Darfur's Divided Rebellion
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.