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How Did Darfur Happen?

By SCOTT ANDERSON
The New York Times Magazine

October 17, 2004

He sat warily on the very edge of his chair, his mouth set in a steady, nervous grin. He would not use his real name -- Bashom, he called himself -- out of fear that he would be arrested for crimes he had committed as a janjaweed in his native state of West Darfur. Not that he used the word janjaweed, either. ''Ever since I was a young boy,'' he said, ''I wanted to be a knight. We all did, my friends and I. So when I came of age -- about 14 or 15 -- I became a knight.''

In Bashom's telling, this initially consisted of guarding his tribal village against intruders: thieves, cattle rustlers, the ''knights'' of rival tribes.

It was only when he was a bit older that he went out on raids himself.

''We would travel at night on our horses, so as to be outside the villages of our enemies very early in the morning,'' he said. ''Normally, we would spread out along one edge of the village -- because we didn't want a battle; we wanted them to run -- and then our leader would give the signal and we would attack.''

Now 30 and living in semi-hiding in a slum outside Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, Bashom claimed to have parted company with his band of knights several years ago, well before the marauding and massacres that have devastated Darfur and drawn international condemnation. Nonetheless, he was worried his past could come back to haunt him.

''Because we did many bad things on these raids, you know?'' he said. ''And if the government is serious now about moving against the knights, well, maybe they will come for me.''

When I asked what these ''bad things'' were, Bashom wouldn't elaborate. Instead, he fixed me with his unsettling grin, and his voice, already a whisper, became even softer: ''Everything you can think of. Maybe some other things too.''

As is often the case with calamities in Africa, that which has befallen Darfur seemed to burst into the global consciousness without warning. Until this spring, probably few Westerners had ever heard of the remote region in western Sudan. Then, virtually overnight, it became a topic of urgent discussion in Congress and the United Nations, a staple of the evening news, even a debating point in the American presidential race.

In fact, the alarm had been sounded long before. By the summer of 2003, Darfur refugees slipping across the border into neighboring Chad were telling of a scorched-earth Sudanese Army counterinsurgency campaign. In its hunt for members of a nascent rebel group, the refugees claimed, the army had teamed up with Arab tribesmen, and instead of looking for rebels, these camp followers simply laid waste: shooting down whoever crossed their path, torching homes, looting. In giving these raiders a name, the refugees turned to an old Darfur epithet for bandits -- janjaweed, or ''devils on horseback.''

Despite mounting criticism from abroad, the Sudanese government in Khartoum not only denied any connection with the janjaweed, but continued to suggest there was no crisis at all. As the number of refugees and burned villages soared, Khartoum effectively sealed Darfur off from the outside world. By this spring, vast tracts of the region had been depopulated, the refugee population in Chad had mushroomed to 120,000 and as many as 1,200,000 people were homeless -- or, in the dry parlance of the humanitarian aid community, ''internally displaced'' -- inside Darfur. There, they were subject to continuing attacks by the janjaweed and rapidly running out of food.

At this 11th hour, the international community finally went into action. Under pressure spearheaded by the United States, the United Nations compelled Sudan to lift many of the strictures placed on foreign relief agencies, leading to a rapid upsurge in supplies and personnel reaching the field. Responding to demands that it protect the refugee camps from further janjaweed attacks, Khartoum shuttled thousands of additional policemen to Darfur and allowed in a handful of African Union observers to monitor the situation. By the closest of margins, wholesale catastrophe appears to have been averted, at least for the time being; while janjaweed attacks persist in some areas, relief agencies are now cautiously optimistic that enough food and medicine are reaching the field to forestall mass starvation or a disease epidemic.

But what will happen next? In its need to hold someone responsible both for causing the crisis and for ending it, the outside world has imbued Darfur with a clarity and a coherence that are not at all apparent on the ground. Instead, what emerges is a far more complicated and, ultimately, more disheartening tale: disaster brought about through a blend of incompetence, cynicism and cowardice. At its most grim, it is the story of how a remarkably small group of combatants -- probably just a few thousand soldiers, rebels and so-called janjaweed combined, mostly armed with little more than what might be found in a National Guard armory -- was able to precipitate a tragedy that has pushed more than a million people to the edge of extinction. The paradox is that the very ease with which they were able to do so also means there is no quick or simple solution.

When, after a June visit to Darfur, Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked what the Sudanese government could do to solve the janjaweed problem, he rather blithely replied, ''Since they turned it on, they can turn it off.''

