We are in the middle of the desert, a sun-drenched, windblown place in the far reaches of North Darfur with barely enough shrubbery to support the region’s itinerant herds of gazelle. We bounce across the bumpy terrain in an aging Land Cruiser in a heat-driven stupor as the sun climbs higher into the sky. From the bushes steps a 15-year-old boy in camouflage with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and extra magazines strapped to his waist. He waves our vehicle to a stop while confidently puffing on a cigarette. More rebels emerge from the brambles, and Abdullah, our unarmed Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) escort, waves nervously at them–he had assured us that by driving through the desert we would avoid the collage of broken rebel territories and government-held towns that stretches for hundreds of miles south, and that we wouldn’t meet a soul, until we reached his group’s area in a few days.

The militants are from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the group that ignited the rebellion with the SLA in 2003 by demanding an equitable redistribution of wealth and power sharing across Sudan. Today the picture is more complex–the rebel movement is broken into at least fifteen factions, and the number is rising. Just over a year ago, the question looming over Darfur was whether or not the government and rebels could agree to peace. Now another question is almost as pressing: will the rebel movement be able to pull itself out of its speedy descent into internal chaos?

A short, grizzled man with a forced smile named Muhammad Monsour pulls Abdullah out of the vehicle for interrogation. “You and the other civilians are free, like birds,” the man tells me, “but if he is from a group that signed peace with the government, he will have to stay with us.” During a couple of uneasy hours of waiting and questioning, a 25-year-old JEM soldier named Al-Burra Omar coldly informs me that “the SLA has two choices: either unify or we will fight them.” Rebel factions “are on the wrong path,” he says, running his fingers over his prayer beads. “Every commander wants to be on his own. They just take a truck [from their group] and say, ‘I am a movement.’ They forget about their people, the refugees and the burned villages.” In the end, the battalion’s commander offers us hot, sweet tea and apologies, declaring that Abdullah is an enemy of Khartoum and therefore a friend, at least temporarily, of theirs. The tense negotiation is a microcosm of the lack of unity among rebel groups in Darfur, a fragmentation that prevents the peace effort from going forward.

Attempts to vie for power began in 2005, and the movement has been factioning ever since. That November, SLA General Secretary Minni Arko Minawi was “elected” as the group’s president in a conference in the village of Haskanita, effectively splintering off from its founder and president, Abdel Wahid Muhammad al-Nur. Many of the commanders who attended the conference were disillusioned with Minawi’s undemocratic and intimidating tactics–disloyal commanders were not invited, and those who came couldn’t vote–and soon formed a third SLA faction.

Then on May 5, 2006, Minawi became the lone rebel leader to sign the unpopular Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) with the government, for which he was named special presidential adviser on Darfur, a new position that was the fourth-highest in the Sudanese government. Almost overnight, his international image changed from firebrand revolutionary to respectable statesman. Minawi got an office in the capital, an African Union helicopter for his personal transportation and a trip to meet George W. Bush in the White House. War victims were left with the promise of a lump-sum compensation that essentially amounted to $13.50 each and a government-executed disarmament of the Janjaweed militia, neither of which has been fulfilled.

Six weeks after the DPA was signed, I visited Minawi’s hometown and talked to his vice director of intelligence, Abbas Ibrahim, over tea and UNICEF-issued “compact food” cookies. “The international community has all their eyes on Minni because they know that he is the controller of Darfur,” he said. With its newfound status, controlling Darfur is exactly what Minawi’s group tried to do. “Now we are going to be a part of the authorities,” said Ibrahim. “We will work with the government [to control these groups] now that we have agreed to peace.”

Two weeks later, however, Minawi’s forces went on a rampage, attacking their former SLA and JEM allies and the civilians who supported them, the same strategy used by the Janjaweed. Commanders and fighters loyal to Minawi had become disillusioned with the lack of results from the DPA and the violence against their people, leading them to defect in droves to the nonsignatory groups, taking their trucks and guns with them.

