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Darfur Diary Epilogue: Of Hybrid Operations, Climate Change and Mia Farrow

Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007

Editor's Note: Over the last month, World Politics Review published Swiss journalist Kurt Pelda's diary of his three-week trip, during late February and March, to eastern Chad on the border with the Sudanese region of Darfur. The diary originally appeared in German on the Web site of the Swiss newspaper the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and was published in WPR for the first time in English. Today we present Pelda's epilogue to his diary, penned exclusively for WPR. In it, Pelda provides a penetrating analysis of the conflict's causes, and of various proposals for its resolution. He also responds to criticism that parts of his diary, particularly his portrait of rebel leader Suleiman Jamous, received from various Darfur activists, many of whom expressed their criticism in letters to WPR.

With her right hand, the woman reveals her sagging breast, while she holds her emaciated baby in her left arm. She points to a bowl: the remains of a viscous, sickly green pap are sticking to its sides. Then her hand moves back to her breast and she makes a motion as if throwing something away. There is no need for a translator. The facial expressions and gestures say all: "For days now we have had nothing to eat but leaves. It is no wonder, then, that I have no more milk and my baby is starving."
Around four months after returning from my trip to the East of Chad, I am again among refugees from Darfur: this time not in Chad, but further South in the Central African Republic (CAR). Some 2,600 refugees arrived in the northeast of the CAR at the end of May: the first refugees from Darfur in this isolated and thinly populated area. In the late afternoon of May 15, their village was bombed by three planes, recounts the mayor of Daffaq, Khamis Abdelaziz Mohammed. The entire population fled. The refugees walked for 10 days and more than 350 kilometers before they reached the first settlement on the Central African side of the border.

The town of Sam Ouandja, with its Christian mayor, gladly welcomed the Muslims from Darfur. During the first three weeks, the refugees subsisted on mangos and handouts from the hospitable local population. Later, the first trucks from the World Food Programme arrived and the U.N. Refugee Agency began to confront the logistical nightmare of providing services for the people from Daffaq. I ask the mayor of Daffaq what happened to the rest of the 10,000 inhabitants of his town. He does not know, he responds. He also does not know how many were killed in the bombardment and how many died during the 10 days of the long march to the CAR. All he knows is that he and his people do not want to return to Darfur until the war is over.

But the signs are not good. Although the U.N. Security Council recently decided to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur, whether this decision in fact brings us closer to a peaceful resolution of the conflict is an open question. A peaceful solution can only be a political solution. Neither the government militias and the army, nor the ever fractious rebel groups can win the war by military means. By way of a "hybrid operation" of up to 26,000 soldiers and police and comprising both U.N. forces and the African Union (AU) forces already in Darfur, the U.N. Security Council hopes now to revive last year's Darfur Peace Agreement.

Paradoxically, this "peace agreement" was in part responsible for the many outbreaks of violence in Darfur over the last 15 months: for the document contained no guarantee that the Janjaweed militias would really be disarmed, as Khartoum has promised on countless occasions. Since a few rebel factions signed the agreement (and not just one, as some media reported) and thereby, in effect, switched sides, Khartoum believed that it had come closer to a military solution to the conflict. But the army's 2006 offensive, which was carried out with the support of the Janjaweed and the renegade rebel factions, failed miserably. Khartoum suffered substantial losses of both men and materials. But the military successes of the rebels did not result in the formation of a politically united front, which could speak with one voice in negotiations.

The attempt of the Security Council to put into practice the long-obsolete Darfur Peace Agreement could prove to be the fatal defect of Resolution 1769. In particular, the internal divisions among the rebels make peace talks at the present time hardly appear promising. A first "conference" among the various rebel groups took place in April in North Darfur, but numerous factions of the resistance and commandeers were conspicuous, above all, by their absence. The government, moreover -- which has no interest in seeing the rebel groups resolve their differences -- had the location of the conference bombed. In the meanwhile, the U.N. and the AU sponsored a second round of unification talks in Arusha in Tanzania. But again not all factions of the rebellion were present. Thus, the founder of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), Abdul Waheed Mohammed an-Nur, refused to attend. Nur, who presently lives in exile in France, has little military muscle at his disposal. But he remains, nonetheless, a popular figure among the Fur: the largest tribal group in Darfur. Without him, it will be difficult to achieve unity among the rebels and then to find a negotiated solution with the government. The factions present in Arusha are reported to have adopted a common position. But it is still not known what this "common position" is or whom they want to send to negotiate with Khartoum. The rebel factions are calling for these talks to take place in two to three months.