If that were ever true, it almost certainly is not now. Rather, with the poison in Darfur allowed to reach full strength, the shattered region has become the latest ward of the international community and will undoubtedly remain so for a long time to come.


"When the problems with the rebels started in Darfur,'' Gen. Ibrahim Suleiman explained, ''we in the government of Sudan had a number of options. We chose the wrong one. We chose the very worst one.''

If this seems a surprisingly candid assessment for a man who had once been among the most powerful figures in the Sudanese military -- the retired four-star general had served as minister of defense and (twice) as the armed forces' chief of staff -- Suleiman evidently felt he had little left to lose. As governor general of North Darfur, he had played a pivotal role in events leading up to the calamity in the region and had seen his career destroyed by it.

''And it would have been so easy to avoid,'' he said in a sitting room of his Khartoum home. ''None of this had to happen.''

Even by the standards of Sudan -- Africa's largest and ethnically most diverse nation -- Darfur is a place of superlatives. A vast landlocked region in the heart of the Sahel desert, it would appear to be among the most isolated regions on earth. In fact, astride one of Africa's great migration and camel caravan routes, Darfur has always been one of the continent's richest melting pots; along with the Fur, from whom the region gets it name, fully 90 of the tribes and clans of Sudan are represented there, while others have settled from as far away as Africa's Atlantic coast, thousands of miles away.

Among the few things that the various antagonists in the Darfur crisis agree on is the conflict's root cause: cataclysmic droughts that have afflicted a vast stretch of northern and eastern Africa since the 1980's. Drought has strained the relationships that existed among the various tribes in the region and, most acutely, the relationships between its farming and nomadic communities. Historically, the nomads, concentrated in the drier northern reaches of Darfur, had brought their animals down into the more temperate southern farmlands during dry season and then migrated back north with the onset of the rains. With water holes and seasonal rivers vanishing in the drought, though, the nomads were forced to venture farther south to find pasturage and to stay far longer. Eventually, conditions grew so dire that many settled into a semi-pastoral existence, establishing permanent villages amid the farming communities from which they would graze their animals in a 40- or 50-mile radius. With everyone in increasing competition for the same shrinking pool of natural resources -- water, grassland, arable soil -- conflicts increased.

Initially, the Darfur tribes tried to cope with these tensions as they always had, through intercommunal negotiation. If a nomad's camels trampled a farmer's field or, conversely, some of his herd was stolen, the elders of both tribes would convene and hash out a settlement: typically, a payment of cash or animals to the victim. By the mid-1980's, however, this age-old system was being dismantled by the national government in Khartoum, which sought to exert greater control over Sudan's near-autonomous tribes. Instead of tribal mediation, almost any dispute now meant going before an official and maneuvering through the state bureaucracy.

Fair enough, except that the established farmers of Darfur were mainly from African tribes, while the encroaching nomads were primarily Arabs. And given that Arabs were steadily coming to dominate all branches of the Sudanese government, there was little doubt how any Arab-African squabble would ultimately be decided. A result was surely the opposite of what Khartoum intended: the tribes of Darfur, Arab and African alike, increasingly took matters into their own hands, availing themselves of knights like Bashom to defend their own communities and to conduct reprisal raids on their foes. What's more, with civil unrest becoming common across the Sahel, the entire region was now awash in modern weaponry, allowing the knights to trade up from their old bolt-action rifles and spears to Kalashnikovs. The consequences were predictable; in one clash between Arab tribes and the Fur in the late 1980's, at least 3,000 were killed.

Not that anyone in Khartoum paid much attention. By then, the Sudanese government had a much bigger problem on its hands. The ''Arabization'' of Sudanese society, together with the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, had led to an explosive resurgence of a long-simmering civil war being waged in southern Sudan by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.), composed primarily of Christian blacks. In combating the S.P.L.A., the Khartoum government had turned for help to Arab tribal militias, and the fighting in the south had quickly taken on the tinge of both jihad and genocide, making Sudan a pariah state in the eyes of the West.

