Darfur, Saving Itself

By Julie Flint
Sunday, June 3, 2007


Kaltouma Musa walked home a few weeks ago carrying her baby on her back and holding her young brother tightly by the hand. She had left a camp for the displaced where she had been receiving aid to return to a rebel-controlled area with no aid, marked on maps as a no-go zone where the African Union and United Nations fear to tread.

"Home" is Bornyo, one of a string of villages in the Ain Siro mountains of North Darfur, the first base of the insurgency in the Darfur region. It was destroyed by Sudanese troops and the predominantly Arab Janjaweed militia soon after the rebellion began in 2003. The assault on Bornyo was, by the standards of the day, an everyday catastrophe. Supported by bombers and helicopter gunships, the government's ground forces killed, raped and looted. They burned every building in the village. Kaltouma, then just 16, was caught and whipped, but she somehow managed to escape. Her father and two brothers were shot dead. Her uncle ran for his life but was chased by Janjaweed on horseback until he collapsed and was killed, too.

Four years on, Bornyo is a ghost village. It lies close to the rebels' front line with the government and has not been rebuilt. But Kaltouma preferred to go to the nearby village of Ain Siro, building a new hut from the charred remains of the old, than to stay in Kassab camp 30 miles away, risking rape by the Janjaweed every time she ventured out. Life in Ain Siro is good, she told me when I visited Darfur in March. Now, the rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army protect the area as best they can and respect civilians. The abuses of the faction commanded by Minni Minnawi ended when his former comrades-in-arms hounded him out of rural Darfur after he signed a peace agreement with the government last May.

The Bush administration refuses to admit that it made a mistake in backing Minnawi, the sole rebel signatory of an agreement Darfurians overwhelmingly reject. Human rights activists, stuck on the term "genocide," see any other description of the conflict in Darfur as a form of moral equivocation. But Kaltouma Musa knows something that we in the West have barely begun to see and that policymakers do not acknowledge: In many of the areas controlled by rebels who reject the peace pact, life is returning to normal, as much as it can after so much death and destruction.

President Bush recently unleashed an uninformed, untimely broadside against the so-called non-signatory factions, turning a blind eye to the atrocities of Minnawi's men and grossly exaggerating the violence inflicted by the rebel commanders who would not follow him to Khartoum. "They're roaming the Darfur countryside pillaging and stealing at will," Bush said at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 18; last week, he tightened sanctions on Sudan by blocking the assets of 30 Sudanese companies and three individuals, including the leader of a rebel group opposed to the peace pact. "They have killed civilians, they've plundered vehicles and plundered supplies from international aid workers, they've added to the lawlessness," Bush said in his April address. "The government in Khartoum has been unable to control the problem."

Four days later, Khartoum tried. It bombed the rebels just as they were meeting to try to form a united, orderly movement. It had bombed them before, using high-flying Antonov bombers that missed their mark. This time, Khartoum used low-flying gunships. Two people were killed, both civilians.

Bush's words show the dangers inherent in much of the uninformed comment on Darfur that emanates from the United States -- driven, very often, by activists who have never been there and who perceive the war as a simple morality tale in which the forces of "evil" can be defeated only by outside saviors. For them, Darfur is not a place with a complex history; it's a moral high ground. Darfurians are no longer real human beings who laugh and love and care for their children; they are one-dimensional images of suffering.

For some, such as Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, salvation means a "surgical" military strike -- Iraq without the body bags. For most, it means an exclusive focus on getting U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur. There's a case to be made for putting under U.N. command the African peacekeepers who are now on the ground. But the stridency of the campaign for doing so has proved counterproductive. It propelled the Bush administration to setting an unrealistic deadline for the Darfur peace talks last year after Sudan's vice president, Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, said that Khartoum would accept U.N. peacekeepers if the rebels would accept a peace agreement. More recently, it tied up the West in months of sterile confrontation that enabled regime hard-liners to get on with their business in Darfur, installing their own cadres and buying off weak and isolated rebel commanders under the guise of implementing peace.

Darfur's shifting complexities cannot be understood from afar. I have visited Darfur three times now -- for a month each time -- and on each occasion have been surprised by what I found. The region has sprung many such surprises on the humanitarian community in the past five years. Few expected that this Muslim government would unleash such a ferocious onslaught on its own Muslim citizens. Few expected the war to spread so rapidly beyond the Fur heartlands, and few foresaw the scale of criminality of some rebel commanders.

But not all the surprises are unpleasant.

In Ain Siro, Darfurians are putting their lives back together, with no help from the international community. I found children celebrating the end of the school year with a graduation ceremony and a play in which a girl defied her parents' wishes and won her sweetheart -- to the amused delight of a crowd of hundreds. Free of Minnawi's malign influence, other rebel commanders are trying to put their house in order. They have abolished some taxes -- on markets, animals, even on water. They have directed that relief cars not be attacked. They have stopped bringing civilians before military courts.

There is fear of the government, certainly, but that fear is tempered by the failure of Khartoum's last efforts to crush the rebels who opposed the peace deal. The village of Um Sidir, to the east of Ain Siro, bears silent witness to the magnitude of that failure: The battlefield is strewn with skeletons and brightly colored toothbrushes, the only remains of a government force of 600 that was defeated in 40 minutes of intense battle on Sept. 11, 2006. Darfurians fear the Janjaweed more than they fear Khartoum's troops. But despite this they are putting out feelers to their Janjaweed neighbors who, after all, need to pasture their camels in these areas. They are doing what they can to improve security, not waiting for U.N. peacekeepers to come, if they ever do.

There is change in Darfur. Why don't we see it? In the terrible days of 2003-04, the government unleashed a maelstrom of violence that could be described, with reasonable accuracy, as "Arabs" attacking "non-Arabs" or "Africans." Today, that simple picture has been replaced by a multiplicity of conflicts. Periods of relative quiescence are punctuated by flares of brutality that often escape the government's control. But as the violence decreases in Darfur, casualty estimates increase. Death in the region has always been exaggerated. In the 1984-85 famine, aid agencies estimated that 500,000 to 2 million people would die. When the famine was over, the death toll was closer to 100,000, despite a late and meager relief effort. Today some activists are using a figure close to 100,000 for annual deaths in Darfur, in the absence of famine.

The people of Ain Siro are among the 1 million who are "out of reach" of aid agencies -- people who we automatically assume must be facing starvation because we are not feeding them. But in North Darfur, at least, there is no starvation. Much is needed -- medicines, schoolbooks, decent wells -- but people are cultivating millet, rebuilding their herds after the devastation of 2003-04 and, when rains permit, gathering wild grasses and fruits to supplement their diet.

If the story of Kaltouma Musa tells us anything, it is something that close observers of Darfur have suspected all along: The people who will "save" Darfur are the Darfurians. And they may do it under our noses -- slowly, painfully and without our assistance, whatever we eventually choose to do.

Julie Flint is the coauthor, with Alex deWaal, of "Darfur: The Short History of a Long War."

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