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.