The government in Khartoum reacted to the defeat by arming the Janjaweed to assist the army. The Sudanese military launched a bombing campaign against hundreds of largely African villages, leaving more than 1 million people as refugees.
The Darfur conflict emerged just as a U.S.-backed peace between the government and separate rebel groups in the south of Sudan promised to end nearly half a century of intermittent warfare there. The SLA asked to be a part of those peace talks, but the government refused. Now, the government faces yet another uprising mounting among the Beja tribe in eastern Sudan.
Haron Osman Ali, left, and other rebels with the Sudanese Liberation Army pass the time just across the border from Chad near their base in Bahai. The rebels are unequipped and untrained.
Refusing to Silence Their Guns: A week spent traveling showed the Sudanese Liberation Army to be a disorganized group, but not lacking motivation.
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Sudanese Decry U.N. Threat of Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
U.N. Puts Sudan Sanctions Into Play (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
Death Rates in Darfur Rising, WHO Says (The Washington Post, Sep 15, 2004)
U.S. Calls Killings In Sudan Genocide (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
U.S. Drafts Resolution On Sudan Sanctions (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
The SLA leaders are drawn from the elite ranks of African tribes, some of whom say they are fighting the legacy of decades of discrimination for more political power and a share of Sudan' s $1 million-a-day oil revenue. Some leaders say what they really want is to join with other rebellions around Sudan and push for a change of government in Khartoum. However, the groups have little political experience and remain fragmented.
In the town of Faraywaiah, SLA rebels explained their struggle by pointing to a ravine where 12 male bodies lay decomposing. One body was curled up in a fetal position. Another's scalp was rotting in the hot sun. Others had skulls poking through burned hair. The bitter smell of the dead hung in the hot air.
The rebels and a few townspeople who are left said that these were local African men, some of them caught by surprise at the village well and killed by government forces who stormed the town in March. The town, pockmarked with bomb craters, was deserted.
A Star Among Warriors
The rebels' most famous fighter is known as Kongo. He arrived one afternoon in the shade of a tree where his troops had spread carpets for an afternoon nap amid Belgian assault rifles and ammunition belts. Kongo had a thick swagger. His nom de guerre means the man who walks without a stoop.
His men gave him this name because they claim he never cowers from gunfire. That might explain why his left eye is shot out, a bullet is lodged in his jaw and one of his legs is stitched like a pincushion.
Kongo had a pounding headache and asked a reporter for some aspirin and a bottle of pastis, an aniseed-flavored, French liqueur, to soothe his aching head. The SLA's star fighter embodies the disparity between the group's determination and its resources.
Last July, Kongo fought in Gourbou Jong, a battle the SLA calls its mini-Stalingrad, after the Soviet defeat of Adolf Hitler's army. Gourbou Jong proved that despite poor training and bad weapons, the rebels could beat one of the most powerful militaries in Africa. A Sudanese Army general was killed in the fighting.
Kongo, whose given name is Kitir Zakariya, is nominally a commander in the SLA. But to his troops he is a god. He removed his sunglasses and revealed a wounded patch of skin where an eye used to be and described his mission to fight the Arabs in Darfur.
"The only language they understand is the gun," Kongo said, fiddling with his charm necklace, dozens of worn, square leather pouches filled with Koranic verses to protect him from gunfire. Then he took a cigarette out of his pocket.
"We, the youth of African tribes in Darfur, feel this has been going on for years. Something must be done," he said. "We can take them with just a few cars."
Listening to his every word was baby-faced, curly haired Harry Fadhul, who possessed a large gun and a frown. He's one of many young fighters who have chosen combat over being raised in squalid and humiliating refugee camps. Sipping powdered milk loaded with sugar, he recounted how he joined the force three months ago, after his village was burned. He saw corpses everywhere. His mother fled to a refugee camp, he said.
"I have nowhere to go," said Fadhul, who gave his age as 18 but looked much younger. "The SLA is my family now."