That did not improve with the 1989 coup that brought to power the current head of state, Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir; instead, it almost seemed Bashir was intent on building his nation's outlaw status. He expanded the use of Arab tribal militias in the south, and the death toll there ultimately exceeded two million. In a vicious game of round robin, Sudan supported a range of guerrilla groups against its neighbors, as those same neighbors supported guerrilla groups or fomented rebellion against Sudan. By the late 1990's, Khartoum had gained such notoriety as a haven for Islamic fundamentalist radicals -- Osama bin Laden was its most famous temporary resident -- that it was slapped with American economic sanctions and then hit with a retaliatory air strike after the bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

All the while, tensions in western Sudan, in Darfur, continued at a low boil. If the African tribes there were not particularly bothered by the imposition of Islamic law -- unlike the African tribes in the south, those in Darfur were Muslim -- the continuing Arabization policy was causing them to feel ever more marginalized, the Arab tribes ever more powerful. Once again, the tit-for-tat raids in the region escalated toward full-bore intertribal war, with the difference now that the Bashir government had any number of internal and regional enemies that might play the deteriorating situation to their advantage. In April 2001, General Suleiman stepped into this powder keg upon assuming the title of governor general, or wali, of North Darfur State.

''I saw that the situation was becoming very grave,'' he recalled. ''The violence was increasing; all the different tribes were gathering up weapons.'' Most ominously, Khartoum's failure to impose order was being interpreted by the African tribes as deliberate, provocative policy. ''They believed the raids against them were being agreed to by the government,'' Suleiman told me. ''Otherwise, why didn't the government stop them?''

One reason for Khartoum's neglect of the region may have been that in the wake of Sept. 11, the Bashir regime was energetically trying to clean up its international image -- and the sheer amount of cleaning up necessary left little time for new distractions. With an oil industry just getting under way in eastern Sudan, Khartoum was eager to end American economic sanctions, which kept foreign investors away and blocked access to international markets. Having already ended its romance with the most notorious Islamic radicals, Khartoum set about mending relations with many of its neighbors, quietly cutting off its support to a variety of guerrilla and dissident groups throughout the region. Certainly its most significant overture was agreeing to a strong American role in mediating negotiations to end the southern civil war, a move that would have been unthinkable just a short time earlier.

What with everything else going on, it was pretty much left to Suleiman to keep a lid on the growing tensions in Darfur. To do so, he summoned a steady stream of both African and Arab tribal leaders to his office in El Fasher, the state capital, and urged them to stand down their militias. Of course, this would only happen if everyone stood down simultaneously, and in pursuing this goal Suleiman discovered he had an implacable foe in a charismatic Arab sheik named Musa Hilal.

As the leader of the Um Jalloul tribe, the 43-year-old Hilal's reputation for banditry and violence against his rivals was already legend -- in 1997, he had been briefly jailed for reportedly ordering the murder of 17 African tribesmen -- and a disproportionate number of the reports of bloodshed that crossed Suleiman's desk pointed to Hilal's followers as the perpetrators. Since appealing to the sheik's sense of decency seemed a nonstarter -- in Suleiman's estimation, Hilal was a born criminal -- the general opted for the direct, man-to-man approach.

''I told him, 'If I decide to kill you, I will kill you, and nothing will happen to me,''' Suleiman recalled in his Khartoum sitting room. ''And do you know? He just smiled. I think even then Hilal knew he couldn't be touched.''

Since talking wasn't doing the trick, the general took a page out of the old playbook of the British colonialists: in 2002, he arrested the three most troublesome tribal leaders, including Hilal, and sent them and 21 of their lieutenants into internal exile in a prison on the far side of Sudan.

''My idea was to get them out of Darfur, to let things quiet down,'' he said. The former general shrugged with a grin. ''And who knows, maybe getting to know each other in prison, they would sort things out.''

But by early 2003, Suleiman had another headache to deal with: a new guerrilla group calling itself the Sudan Liberation Army (S.L.A.) had popped up in the western reaches of Darfur and had begun carrying out attacks on police outposts.

Just who was behind the S.L.A. and what they ultimately wanted were a bit of a mystery -- and, in fact, are only slightly less so today. With its leadership largely composed of members of the African Zaghawa tribe, and reportedly supported by dissident Zaghawa military officers from across the border in Chad, the group presented a hazy list of grievances against Khartoum, most centering on the political and economic neglect of Darfur in general and of the African tribes in particular. Somewhat impertinently, the S.L.A. also demanded to be included in the north-south peace talks being brokered by the Americans and just then reaching fruition. Not surprisingly, given its track record of ignoring Darfur, the Khartoum regime paid these latest malcontents little attention.

That all changed early on the morning of April 25, 2003, when the S.L.A. launched a surprise attack on the airport in El Fasher. After shooting up five military airplanes and two helicopter gunships, the rebels soon withdrew. But they had succeeded in killing some 100 soldiers and catapulting their cause into the national consciousness.