Sudan reluctantly agreed to the U.N.-led "hybrid operation" set out in Resolution 1769. But one can expect Khartoum to do everything in its power to delay the stationing of the troops and obstruct their deployment. This is likewise the opinion of the former U.N. special envoy for Sudan, Jan Pronk, who was expelled from the country last year because he spoke openly of the military defeats that the government had suffered. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw, moreover, Pronk regretted the fact that the resolution had been watered down "enormously." "Everything has been taken out," Pronk said, "For refugees to return home, you first have to drive out the militants. That is a job for soldiers. This is also not addressed."

An article published by U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in the Washington Post in June, under the title "A Climate Culprit in Darfur," shows just how far removed the U.N.'s analysis has become from the core of the problem in Darfur. Ban Ki-Moon claims there that "amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change." On his account, the decrease in precipitation in Darfur as a result of climate change has led to a situation in which "for the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out. By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today."

Ban's account makes it sound as if nomads and the sedentary population -- "Arabs" and "Black Africans" -- have come to blows as a result of a conflict over resources. But even if the U.N. General Secretary fails entirely to mention this fact, the genocide in Darfur has not been perpetrated by tribal militias running amuck, but rather by organized and well-armed fighting units that are paid by Khartoum. How, on Ban Ki-Moon's abstruse theory, is it to be explained that the villages of Fur, Massalit, Zaghawa and other African tribal peoples are sprayed with fire from attack helicopters and bombed by government planes? And what does climate change have to do with the fact that the Janjaweed suddenly possess an abundance of automatic weapons, ammunition, Toyota pick-ups and fuel? Of course, the increasing scarcity of resources in Darfur does play a role. But such scarcity is to be observed in the entire region of the Sahel, from the Atlantic Coast in the west to the Red Sea in the east, and yet nowhere but in Darfur has it come to a bloodbath of even anywhere near these dimensions. Darfur, moreover, represents the continuation of the expulsions and massacres undertaken earlier by Khartoum in the Nuba Mountains and the oil-rich southern regions: a fact that makes the specifically Sudanese dimension of the conflict especially clear. Diverting attention from the core causes of the conflict can sometimes bear strange fruit: as when, for example, researchers believe that they have discovered a prehistoric lake under Darfur. All at once, the theory emerges that the conflict over resources can be thus defused -- as if all those masses of water supposedly found under Darfur could put out the conflagration that is raging on the ground.

While the global public is being confounded by such nonsense, developments in Darfur go unnoticed that could be important for the subsequent course of the conflict. Thus, for instance, it appears that some Janjaweed feel that they have been sold out and betrayed by Khartoum on account of the Darfur Peace Agreement. Recently, there have been a whole series of militia members and Janjaweed commandeers who have defected to the rebel side. Some Janjaweed also complain that they are not paid enough by Khartoum. In the meanwhile, moreover, there has come into being a rebel group that is at least mostly comprised of "Arabs" and that has likewise taken up arms against Khartoum. Thereby the schematic picture of a struggle between "Arabs" and "Africans" -- a picture that has never entirely corresponded to the reality -- becomes even more misleading. In this connection, it should not be overlooked that only a small part of the "Arabs" in Darfur have taken part in the genocide. Many of the Janjaweed are recruited from among the ranks of the camel-herding nomads from North and West Darfur. The cattle-herding "Arab" nomads who are indigenous to South Darfur, on the other hand, have tried for the most part to remain neutral in the conflict. In any case, the fronts in Darfur are continually shifting and this fact reminds us of the real cause of the conflict: namely, the economic and political neglect of the Sudanese periphery by the center in and around Khartoum. Both "Arab" and "African" residents of Darfur suffer equally from this neglect: a point that rebel leaders of Arab descent like Mohammed Abdulrahmen Musa, a.k.a. Abu Sura, readily admit.

A troubling development, on the other hand, is the reported settlement by Khartoum of tens of thousands of foreign "Arabs" in the "ethnically cleansed" parts of Darfur. According to various nongovernmental organizations citing a U.N. report, up to 30,000 "Arabs" are supposed to have crossed over into Darfur from Chad and Niger in just May and June. The intentions of Khartoum are clear: By settling foreigners in the region, it is trying to change the ethnic composition of the population and create a fait accompli. This will not only complicate any future negotiations, but it will also make the return of expellees and refugees to their homes more difficult -- supposing a peaceful solution to the conflict is found some day.

