects, including government officials and rebel leaders, there are few signs of change in this vast, ravaged region of western Sudan after more than two years of conflict, flight and suffering.

Civilians remain trapped in camps and reliant on aid, and villages continue to be burned. Rebel groups have become fractured and more difficult to negotiate with, while officials are finding it tougher to rein in the government-allied Janjaweed militiamen. The small force of about 2,400 African Union peacekeepers has been unable to curb the violence.

Trying to persuade nearly 2 million people to return home has proved futile, according to aid officials. Permanent mud houses are being built in dozens of camps, replacing the flimsy shelters of sticks and plastic. Women collecting firewood are still raped so often that aid groups have introduced fuel-efficient stoves to discourage them from venturing outside the camps.

Now, there are growing fears that Darfur's struggle may join the list of long, intractable conflicts on the African continent, including northern Uganda's 19-year war and Burundi's 12-year civil war, in which sporadic fighting has continued despite several peace plans.

Sudanese officials have questioned the Hague process, suggesting that an international court could not understand the complexities of Sudanese society and that the trials might add to instability. Foreign observers agree that a court thousands of miles away will not be enough to make combatants relinquish their weapons.

"Court or no court, everyone is very scared here," said B.M. Anuwa, a Nigerian army lieutenant on patrol near Muhajara. "We have serious problems. This is not the season of peace for Darfur. Unless more is done, Darfur will keep suffering."

Weapons and Talismans

Under the scorching sun, slender boys follow herds of bony cattle and goats across the parched fields surrounding Marla. Each boy has a semiautomatic rifle swinging from his shoulder. These days, every male in the community must carry a weapon.

Even though the town is under the control of the Janjaweed and government troops, Hassab, the militia leader, said Sudan Liberation Army fighters recently killed a 24-year-old herder and stole 570 animals.

Marla, once a prosperous town of 5,000, was known for its production of gum arabic, a tree sap used in soft drinks, chewing gum and other goods. But now it has become a vacant, scarred vista of ruined huts and abandoned fields. The market is gutted, the mosque burned. The only civilians left are those who once worked in the market, were trapped by fighting and stayed on to sell goods to Hassab's men and the soldiers.

In one tiny wooden stall, Mohammed Ahmed, 45, sat hunched on a stool, making leather pouches and stuffing them with verses from the Koran on dried strips of goatskin. Both the rebels and government soldiers use these charms, he said, adding that he was the only merchant still doing brisk business.

"The war is still going on," he said with a nervous laugh. "People still need these."

Hassab strolled over to the stall. Ahmed trembled slightly as the big man approached. Hassab looked over a few pouches, handed him some wrinkled bills and went back to drinking tea.

Although Marla seems relatively calm, in some ways it is a militarized town. Late last year, residents and African Union officials said, Sudan Liberation Army forces were driven out of the area by Janjaweed and government troops.

Once the rebels left, militiamen started tearing down half-ruined huts and using the materials to build their own. When African Union troops tried to intervene, the Janjaweed resisted until they backed off.

The Janjaweed were originally enlisted by the Khartoum government to crush the rebel insurgency, which arose to protest the political and geographic marginalization of African tribes. But officials now assert that the militiamen have escaped their control and become an entrenched, autonomous force.

Hassab, however, said his fighters had been given ID cards, weapons and small amounts of grain or cash by government forces to attack the rebels. He said they had come to feel like a permanent force.

Hassab said he answered his government's call at first to put down the rebellion. Now, Darfur has simply become too dangerous to stop fighting, with criminals taking advantage of the lawless conditions.

"There is still war here," he said with a shrug.

'These Were My Brothers'

Amid the amulet pouches hanging from Tarjab Jalab's belt loop is a Thuraya satellite phone in a small leather case. In theory, the commander in Muhajara uses it to communicate with the Sudan Liberation Army's higher-ups in Chad, Europe and Eritrea.

Jalab said that lately, though, he had been the one who decided whether his men should fight or not. The rebel structure has become so divided and disorganized that field commanders launch their own battles, and sporadic peace talks among their leaders have been increasingly irrelevant.

Four civilians in Muhajara were badly injured recently when Janjaweed fighters attacked them, according to victims and aid workers. Without waiting for orders from above, Jalab launched a counterattack, raiding the militia's cattle.

One of Jalab's friends, a rebel commander named Tangdin Mursal, said he felt both experienced enough and bitter enough to keep fighting on his own. Like Jalab, Mursal said he had spent years in the national army before joining the rebels, but had deserted when he heard that troubles were starting in Darfur. After government troops attacked his home area, he joined the other side.

"These were my brothers getting killed," said Mursal, 32, who was wearing jeans and an old Sudanese army shirt. "If anyone had seen what happened, they would have joined the SLA," he said. "I am willing to die. We would be fools to stop our guns. We will be fighting in our grandfathers' names."

Like Jalab, Mursal and his family once lived in a bucolic, wealthy area of Darfur. They owned several compounds of stone huts and hundreds of cattle and goats. When the war came, the livestock was looted and his wife and children were forced to flee to a refugee camp across the border in Chad.

"There is something in this world called revenge," Mursal said. "It's not going to be easy to bring peace to Darfur."

In a sweltering clinic across town, a 25-year-old man lay in a hospital cot with a bullet wound in his chest. Three others sweated and groaned on metal cots, all with wounds from a recent attack.

The victims said 15 foot soldiers in army uniforms had suddenly appeared, shooting at residents and stealing as much livestock as they could before vanishing into the bush.

Hamida Abdullah, 19, the sister of one of the wounded men, sat slumped next to his cot, cradling a screaming infant. She said she missed farming and felt depressed. She said she feared that Darfur would never find peace.

"We are still killing each other. We want more justice," she said, trying to hush the baby. "Our people still suffer. We just want it to all end."

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