In battle-scarred El Fasher, Suleiman frantically worked the phones to Khartoum. ''I told them, 'Send me two brigades of good soldiers,''' he said. (A brigade has at least 3,000 soldiers.) '''Just two brigades, brought up from the south, and we will end this whole thing.''' In his Khartoum home, the general grew more animated as he recalled the events following the S.L.A. attack. ''I had seen the S.L.A. in El Fasher, so I knew they were nothing; the army, just with their light weapons, and the S.L.A. had run like girls!'' Suleiman slumped back with a disgusted sigh. ''But no.''

Shortly after the attack on El Fasher, Suleiman was dismissed from his post, and Khartoum began lining up the support of Arab tribes in Darfur for the coming offensive against the S.L.A. Among the first leaders approached was Suleiman's old nemesis, Sheik Musa Hilal, recently freed from jail.


In Kas, as in many other towns in Darfur, what passes for the central square is a great stretch of bare ground, perhaps 10 acres in size, with no trees or amenities or, most of the time, people. On some evenings, a portion is cordoned off for soccer games that can draw hundreds of avid male onlookers, but this cluster of activity seems only to underscore the surrounding emptiness.

It was not always so. Until last year, Kas was the agricultural hub of this corner of South Darfur State, and on market days -- Mondays and Thursdays -- the square was a cacophonous scene of farmers from the outlying villages selling their produce and animals and buying up manufactured wares for the homeward journey. Now those villages are empty, many burned to the ground by marauding janjaweed, and the survivors -- some 40,000 by best estimate -- live in squalid tent cities within Kas itself.

At the south end of the square is one such camp, occupying the site of what was a school. Across its grounds, perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 people are packed into tiny huts made of thatch and bent sticks, the luckier ones with roofs of plastic sheeting to keep out the rain. By communal agreement, the brick shells of the former classrooms are reserved for storage and to house the very sick.

Among the residents of the camp, Hamid Maraja Hassan is something of an operator. The resourceful 42-year-old former farmer has not only managed to secure plastic sheeting for both huts housing his two wives and seven surviving children; his daily treks in search of work have also yielded enough day jobs -- digging latrine pits, helping out at a metalworking shop -- to supplement the meager food-aid rations. The endless hustling also helps him to avoid the ennui that grips many in the camp and to keep from dwelling on what might come next.

''My wives ask me, 'What is to become of us?''' Hassan said one afternoon as his two infant sons crawled over his lap. ''And I have to tell them, 'I don't know.' It is not in our power to know.''

Lending credence to the charges of genocide leveled against the Sudanese government and its janjaweed allies is the systematic pattern the devastation in Darfur has taken. After scorched-earth campaigns in those northern and western areas where the S.L.A. rebels were actually known to be operating, the pogroms gradually extended south and east, finally reaching the Kas area only in January and February of this year. For Hassan in his home village of Torobeda, a Fur farming community of some 400 families about 25 miles west of Kas, the first hint of trouble came when the neighboring village of Shataya was attacked and burned in early February.

''Of course, we had heard about the killing in other parts of Darfur,'' Hassan recounted, ''but there was no trouble in our area -- there had never been any rebels there -- so the attack on Shataya came as a big shock to us.''

Three days later, it was Torobeda's turn; in Hassan's recollection, it began with a cracking sound -- ''like wood being split'' -- coming from the far end of the village. Soon, neighbors were running past his home in the direction of the river and the larger town of Kallek, shouting that the janjaweed had arrived. Sending his wives and eight children down the lane, Hassan stayed behind to round up his herd of goats, which, together with 14 cows in an adjacent field, represented all his wealth in the world. By the time he began his own flight, the attackers were in the middle of Torobeda.

''They were everywhere, janjaweed and police together,'' he said. ''Some were on foot; others were in Land Cruisers; and they were setting fire to the homes, shooting the people as they came out.''

With his goats, Hassan finally caught up to his family on the road to Kallek, only to discover that his eldest son, 23-year-old Ibrahim, was not among them; defying his father's instructions, Ibrahim had turned back to retrieve the family's cattle.

''He was a very good son, you see?'' Hassan said with a tender smile. ''He was concerned for our wealth, of how we would survive without our cows.''

Abandoning his goat herd, Hassan went back to find Ibrahim. He found him lying in a field, still conscious but slipping away from a gunshot wound in his back.

''There was no hope, so I stayed there with him while he died,'' Hassan said. ''But I didn't have time to bury him. That is still hard for me to think about, but the janjaweed were coming and I had other children who needed me, so I had to leave him there.''