Of late, the name of Suleiman Jamous has often been put forward as a potential peacemaker from the rebel side. But if he is to play this role, the rebel chief must first be released from the quasi-captivity in which he is being held by the Sudanese government in the hospital of Kadugli. In the context of her welcome engagement on behalf of Darfur, the actress Mia Farrow has recently appealed for the release of Jamous, even offering to change places with him. As can be read in my diary, I had less good experiences with the "Humanitarian Coordinator" of the SLA. In the Spring of 2005, I traveled more than 750 miles with the SLA through northern and southern Darfur and had ample opportunity to get to know Jamous and his fighters. The comments in my diary brought into action not only Mia Farrow, but also a whole series of lobbyists, some of whom, in the service of their campaign to obtain Jamous's release, have not hesitated to compare him to Nelson Mandela. (See Ronan Farrow's editorial in the Wall Street Journal of June 21, 2007.)

In order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me state the following: I also would like to see Jamous released. Jamous is one of the few educated leaders of the rebellion: not only among the Zaghawa, but among all the various guerilla groups. Whether one likes him or not, he is an important man and he thus belongs at the negotiating table at which the different resistance groups are trying to hammer out a common political position. No one doubts, moreover, that before he was taken prisoner Jamous looked after humanitarian aid in the rebel-controlled areas. But contrary to what Mia Farrow claims, not all foreign aid workers in Darfur are admirers of Jamous. During the course of my investigations, I met a member of one non-governmental organization, for example, who formed an entirely different impression of Jamous while working in Darfur. This aid worker accused Jamous of instrumentalizing humanitarian aid for military purposes. Thus, on his account, Jamous robbed Toyota four-by-fours and trucks that were being used by aid organizations, keeping both the vehicles and their cargo. He reports, moreover, that some of the truck drivers were held prisoner for months by Jamous's men.

Opinions can thus differ about Jamous's influence. But if lobbyists believe that they have to distort or outright suppress important facts in order not to take the wind out of the sails of their campaign on Jamous's behalf, then I believe I can be permitted to draw a somewhat more differentiated portrait of the rebel leader. Jamous -- who, according to Ronan Farrow writing in the Wall Street Journal, has "never picked up a gun" -- was also prior to his imprisonment the coordinator of the military supply shipments that came to northern Darfur from Chad and Libya. During my travels with Jamous and the SLA in 2005, I and another journalist personally witnessed Jamous directing the trucks as they arrived from Libya at night. I do not hold this activity against him, since I consider the rebels' combat against Khartoum to be legitimate. One can hardly conduct a war, after all, without guns, pickups and fuel. Nonetheless, it should perhaps be of interest to the U.N. Good Will Ambassador Mia Farrow that Jamous was thus violating the arms embargo decreed by the U.N. in 2004.

Farrow's assertion that "Jamous is deeply respected across the rebel divide" is likewise not entirely consistent with the facts. I personally know several important rebel commanders who have a skeptical attitude toward Jamous: not least of all, on account of his Islamist past, which Farrow et al studiously avoid mentioning.

Jamous was a close collaborator of Minni Arkou Minnawi: an adventurer and war criminal, who used all possible means to grab power within the SLA. It is only when Minni signed the Darfur Peace Agreement that Jamous broke with him. As fate would have it, Jamous ended up himself becoming a victim of the monster that he had helped to rise to power. He was taken prisoner by Minni's thugs and it is only thanks to the intervention of the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which had him flown to Kadugli in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan, that he is still alive. If Jamous is such a great "champion of human rights" as Mia Farrow claims, where was he, then, when as one of Minni's collaborators he must have known that Minni was having dissidents, both within the SLA and outside it, brutally liquidated? For example: when Minni's torturers tied the hands and feet of an inconvenient "King" of the Zaghawa to his back and hung him horizontally from a tree until his death finally put an end to the poor man's sufferings? Minni's people called this style of execution "plane takeoff." The image of the "good rebels" who manage, despite the war, not to get their hands dirty is a naïve cliché that corresponds to Hollywood conceptions. But it has little to do with the bitter reality.

Kurt Pelda is the Africa Bureau Chief of the Swiss daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The English translation of this article is by John Rosenthal.