HASKANITA, Sudan, Oct 28 (Reuters) - Thousands of Darfuris waited patiently in an overcrowded school on Friday as truckloads of rebel soldiers raced through Haskanita town shouting for revolution and brandishing their rifles in the air.
Some had travelled for more than a week to the town in the east of rebel-held areas in Darfur, where the main rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) was due to open a congress to elect a new and united leadership and "democratise" the movement.
The logistical problems facing rebel delegates who have come from the United States, Italy, and England, as well as those who drove hundreds of miles through militia territory has delayed the start until Saturday.
The delay did not dent the enthusiasm for the thousands already arrived, who waited patiently under trees, playing cards, banging drums and singing songs about freedom.
"The youth of Darfur, free Sudan," women draped in bright pinks, oranges and greens sang as they banged drums made of clay pots with skins drawn tightly over the lids. The home-made instruments proudly sported "SLA" painted in red on their covers.
Darfuris, passionate about the conference, risked their lives to make the journey to Haskanita near the eastern border of Darfur, a vast desert region the size of France. Some lost their lives on the way.
"We were attacked by armed men from the JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) along the border," said Abakr al-Tom, who came from a refugee camp in Chad across the western border of Darfur. "We had to run away but seven people were killed."
He and around 90 men and women skidded in rusty cars on sand-filled dirt tracks for nine days to get to Haskanita.
JEM are the other rebel group at African Union-sponsored peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja, but local commanders have turned on each other of late and the two rebel groups battle each other in the field.
That violence and divisions between SLA leaders have stalled the talks.
CALL FOR UNITY
Tens of thousands have been killed and more than 2 million chased from their homes during the 2-1/2 year revolt by mostly non-Arab rebels in Darfur. They accuse the central government of monopolising power and wealth. Around 200,000 refugees fled to Chad.
The SLA congress, the first of its kind, aims to democratise the movement. Around 1,000 delegates are expected as well as thousands of civilians from Darfur who have come to have their say.
"We want to see this movement democratised and for the leaders to unite and overcome their differences," said tribal leader Tajeddin Ibrahim from Labado town in South Darfur.
SLA Secretary-General Minni Arcua Minnawi and President Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur are barely on speaking terms. Nur has refused to come to the conference.
"He better come or the SLA will just kick him to the curb," said Ibrahim. Conference organisers say the opening ceremony will be on Saturday.
The head of the 6,000-strong AU force monitoring a shaky ceasefire in Darfur, Festus Okonkwo, had flown out to attend the opening but left after it was delayed.
Haskanita village, a usually dozy place, was transformed as trucks loaded with fuel, young soldiers with bleached dreadlocks and weapons invaded its main square. White signs with SLA slogans covered every available fence, wall and tree trunks.
Armed men sat waiting under the shade of the bright green bushes.
Sudanese from southern Sudan, and even Arab tribes also came to see what the SLA has to say. "We want to see what they will do," said southern Dinka Salman Garang. "I'm not in the SLA but we want peace," he said.