Rejoining the rest of his family, Hassan led them across the river and into what he imagined was the safety of Kallek. Instead, their problems got a whole lot worse.

In one of the more notorious incidents of the entire Darfur conflict, thousands in the Kallek area who were burned out during that second week of February spent the next month trapped in the town by murderous janjaweed and Sudanese security forces. Women and children were herded into cantonments at one end of Kallek, where many of the women were raped. The captors divided the men into groups small enough that they could be tortured or killed at whim. By his own estimate, Hassan saw 15 or 16 men murdered, supposedly for being S.L.A. rebels or sympathizers.

The horror endured by Hassan and his family in Kallek finally ended in mid-March 2004, when they managed to flee to Kas. By then, the dead included Hassan's father and brother.

''So this is why I say we will never go back,'' he said. ''How can we? Those of us who were there, who lived, we know that it was the Arabs and the government together who did this. Even if we could go back, what is left there now? Only the Arabs.''


If you ask me, most of our troubles can be blamed on the fact that we're a dry country,'' opined Ahmed Angabo Ahmed, the commissioner for Kas. ''Beer. If at the end of his working day, the Sudanese man could come home and relax, drink a cold beer, I think everyone around here would calm down a lot.''

It was an unexpected theory for a Sudanese government official to posit -- under Islamic law, alcohol has been banned in the nation for decades -- but Ahmed is unusually cosmopolitan. A former air force brigadier general, he received his flight training in the United States, and his experiences there left a profound impression.

''Williams Air Force Base, Phoenix, Ariz.,'' he explained. ''We'd have classroom instruction in the morning, fly in the afternoon and then we'd hit happy hour. They made me an honorary citizen. America, it's a great country.''

There is a pleasant, languorous feel to the small government compound in Kas. A collection of low brick buildings set beneath enormous shade trees, it is a place where it is very easy to forget you are in the heart of both a humanitarian disaster zone and, to some degree, a war zone; on most of my visits, the half-dozen policemen detailed to guard the compound were relaxed enough to take long naps in the seats of a rusted-out Land Rover sitting up on blocks.

If Ahmed felt any greater sense of urgency, he disguised it well. Over tea and cigarettes in the cool shadows of his office, the 55-year-old commissioner steered the conversation toward reminiscences of his old flying days and away from the topic -- the Darfur crisis -- that had brought a steady stream of foreign visitors to his office in recent weeks. Pulling a stack of business cards from the pocket of his white robe, he read off a dizzying list of initials -- W.H.O., W.F.P., I.R.C. -- before boring of the task and setting them aside. ''All of a sudden, Kas is famous,'' he sighed. ''Everyone wants to come to Kas.''

As part of the kinder, gentler face the Sudanese government is now showing to the world, it had recently acknowledged that, yes, indeed, there is a humanitarian crisis in Darfur and that some of the refugees have legitimate fears about returning to their homes -- the government's top priority. Either word of all this hadn't reached Kas yet or Commissioner Ahmed refused to play along.

''There is no fear,'' he said of the refugees. ''It is a plan, my friend. They are following the orders of the S.L.A. The S.L.A. wants to show the bad face of the government, that we cannot maintain these people, that we cannot feed them. The S.L.A. told the poor people here: 'Hey, don't give up. The U.S. and England will come here and occupy this country and they will give you everything and take off the Arabs from Sudan.'''

As for the true reason for the sudden international attention on Darfur, the commissioner had a ready answer. ''It's American politics. It's election time, and Bush needs something to turn attention away from the mess he's made in Iraq. So he says: 'Look at all these terrible things Sudan is doing in Darfur. We have to stop it.' And then Kerry has to jump in: 'No, it's even worse than that, and Bush isn't doing enough.' And do you know who's behind it all, the ones pulling the strings? The Jews. The Jewish lobby in America and Israel. Whenever you see an Islamic country making progress, they are there to sabotage it.''

With the exception of Ahmed, with his penchant for ad libs, most Sudanese officials follow a script when discussing Darfur, one so honed they tend to recite it in nearly identical form. The only tricky part is that the script is constantly revised as circumstances demand. Thus, after months of effectively denying there was a crisis in Darfur and severely restricting access to the region by relief agencies and the foreign media, the threat of United Nations sanctions led to an abrupt about-face.

