How Did Darfur
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
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
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
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
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 --
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
''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
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
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
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
''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
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
''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
''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
''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
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
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
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
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
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.