Shortly after the peace agreement was signed, nonsignatory groups formed alliances and revamped their struggle against the government in a burst of attacks around the region. Dizzy with victory, their movement imploded amidst general disagreement over who would lead the struggle forward. The breakdown between nonsignatories has been mostly free of violence, but at a stalemate, they are unable to come to a unified position for dealing with the government, indefinitely postponing a solution to the crisis.

Bir Maza is one of the first major outposts one comes to after emerging from the northern desert. It is a stronghold of nonsignatory SLA factions but wasn’t always. An assortment of artifacts testifies to the experience of the residents when the rebels aren’t around to protect them: a concrete-brick clinic and steel skeletons of World Food Program storage sheds stand barren, looted last November by the Janjaweed; stick shelters in the town’s hinterland are built under trees so people can hide from roving Antonov bombers; and a nearby village is saturated with the smell of rotting animal corpses, four-month-old piles of rocket shrapnel are spread among its thatch-roofed huts and a water pump stands wrecked by last April’s government bombs. All are constant reminders that the civilians of Darfur are the target of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.

The morning after I arrive in Bir Maza, on August 3, I eat breakfast with some twenty guerillas from the SLA-Unity faction in an abandoned school compound. The hum of a helicopter over the distant hills is interrupted by a barrage of thunderous warning shots from antiaircraft guns. The helicopter, which looks UN, is suspect because the agency did not make the usual call ahead. The Sudanese air force is rumored to use white helicopters with UN markings for reconnaissance.

But the helicopter, a rebel commander discovers by satellite phone, is carrying guerilla leaders to UN/AU-brokered negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania. The aim of the talks is to unify rebels as part of the AU and UN’s “road map” to peace in Darfur, which hopes to hold negotiations between the rebels and the government before the arrival of a 26,000 troop UN/AU “hybrid” peacekeeping force later this year. But while the movement’s political leaders meet in a luxury hotel by Mount Kilimanjaro, myriad field commanders are crisscrossing the region to confer with other factions about uniting the ranks of their guerilla armies and sidestepping their leadership entirely.

“We haven’t heard from our president in months,” says Ali Mukhtar, the soft-spoken, peg-legged, third-in-command of an SLA faction, whose leader, Khamis Abdullah, is in Asmara, Eritrea. “Our politicians don’t even consult the commanders here in Darfur to tell us what’s going on.” Muktar was SLA-Minawi’s special representative to the AU until this past January, when he broke away from his former leader following the government violence against civilians and lack of changes in political and economic equality.

Mukhtar and his troops have been camped for a month along washes and under trees in the green meadows surrounding Bir Maza. Not far from their temporary base, men and women till the sandy ground with handmade hoes in the sharp August heat while children herd goats and sheep and cheer the occasional rebel-loaded Toyota Land Cruiser that speeds by. Mukhtar brought his heavily armed battalion away from its usual stronghold in the nearby mountains to hold extended talks with Abu Bakr Kado, the general commander of the SLA-Unity faction, which is based in the area.

As we swat mosquitoes at sunset, Mukhtar says he wants the AU and UN to set up talks within the “liberated territories” between the movement’s field commanders, without the presence of their political leaders. “The politicians won’t unify by themselves,” he says. “Once our military is unified it will be easy to unify our politicians.”

Yusif Musabbal, a local peasant turned senior rebel commander of the SLA-Unity faction, agrees. Since the start of factioning he and other commanders have been trying, unsuccessfully, to reunite the SLA’s field commanders and elect a cohesive leadership. Always in fatigues and walking with a soldier’s gait, Musabbal is easily provoked. When I ask him about factioning, he erupts: “The rebel army across Darfur is the army of the SLA, not the army of Abdel Wahid, Minni Minawi, or anyone else!” he says. “After we unite the SLA military in South Darfur, North Darfur and West Darfur, we will hold a conference to decide who will be president. That’s our goal,” he says, returning to his tea.