Before coming to Kas, I joined some 40 other journalists, mostly Sudanese, on a whirlwind, two-day fact-finding mission to all three Darfur state capitals, organized by the Sudanese Ministry of Information. If thin on facts, the junket was at least revealing of what the Sudanese government wished us to see and hear. In El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, we were shepherded to trucks laden with refugees and their possessions, ostensibly returning to their villages now that security had been restored. At every available opportunity, the trip organizers trotted out some local African chieftain who announced that the problems had never been as bad as reported and, in any event, were now rapidly slipping into memory thanks to the robust efforts of the Sudanese government. The message was clear: Darfur was gradually returning to normal; the rule of law was being re-established.

The junket was also an opportunity for the Sudanese government to put the crisis into its ''proper'' context. As officials repeatedly pointed out, it wasn't as if all African tribal groups had been burned out by the janjaweed, or only Africans who had been victimized; in a number of places, Arab villages had suffered retaliatory strikes by African militias or the S.L.A. They also stressed the elasticity of the janjaweed label, an epithet long used in the region to describe any bandit or highwayman regardless of race. But perhaps their most novel argument was to discount a racial component in the conflict altogether, a line I had first heard back in Khartoum while meeting with Gen. Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, the Sudanese minister of the interior with a special portfolio on the Darfur crisis.

''Because of intermarriage over the years,'' Hussein said, ''there is no such thing as a true Arab or African in Sudan anymore.'' In his office, he abruptly pointed to one of his aides, a dark-skinned military officer. ''Look at him. He is an Arab. I am not an Arab. But these men here are all Arabs even though their skin is darker than mine.'' The minister chuckled pleasantly. ''You see? All this talk of race really misses the point.''

Instead, the minister contended, the Darfur conflict must be viewed as a complex regional struggle between different tribes and political constituencies. As for who is truly behind the S.L.A. and its latecomer sister guerrilla group, the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudanese government points to a broad and eclectic rogues' gallery: dissident Zaghawa officers in the Chadian military; Islamic mujahedeen under the leadership of Hassan al-Turabi, formerly the spiritual mentor to both bin Laden and Bashir, who now sits in a Khartoum prison; John Garang's S.P.L.A. rebels in the south -- even Eritrea, Sudan's neighbor on its far eastern border and the perennial bad boy of the region.

While it is not hard to see Khartoum's interest in building this line of defense -- after all, if a racial or ethnic component to the conflict can be discounted, it fairly negates the accusations of genocide -- there are enough grains of truth to almost all the government's defenses to muddy the charges made against it. Certainly, many of the foreign aid workers and journalists pouring into Darfur by midsummer were finding a much different place than they had imagined: less bleak, far more complex. One of the oddest aspects was how happy the refugees seemed.

''They're the happiest I.D.P.'s'' -- internally displaced persons -- ''I've ever seen,'' commented one American relief worker who had arrived recently. ''I've been at this work a long time, and I've never seen anything like it.''

But what looked like happiness may have been relief. The mere presence of outsiders was seen by the refugees as insurance against further attacks by the janjaweed and, by extension, the Sudanese government.

One Unicef worker was also reappraising her preconceptions about Darfur, including the commonly accepted accusation that the Sudanese government had chosen to obstruct the relief effort as a matter of policy. Having experienced for herself the grotesque inefficiency of the Sudanese bureaucracy, the Unicef worker found herself increasingly questioning how deliberate it was.

''How much of this just comes down to incompetence and feeling besieged?'' she asked. ''No government wants to admit that they've lost control of a situation, especially one that feels the outside world is lining up against it. If you look at what's happened here in that light, a lot of what Sudan has done takes on a certain messed-up logic.''

I was reminded of this one morning in Kas, when Commissioner Ahmed drove up in his Land Cruiser to show me the new refugee camp he was trying to establish on the edge of town. While the foremost goal of the Sudanese government has been to repatriate the displaced to their home villages as soon as possible, that initiative has been largely stymied by the contention of both the refugees and the international relief agencies that as long as the janjaweed control the countryside, return is tantamount to a death sentence. As an interim step, Ahmed has been trying to establish a new camp on a broad, flat plain at the edge of Kas, one that would appear to promise much better living conditions than those in the inner-town camps. In making this argument to various delegations of refugees, however, Ahmed had found no takers.

''It is a trick of the government,'' Hamid Maraja Hassan, the refugee from Torobeda, had told me, ''because in that place, we will have no protection. The janjaweed can do anything they want to us.''

Whatever temptation I had to ascribe Hassan's comments to undue paranoia was undercut by something Ahmed said once we had reached the proposed campsite. Standing at the edge of the vast plain -- empty except for a single field tent in which a half-dozen policemen sat -- Ahmed began by telling how he had recently cleaned up the crime problem around Kas.

