Splin­ter­ing of Rebel Groups Adds to Chaos in Dar­fur

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Stephanie McCrummen

GEREIDA, Su­dan — The quasi-rebel group os­ten­si­bly con­trol­ling this desert town of dis­placed thou­sands is called SLMMinni, which stands for Su­dan Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment, Minni Min­nawi fac­tion.

In the in­creas­ingly per­plex­ing world of rebel pol­i­tics in Dar­fur, SLM-Minni is not to be con­fused with SLM-Free Will, SLMUnity or Greater-SLM, whose leader was a spokesman for SLM-Minni un­til he be­came dis­il­lu­sioned and left to form his own group.

The Minni fac­tion is not to be lumped to­gether with G-19, an um­brella group un­der the um­brella of the Na­tional Re­demp­tion Front, which has yet to draw in the some­what mori­bund grand­daddy of all Dar­fur rebel groups, SLM-Al Nur, whose founder, Ab­dul Wahid al-Nur, re­cently at­tempted to clar­ify mat­ters by phone from his apart­ment in Paris.

“There is only SLM, led by me, al-Nur,” he said, sound­ing a bit ir­ri­tated. “There was G-19, but they are back un­der my lead­er­ship. . . . Many of Minni’s com­man­ders are back to me. There is no fac­tion­al­iza­tion in SLM. The gov­ern­ment cre­ates th­ese fac­tions.”

The sit­u­a­tion is com­pli­cated, but there is a grow­ing sense that the big­gest ob­sta­cles to peace in Dar­fur are not only the Su­danese gov­ern­ment and its mili­tias, but the Dar­fur rebels them­selves.

Af­ter four years of con­flict, the west­ern re­gion of Su­dan has be­come frag­mented among at least a dozen rebel groups, a de­vel­op­ment that lead­ers such as Nur be­lieve is the prod­uct of a clever di­vide-and-con­quer strat­egy by the gov­ern­ment but that oth­ers say is the re­sult of clashing egos within the move­ment.

An ar­ray of for­eign diplo­mats have shifted their ef­forts from pres­sur­ing the gov­ern­ment to en­cour­ag­ing rebel unity. The United Na­tions, for ex­am­ple, re­cently air­lifted 300 rebel com­man­ders to a meet­ing place in Dar­fur where they were to de­cide on a mil­i­tary struc­ture. The con­fer­ence was de­layed twice be­cause the gov­ern­ment bombed the area, and it fi­nally fell apart amid in­ternecine quar­rel­ing.

Of­fi­cials mon­i­tor­ing the re­gion and aid groups say that as the rebel groups splin­ter, they are in­creas­ingly moon­light­ing as rov­ing ban­dits, at­tack­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions, African Union sol­diers and whoever else might have the cov­eted trucks and satel­lite phones that are the means to power in this rugged re­gion.

“The dan­ger is that if they don’t get it to­gether, we’re go­ing to end up with a bunch of war­lords,” said one U.S. of­fi­cial in the re­gion, who, like many peo­ple in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle, spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. “The fac­tion­al­iza­tion is in­dica­tive of the pri­or­ity they put on their own per­sonal po­si­tions, rather than on Dar­fur.”

The con­flict started in 2003 when three main rebel groups with sim­i­lar griev­ances rose up against the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Khartoum, ac­cus­ing it of hoard­ing power and wealth at Dar­fur’s ex­pense. The gov­ern­ment re­sponded by bomb­ing vil­lages and arm­ing a mili­tia, known as the Jan­jaweed. Since then, as many as 450,000 peo­ple have died from vi­o­lence and dis­ease and 2.5 mil­lion have been dis­placed.

The rebels and the gov­ern­ment en­tered into ne­go­ti­a­tions last year. But as the Dar­fur Peace Agree­ment was be­ing fi­nal­ized last spring, rebel lead­ers un­happy with the deal be­gan break­ing off.

There are now at least a dozen fac­tions, a num­ber that some­times rises and falls in the course of a sin­gle day, ac­cord­ing to a U.N. se­cu­rity of­fi­cial.

The only group that signed the peace agree­ment, the SLM fac­tion led by Minni Min­nawi, was re­warded with a top gov­ern­ment po­si­tion for Min­nawi and other prom- ises of power that have mostly failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. And here in Gereida, the fac­tion’s lead­ers seem in­creas­ingly rest­less. “Yes, we signed the agree­ment, but un­for­tu­nately, so far, we’ve seen noth­ing,” said one of them, Abu Al­gasim Ahmed Mo­hammed, a for­mer elec­tron­ics sales­man. “Un­for­tu­nately, there is no im­ple­men­ta­tion.”

Though SLM-Minni is tech­ni­cally part of the gov­ern­ment now, Mo­hammed and oth­ers still re­fer to them­selves as rebels, and in re­cent months, sev­eral top com­man­ders have aban­doned the group and re­turned to the field.

