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Among Darfur Rebels and Refugees: A Road Diary (Day 16)

Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007

Editor's Note: In March, Kurt Pelda, Africa Bureau Chief of the Swiss daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, traveled to eastern Chad on the border with the Sudanese crisis region of Darfur. Over 200,000 Sudanese refugees live in eastern Chad, having fled the violence in Darfur. The region likewise serves as staging grounds for the Darfur rebels fighting against the Sudanese government. During his three weeks traveling in the region, Pelda kept a diary, which provides a portrait of the Darfur conflict that is perhaps unrivaled in its detail and nuance. In daily installments through the beginning of August, World Politics Review presents this important document for the first time in English, concluding with an epilogue penned by Pelda exclusively for WPR. Read other entries.

Day 16: A Strange Call from a Rebel Leader
Pepsi Cans from the Great Libyan Arab People's Republic

14 March

We wait on and on in the middle of this desolate landscape. There is nothing here but bushes, dust and sand, clay huts with straw roofs, and in the distance some stands at the market shielded from the sun by plastic panels. Still, you can find cans of Pepsi there. The location of the bottling plant is printed on the cans: "Tripoli, Great Socialist Libyan Arab People's Republic." So many words for just one country -- and so few tellingly to transcribe the mental state of Libyan revolutionary leader Gadhafi.

One can make out some hills and rock formations on the horizon. Darfur is that close -- and yet our patience is being pressed to its limits. Our patience? That is not quite right. It is just my patience. Adam -- like most people here -- has the patience of a saint. The waiting, uncertainty, and constant changes of plan seem not to affect him at all. But I have set a deadline for myself. If we are not able to get across the border before it passes, I will hire a car and drive back to Abéché. Of course, it is also true that I have already postponed this deadline twice, each time there was renewed cause for hope. I flip through my diary and I re-read what I wrote on Day 3: "I also know that in Africa one can almost always find a way to make things work in the end. One just has to have patience and avoid making too many mistakes."

Have I made too many mistakes? Or were my expectations too high? Or am I simply not showing enough patience? Or maybe, on the contrary, I am letting myself be strung on too long? As I am pondering such questions, suddenly my satellite phone rings. I do not recognize the number that appears on the screen. But I do recognize the voice on the other end of the line. It is Suleiman Jamous, the rebel leader about whom I wrote yesterday: the one who two years ago managed to squeeze $600 out of me for the return trip from Darfur to Chad. It takes my breath away to be receiving such a call. Why does Suleiman know my satellite phone number? Why does he know where I am?

Suleiman Jamous, the rebel chief from northern Darfur. It is a long story. Here just the most important elements. Two years ago, the so-called Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) made me and another journalist with whom I was traveling aware of the power he had over us on every possible occasion. Although he knew that we were pressed for time, he would endlessly play cards and chat with his commanders. He took extended siestas and claimed that his car needed repairs. This was supposed to be the reason why we could not leave. But we constantly saw his car speeding through the sand in the surrounding semi-desert. It was not only the matter of the $600 that gave me a bad impression of the graying, well-educated and charismatic Suleiman.

Earlier, Suleiman was on the side of the Sudanese government: he held an important position in the government and was considered to be an Islamist. Somehow, he changed his mind and joined the SLA, thus becoming one of the few educated people in its ranks. Suleiman is a Zaghawa. He is thus a member of the same tribe as Minni Arkou Minnawi, who was the number two man in the SLA hierarchy. At the time of our trip two years ago, the SLA was still a unified movement. But Suleiman and Minni were just about to split off from the rest of the organization, which continued to be led by SLA-founder Abdulwahid Mohammed an-Nur, a Fur. Abdulwahid and Minni could not stand one another.

In 2005, with the help of Libya and the tacit consent of Khartoum, Minni organized a conference in Darfur at which hand-picked delegates elected him chairman of the SLA. This succeeded in dividing the organization in two and Suleiman remained loyal to Minni. The government people in Khartoum quietly had themselves a good laugh. Then last year, Minni signed the Abuja peace treaty, in which Khartoum yet again pledged to disarm the Janjaweed. The so-called international community applauded the development. But the peace treaty was in fact stillborn: a disgrace for western diplomatic efforts and, above all, for the U.S. The treaty occasioned a new split, now between Suleiman and Minni. Most of the rebel leaders in Darfur rejected the treaty: not because they did not want peace, but because the content of the treaty was nearly nonsensical. The Abuja treaty in fact permitted a dangerous escalation in the violence. Khartoum's conviction that it could put an end to the conflict by military means was reinforced.

But the split with Minni was difficult for Suleiman. Minni's thugs managed to locate him and took him prisoner. He was allegedly even tortured. Human rights groups like Amnesty International took up Suleiman's cause. Suddenly, the SLA's "Humanitarian Coordinator" was a topic for international media like the BBC. It made no difference that the word "humanitarian" was just a cover for what Suleiman in fact coordinated: namely, the supply lines of the SLA, which in 2005 came from Chad and Libya. He probably took a healthy commission for himself in performing this function, incidentally. In any case, it was only thanks to the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) that Suleiman was able finally to get away alive. The UNMIS flew him in a helicopter from Darfur to the Sudanese province of South Kordofan. There, he was placed in a hospital in the town of Kadugli. Khartoum was not at all happy about it and suspended U.N. operations in Darfur for several days. On Khartoum's account, the rescue operation represented a flagrant violation of Sudanese sovereignty.

Suleiman complains on the phone that he has been held at the hospital in Kadugli since last June. He is a guest of the UNMIS, but also a prisoner, he says, since there are Sudanese soldiers outside the hospital waiting to seize him as soon as the opportunity arises. Foreign human rights groups are again mobilizing to obtain Suleiman's release. But even in exile in Kordofan, some 800 kilometers from his homeland, Suleiman is still trying to coordinate the operations of his troops.

"You're still working?"

Suleiman laughs and says: "Of course. My commanders are still there. You met some of them."

Now I understand why these people asked for so much money to take me over the border into Darfur. They must have learned that from Suleiman.

"And what is going to happen with you now? Can't you get away from Kadugli to southern Sudan and from there escape to Uganda or Kenya?"

"Yes. That would be possible. But I am waiting still to see if the diplomatic pressure will bring about my release. Just go over into Darfur and then once you've completed your mission, you can call me again and we can do an interview."

"Sure. We'll do that. Take care of yourself and see to it that you get out of your hospital soon."

How ironic. This man, who not so long ago let two little journalists feel his power and contempt, is now himself at the mercy of others. Evidently, he wants to recruit me for his campaign, in the hope that I can help to publicize his situation. Maybe he is overestimating my influence. I do not think I can help to get Suleiman out of his predicament. And not only because of the bad memories that I associate with the SLA's "Humanitarian Coordinator."

"Day 17: Finally, a Straight Answer"


Kurt Pelda is the Africa Bureau Chief of the Swiss daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The diary of his trip to the Chad/Darfur border first appeared in the NZZ Online. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.