''We had about 120 bandits in the area,'' he said, ''highwaymen, cattle thieves, all kinds of criminals. But what to do with them? And then I

decided, I'll make them soldiers and policemen! Because as you know from your own experience in America, bandits and police, they're very similar, and if they're good at the one profession, they'll probably be good at the other.''

Ahmed abruptly drew up, as if sensing that he might be veering off message again; in recent months, both refugees and human rights monitors had repeatedly charged that Sudanese authorities were hiding the janjaweed by putting them in police uniforms.

As we drove back into town and through yet another refugee camp, the commissioner pointed out a number of tents that appeared to be empty or abandoned. According to him, it was because their owners had returned to their home villages but were also maintaining a ''residence'' in the camp so they could continue to collect food rations from the relief agencies. Rather than being angered, however, he found this thought quite amusing.

''Well, they really are scoundrels,'' he chuckled. ''But who can blame them? If we were in their situation, let's hope we would be so clever.''

At the edge of the refugee camp, the Land Cruiser was suddenly engulfed by waving, smiling children. The commissioner rolled down his tinted window to shout a greeting to them and exuberantly waved back.

With a dainty hand, Sheik Musa Hilal gently tugged on his eyelashes until one came free in his fingers. After closely examining the lash for a moment, he gave it two soft kisses, then cast it free and watched it flutter to the ground. If an odd gesture for most anyone, it had a special creepiness coming from a man who stands charged with genocide.

After topping a list of seven supposed janjaweed commanders accused of war crimes that was issued by the State Department in June, Hilal took an unusual tack. Rather than go into hiding, he assumed a very public presence in Khartoum and made himself available to Western journalists, even inviting them along on trips to his tribal homeland in North Darfur. In what must be something of an embarrassment to the Sudanese government, which habitually denies any ties to Hilal, the sheik's trips home usually involved transport aboard Sudanese government aircraft.

It would appear the handsome sheik had things pretty well figured out. On the one hand, it seems highly unlikely that the Khartoum government would move against him -- the mere mention of his name sets off paroxysms of nervousness among Sudanese officials -- because he knows too much of what has really happened in Darfur. He obliquely hinted at this during a long evening's discussion at a follower's home in Khartoum.

''What I can say about Darfur,'' he said, a sly smile working at the edge of his mouth, ''is that the government came to me and to many of the other sheiks and asked for our help in fighting the S.L.A. Of course, we did so gladly, because we were suffering from these rebels, too. And so we gave them our young men to help in this fight, but what happened after that, if mistakes or crimes took place -- well, that is the government's responsibility, not ours.''

On the other hand, it would appear Hilal doesn't have much to fear from those in the international community who profess to want him arrested; after all, his star billing on the U.S. State Department's war-criminals list in June didn't prevent the State Department from meeting with him in July.

To many, that meeting epitomized the strange transformation that has occurred in American policy toward Darfur in recent months. From having led the charge for international involvement in the region and first raising the specter of genocide, the Bush administration has been noticeably reluctant to lend importance to the declaration of genocide unanimously passed by Congress.

While conspiracy theories abound over this sudden soft-pedaling, the simplest explanation is that the Bush administration is caught in something of a vise between salvaging the progress it has made with Sudan in recent years -- most notably the north-south peace settlement that American diplomats were instrumental in forging -- and the risk of losing it all by pushing too hard on Darfur.

''It's a pretty tough position to be in,'' one State Department official conceded. ''The Sudanese will bend to a certain point, but beyond that they just won't. The real danger here is that if you go too far, it derails the north-south deal, and you're back to another 22 years of war.''

In a revealing illustration of just how complicated the situation has become, American diplomats now harbor almost as much rancor for the rebels in Darfur as they do for the government in Khartoum. In recent months, the S.L.A. has repeatedly stalled peace talks being brokered by the African Union by setting unrealistic preconditions or quibbling over such details as where the talks should be held; for its part, the Justice and Equality Movement faction had, until recently, boycotted the talks altogether.

''The first notion anyone's got to disabuse themselves of,'' the same State Department official said, ''is that there are any good guys in this. There aren't. The S.L.A. started this war, and now they and the Justice and Equality Movement are doing everything possible to keep it going. The S.L.A. has never stood up to the army the way the S.P.L.A. did in the south. Instead, they've been very content to sit back, let the village burnings go on, let the killing go on, because the more international pressure that's brought to bear on Khartoum, the stronger their position grows.''