Rank-and-file sol­diers have also left, ac­cord­ing to African Union of­fi­cials who de­scribe a split along tribal lines, with the Me­salit, who pop­u­late the area, un­happy with a lead­er­ship dom­i­nated by the Zaghawa, who are con­sid­ered the busi­ness­men of Dar­fur.

African Union of­fi­cials have ac­cused reb- els as­so­ci­ated with SLM-Minni of killing two Nige­rian sol­diers and steal­ing their truck in an at­tack here this month. Mo­hammed de­nied that his group was in­volved.

SLM-Minni has also been blamed for a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal at­tack on aid work­ers in De­cem­ber in which one worker was beaten, oth­ers were sub­jected to mock ex­e­cu­tions and 12 trucks were stolen.

Af­ter the at­tack, all but one re­lief group evac­u­ated the area, leav­ing 120,000 dis­placed peo­ple in Gereida camp — one of the largest in the world — with­out reg­u­lar ra­tions of food and wa­ter for nearly a month.

The sit­u­a­tion has im­proved some­what since the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, the only group re­main­ing, has taken over food dis­tri­bu­tion, wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion and other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

But se­cu­rity has sharply de­te­ri­o­rated, as it has all over Dar­fur.

“A year ago, it was much more sim­ple,” said Jes­sica Barry, a spokes­woman for the Red Cross, re­fer­ring to the process of ne­go­ti­at­ing safe pas­sage for aid trucks with rebel com­man­ders. “Now, with the frag­men­ta­tion of the groups, it’s much more com­pli­cated, it’s mak­ing it much harder for peo­ple to know they can go into the field safely. It’s a very frag­ile sit­u­a­tion.”

In Gereida, lead­ers of SLM-Minni ride around town in a Toy­ota Hilux pickup with fur on the dash­board and a lit­tle bird, a gold fan and cards printed with say­ings dan­gling near the wind­shield. One re­cent af­ter­noon, their en­tourage in­cluded baby-faced young men car­ry­ing AK-47 as­sault ri­fles that were at least half as tall as they were.

“Ab­so­lutely, the SLA is in con­trol of Gereida,” said Mo­hammed, sit­ting in a bare, ce­ment-floored of­fice with two 2006 cal­en­dars on the walls. “If you need 10,000 po­lice, I can pro­vide them right now.”

Mo­hammed and other lead­ers blamed gov­ern­ment-funded mili­tias for the De­cem­ber at­tack but also at­tempted to di­min­ish its sig­nif­i­cance.

“They just stole some ve­hi­cles,” said Mo­hammed Sh­womo Musa, an­other top com­man­der. “This is nor­mal. Even in Amer­ica, you have this kind of prob­lem. It’s no rea­son for them to leave just be­cause they had some cars stolen.”

Ob­servers note that rebel groups have spawned their own hi­er­ar­chies and bu­reau­cra­cies and sug­gest that their cause has be­come less about the suf­fer­ing mil­lions in Dar­fur than their own sur­vival.

Some rebel lead­ers have not even set foot in Dar­fur in years: Nur has been liv­ing in Paris. Oth­ers are in Ger­many. Mini Min­nawi is in Khartoum, where he is in­creas­ingly iso­lated from his or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In ad­di­tion to its strained re­la­tion­ship with some aid groups, SLM-Minni is se­ri­ously at odds with the en­camp­ment of African Union sol­diers on the edge of town who have re­mained locked down in the camp since their com­rades were killed. African Union Capt. Kris Amadeco Anogo de­scribed the re­la­tion­ship with SLM-Minni as “cor­dial in dis­guise.”

The sup­port the rebels have among their own peo­ple also seems to be wa­ver­ing.

This month, the com­man­ders piled into the Hilux and a Land Cruiser and drove into the sprawl­ing dis­place­ment camp that has all but en­gulfed Gereida. It was hot, and most peo­ple were sit­ting inside their mud­walled, tarp-roofed huts.

Walk­ing past a shut-down med­i­cal clinic, Abakar Os­man Adow­man, 27, said the De­cem­ber at­tack on aid work­ers cre­ated a state of panic in the camp, as peo­ple ba­si­cally went hun­gry un­til the Red Cross took over re­lief op­er­a­tions. The main prob­lem now, he said, is se­cu­rity.

“The SLM pro­vides some se­cu­rity inside the camp,” he said. “But out­side, you can’t move any­place.”

Women are still rou­tinely as­saulted when they ven­ture out to col­lect fire­wood, he said. Men are of­ten kid­napped, dis­ap­pear­ing for two or three days be­fore re­turn­ing, beaten and bruised.

As oth­ers did, Adow­man was quick to blame gov­ern­ment mili­tias for such vi­o­lence.

But when he was asked who car­ried out the at­tacks against the aid groups in De­cem­ber, he just looked away. “I don’t know,” he said.


Rebel com­man­der Abu Al­gasim Ahmed Mo­hammed pa­trols one of the largest dis­place­ment camps in the world, out­side Gereida, Su­dan.

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