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In Divided Darfur, a Shared Will to Fight

Weapons and Talismans

Sudan Liberation Army rebels fill a truck in the town of Muhajara, where civilians were recently attacked by government-allied Janjaweed militiamen.
Sudan Liberation Army rebels fill a truck in the town of Muhajara, where civilians were recently attacked by government-allied Janjaweed militiamen. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

Under the scorching sun, slender boys follow herds of bony cattle and goats across the parched fields surrounding Marla. Each boy has a semiautomatic rifle swinging from his shoulder. These days, every male in the community must carry a weapon.

Even though the town is under the control of the Janjaweed and government troops, Hassab, the militia leader, said Sudan Liberation Army fighters recently killed a 24-year-old herder and stole 570 animals.

Marla, once a prosperous town of 5,000, was known for its production of gum arabic, a tree sap used in soft drinks, chewing gum and other goods. But now it has become a vacant, scarred vista of ruined huts and abandoned fields. The market is gutted, the mosque burned. The only civilians left are those who once worked in the market, were trapped by fighting and stayed on to sell goods to Hassab's men and the soldiers.

In one tiny wooden stall, Mohammed Ahmed, 45, sat hunched on a stool, making leather pouches and stuffing them with verses from the Koran on dried strips of goatskin. Both the rebels and government soldiers use these charms, he said, adding that he was the only merchant still doing brisk business.

"The war is still going on," he said with a nervous laugh. "People still need these."

Hassab strolled over to the stall. Ahmed trembled slightly as the big man approached. Hassab looked over a few pouches, handed him some wrinkled bills and went back to drinking tea.

Although Marla seems relatively calm, in some ways it is a militarized town. Late last year, residents and African Union officials said, Sudan Liberation Army forces were driven out of the area by Janjaweed and government troops.

Once the rebels left, militiamen started tearing down half-ruined huts and using the materials to build their own. When African Union troops tried to intervene, the Janjaweed resisted until they backed off.

The Janjaweed were originally enlisted by the Khartoum government to crush the rebel insurgency, which arose to protest the political and geographic marginalization of African tribes. But officials now assert that the militiamen have escaped their control and become an entrenched, autonomous force.

Hassab, however, said his fighters had been given ID cards, weapons and small amounts of grain or cash by government forces to attack the rebels. He said they had come to feel like a permanent force.

Hassab said he answered his government's call at first to put down the rebellion. Now, Darfur has simply become too dangerous to stop fighting, with criminals taking advantage of the lawless conditions.

"There is still war here," he said with a shrug.


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