For its part, the Khartoum government has proved adept at playing one part of the international community off the other. At the same time that they have assumed a conciliatory stance toward the United Nations demands, they have played to their Arab neighbors and more militant domestic constituency by darkly warning of an Anglo-American invasion (something neither the British nor the Americans have ever threatened) and promising ''another Iraq'' should that come to pass. The two-pronged strategy has produced some odd moments; on Aug. 4, even as the Bashir government was professing full cooperation with the United Nations, an estimated 100,000 of its supporters were in the streets of Khartoum denouncing foreign meddling in Sudanese affairs.

The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, recently established a commission to investigate whether acts of genocide have occurred in Darfur and who might be responsible for them. The commission is headed by an Italian jurist who has done similar work on crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. The commission presents the possibility, perhaps, of some justice being meted out to those responsible for the Darfur disaster.

Some in the Bush administration now quietly suggest that all the discussion of whether what is transpiring in Darfur meets the definition of genocide may be an unhelpful diversion. At the same time, accusations of genocide could serve to give Khartoum a perverse rallying cry in other Arab and Muslim nations, and even in Western Europe, places where memory of the hyperbole and erroneous claims that accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq are still fresh. And it is not as if a finding of genocide is necessarily going to change anything anyway; when Colin Powell finally uttered the G-word in connection with Darfur in mid-September, it was with the quick assurance that this didn't mean the United States was prepared to take any further action, a statement that managed to enrage Khartoum and the international human rights community simultaneously.

What a declaration of genocide certainly would not do is to lend greater clarity to what is happening on the ground. If this is a genocide, it doesn't look very much like those we've known before. No public proclamations about ''the enemy within,'' no extermination lists, not even Interhamwe mobs butchering Tutsis in the streets of Rwanda. Instead, it is shadowy, informal; the killing takes place offstage. It is the destruction of a people in a place where it is virtually impossible to distinguish incompetence from conspiracy. Is that by design, the sheer evil genius of it all, or just more evidence of a government's utter haplessness? A genocide may, it seems, occur almost inadvertently.


Toward the end of my time in South Darfur, I spent a day at a camel market in the village of Burogna, some 20 miles west of Kas. I went there because I had been told it was a place where janjaweed frequently congregated, and sure enough, as I approached, I saw a number of gun-toting young men in Ray-Bans and patches of uniforms strolling amid the white-robed Arab camel traders. For the only time in my monthlong stay in Sudan, I felt overt hostility.

Sitting with a few tribal elders beneath a tree, they told me how they felt maligned by all the ''lies'' that had been spread about the Arabs of Darfur, how all the world now seemed to be against them. Yes, they conceded, they had sent their young men to join the fight against the rebels when the government asked, but wasn't this what a patriot in any country would do? The only explanation they could find was that the outside world had been duped into believing the lies spread by those who wished to destroy them: the rebels, the southerners, the Americans, probably the Israelis, too.

A short distance away, an Islamic preacher was conducting a revival-style meeting, with perhaps 200 men gathered in a circle around him. It was an impassioned sermon that floated between teachings from the Koran and ominous warnings of how the Arabs were a threatened people, of how they all had to prepare for a coming jihad against their enemies. In the Darfur countryside, almost every man carries a sheathed dagger tied to his left arm, and at the sermon's fever pitch, some of those gathered in the circle -- tribal elders in white robes, the young gunmen in their designer sunglasses -- reached for their daggers and lifted them into the air with a cry that seemed equal parts angry and exultant.

While leaving the camel market, I was approached by a nervous young man named Yahya Ibrahim, who had sat at the periphery during my talk with the Arab elders.

''Don't believe anything that anyone says to you here,'' he whispered, ''because all these men, they are janjaweed.''

It turned out that Ibrahim was a Fur. By his account, his nearby village had been attacked by the janjaweed last October and most of his family killed, with the survivors now living in refugee camps in Kas; he had been allowed to stay on in Burogna because of various friendships he had among the Arabs. When I asked if he recognized any of his attackers, Ibrahim cast a meaningful gaze over the dour young men in sunglasses now crowding in around us.

''I knew some of them,'' he replied.

I asked Ibrahim when he thought the rest of his family and village might be able to return home.

''But they can never come back here,'' he said with an incredulous shrug. ''They will all be killed. This is not our land anymore. We can never come back here.''

Scott Anderson has reported for the magazine from Chechnya, Israel and Libya.

 
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