Mukhtar and Musabbal’s cynicism with their leadership stems from the fact that the leaders are spread across the globe, from Asmara and Tripoli to London and Paris. Many fighters consider their absentee leaders, widely dubbed “hotel commanders,” to be out of touch with events on the ground. Musabbal accuses rogue commanders and self-appointed presidents of using internationally sponsored negotiations to gain power and influence. He contends that if more illegitimate commanders are empowered by the international community the way Minawi was, it could create further ruptures and power struggles within the movement. The result of more illegitimate leaders boils down to one thing: more violence in Darfur. It is here that the international community–that nebulous amalgam of governments, media, international agencies and NGOs–gets the flak. “If the international community wants to solve the problem in Darfur they should not equate us–an armed movement fighting the regime and holding vast amounts of territory–with people who carry a satellite phone that know English and talk to white people on the outside and say, Hello, I’m so-and-so and I have a movement,” says Musabbal.

One such man is Mohammedain Dosa, a slick character flaunting a suit, manageable English and a short stack of colorful letterhead with the name of his party, the Sudan Democratic Constitutional Party (SDCP), written large across the top. I meet Dosa in an Internet cafe in N’djamena, where he is promoting the SDCP to Darfur advocacy groups in the US. Throughout the several days I spend with him he hounds my colleague and me, insisting we “forge a link between the American media and my party,” and asks me to photograph him using our satellite phone so he can post it on his future website.

He reluctantly admits he doesn’t have troops on the ground in Darfur. He, the president, is also the only member of his party that I meet. Nevertheless, he insists that his party and others should be included in all negotiations. “If we want democracy in our country, we need to first implement it among ourselves,” he says. “Darfur doesn’t just mean JEM and the SLA.”

He warns: “If people aren’t included in negotiations, there is nothing to bind them to an agreement.” He informs me that he submitted a petition to the UN to be included in the Arusha talks, which he says was met with no response. A senior official of the UN Refugee Agency in Chad, who asked not to be named, said the agency received many written requests from previously unknown groups to be flown to the negotiations. “I threw them right into the wastebasket,” she said.

Dosa takes us on a tour of Darfur’s “new generation” of opposition, an assortment of groups unheard of a year ago that mostly came out of the collective disillusionment with the DPA. In a whitewashed house along one of the Chadian capital’s dusty streets, Dosa introduces me to the United Revolutionary Force Front. The group, while relatively small, contradicts conventional understandings of the Darfur conflict as a neatly Arab versus black war: the mostly Arab movement finds it no contradiction that Arabs in Darfur should want to fight the government. “This [war] isn’t between Arabs and blacks or blacks and Arabs,” says the mustachioed secretary-general, Muhammad Ibrahim Muhammad Brima. He says the government has exacerbated local tensions to keep its hold on power. “The government insists it is a conflict within our community, but the conflict in Darfur is a political one. The center controls everything in our region,” he says.

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In Darfur, the radio announces upcoming steps in the AU/UN road map, but the people listening are incredulous. The AU and UN have set October 27 as the date for peace talks between the government and rebels, but most civilians and every fighter I talk to are not interested in anything that results in the president and the National Congress Party staying in power. After so many burned villages, broken agreements and endless horror stories that have become synonymous with Darfur, few here believe peace could exist under the NCP’s rule. “It is absolutely necessary to change the ruling regime in Sudan. That is our first and final conviction,” says Musabbal. “If [the government] isn’t changed there will be nothing in Darfur.”

But Al-Bashir probably won’t back down easily. Shortly before I leave the rebel-held territories of Darfur, the young fighters under Mukhtar’s command are polishing their antiaircraft guns, changing the tires on their trucks and loading the trucks with barrels of fuel. The government attacked their troops two days before in another part of Darfur and made a string of attacks against civilian-populated villages in recent weeks, and Mukhtar’s faction is preparing to retaliate. He says it’s the government’s fault they didn’t come to an agreement with the SLA-Unity faction, and he accuses Al-Bashir of attacking to keep the rebels divided so they pose no serious threat to Khartoum. Still, he is hopeful that their armies will unify soon. As he wipes his pistol down with diesel fuel, I ask him what he thinks about the potential for peace in Darfur. “I have rights and needs that I cannot forget,” he answers, working the rag against the surface rust. “Once we get our rights and economic justice, then we’ll talk about peace and security.”