Splintering of Rebel Groups Adds to Chaos in Darfur
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.