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Sudan's Ragtag Rebels

Kongo justified the war by describing the way successive governments in Khartoum discriminated against African tribes, punishing students in school who spoke their tribal language, Zaghawa. The SLA is now renaming towns from Arabic to Zaghawan.

"Whenever the Arabs talked to you it was like they were better than you," he said, a hand resting on the pistol in his belt holster. "No one seems to think they could ever live peacefully with their Arab neighbors again. I don't have any Arab friends. I would never marry even a beautiful Arab woman now. She is not for me."

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.

_____Photo Gallery_____
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)
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African tribes in Darfur have festering grievances dating back to the formation of a movement known as the Arab Gathering in the 1980s. Bringing together various Arab tribes, it espoused the supremacy of the "Arab race" and laid plans to help Arab tribes in displace African tribes that were granted land under British rule. Heavy clashes began in 1987.

In the early 1990s, the country's southern rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, trained rebels from Darfur and deployed forces in the region to fight the government. But the rebellion in Darfur was quickly crushed.

In response to the Arab Gathering, a group of African intellectuals created the Black Book, a fiery catalogue of facts and figures secretly gathered from government records that sought to prove that three Arab tribes dominated positions of power in nearly every sphere of Sudanese society, including hospitals, schools and police forces. Copies were passed out to every government leader, including the president, causing a stir in Khartoum.

It was a sign of what was to come. Today several authors of the Black Book, who called themselves The Seekers of Truth and Justice, are leaders in the SLA and JEM.

"We know there is a well-organized plan to get rid of us," said Ibrahim, who helped advise those who wrote the Black Book. "But we are warriors; that is our culture. The Arabs here don't know how hard we are willing to fight for our land."

The challenge for the SLA is not only to confront the powerful regime in Khartoum, but to somehow administer a territory where a hidden humanitarian crisis is underway. Part of the rebels' popular support will be based on how they feed and protect their own people, analysts said.

Nowhere to Turn

In an open field ringed by red mountains, Hawi Bas and her three children were hiding on a recent day under a scrubby tree in Shiga Karo, a rebel-held village about 70 miles east of Sudan's border with Chad.

Her youngest child, 2-year-old Hari, had wilting hair and willowy legs. He had become so thin that he could no longer walk. His name means "strong" in Zaghawa. His family survives on boiling the toxic pea known as mukheit, which needs to be soaked in water for three days. But mukheit only fills the stomach; it does not provide real nourishment to children.

Hawi Bas said she could not travel to the safety of refugee camps in Chad. "How are we going to go there?" she asked, crouching in the hot sand and showing a small bowl of mukheit. "We are not feeling fine. I always feel stomach pains. Do you see our condition?"

Aid groups say they believe there are tens of thousands of people struggling to survive in rebel areas, sealed off from aid. The government will not permit aid agencies to travel into rebel-held areas, arguing that the SLA will steal the food. The U.N. food agency has recently been granted access by rebel groups to study the needs in the region, entering through Chad or circumventing government troops.

Refugees say the rebels have not bothered them. Late last month, rebel soldiers distributed sacks of corn flour to some of the displaced, but it was not enough. Hari looked close to death.

Ibrahim, the SLA leader, looked at the child, held him up and then promised to make some calls to aid agencies to work on getting them here to help the refugees.

The rebel group is now suffering from splits within its leadership, and the people can sense a lack of focus. "They seem to have as little as we do," said Ismael Hagar, 25, a teacher who has brought biscuits to the refugees.

On a recent afternoon, the riverbeds were flooded and the only way to cross back into Chad from Sudan was to swim through the dirty water and wade through the mud. Walking alone in the opposite direction was Kongo. He was carrying a burlap sack and his pants were rolled up to his bony knees. He said he was hungry and went to Chad to get meat.

Now after eating, he trudged back across the border.

"To fight," he said. "Always."

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