From the Bush to a Chandeliered Hotel, a Rebel Takes Talks in Stride
Conflict in Darfur Has Grown Into Entrenched Way Of Life for Many

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007

SIRTE, Libya, Oct. 28 -- Until 17 days ago, rebel Abdul Majid Dosa was living in the bush of the warring Darfur region of western Sudan. Dosa, 51, would stub out his last cigarette of the day at sunset, he said, so that Sudanese government warplanes wouldn't see the glow.

His bed was a stretch of arid ground. No tents -- "they make us a gift to the bombs," Dosa said. Each night, he would curl up to sleep aside his rebel comrades-in-arms, Kalashnikov and pistol by his side.

Then, one day, Dosa's cellphone rang: It was the United Nations, he recalled, inviting him to a new round of Darfur peace talks.

So Dosa, a self-described coordinator, legal consultant and gunman for an armed group calling itself the National Reformation and Development Program, flew to N'Djamena, the capital of neighboring Chad. He put on one of the two or three suits his rebel movement keeps on hand there for peace talks. The United Nations put the lanky rebel on another plane to Sirte, Libya, where Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is hosting peace talks between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels, chaired by the United Nations and the African Union.

On Sunday, Dosa stood under the glimmering crystal chandeliers of a marble-and-gilt convention hall, site of the talks.

The rebels' communal brown suit jacket hung off his skeletal frame. His oversize pant legs pooled around his white gym socks. A Lebanese reporter held a giant fuzzy microphone in his face. Two weeks removed from the bush, Dosa was doing a TV stand-up, fighting not to blink under the camera lights as he spoke about the rebel cause.

For Dosa, a veteran of three years of fighting and one previous round of peace talks, it was all part of the life of a Darfur rebel.

"You sleep on the ground -- you sleep in a hotel," he said, shrugging. "It becomes normal. We come, we talk, we wait to see if they reply to our demands. If not, we go back to the bush."

Nearly five years on, the Darfur conflict is hardening a culture of arms and institutionalizing aid programs and peace efforts.

Darfur is the site of the world's largest ongoing humanitarian effort, according to the United Nations, with about 14,000 aid workers involved in a $1 billion a year struggle to help 3.8 million Darfur people dependent on handouts because of the fighting.

A joint A.U.-U.N. peacekeeping force with 26,000 troops and police officers is slated to head to Darfur in January.

The conflict started in 2003 when the region's ethnic African tribesmen revolted against Sudan's predominantly Arab government, accusing it of systematic discrimination. International groups estimate that the conflict has left between 200,000 and 450,000 dead through violence, hunger and disease. Another 2.5 million people have been displaced.

Arab tribal fighters known as Janjaweed have razed hundreds of Darfur villages and killed or driven off their inhabitants. The government is accused of directly and indirectly funneling military aid to the Janjaweed, an allegation it denies.

The rebels increasingly are coming under criticism for prolonging the conflict. The original three rebel movements have splintered into more than a dozen, and are turning to brigandage and fighting among themselves, international envoys say. Rebels have attacked civilians, and a rebel bloc is accused of killing 10 African Union peacekeepers last month, international groups say.

A 2006 accord brokered in Abuja, Nigeria, failed in part because some rebel blocs said they were not represented in the talks.

All major rebel leaders boycotted this weekend's talks in Libya, dooming the opening round even before it began. Jan Eliasson, the U.N. envoy for Darfur, said Sunday that major negotiations probably would be put on hold until key rebel leaders joined.

"It's hard to think of a liberation movement that has been more disorganized and less able to pursue" a political agenda that serves "the interests of its people," said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar and expert on Darfur.

Sudanese government officials at the talks tried not to gloat about the poor showing by their rivals.

"This is the real problem," Al-Sammani al-Wasila, Sudanese state minister for foreign affairs, said Saturday in Sirte. "These factions are splintering every way."

Dosa said that the destruction of Darfur's economy and agriculture has meant that rebels must steal just to stay alive. Rebels raid Sudanese military camps simply to loot rations, arms and Land Cruisers, he said. "Sometimes two, three of us die" skirmishing to get food, he said.

Rebels sell some stolen vehicles and weapons to pay for extras such as the flights to N'Djamena and the suits for peace talks, he said.

In terms of arms, "now we have everything," Dosa said, smiling. "Everything but airplanes."

Fighting, with the loot it brings, has grown into a career as much as a cause for some Darfur rebels, another rebel, Osama Mohammed, said in Cairo this year. "Without jobs, they have no choice," Mohammed said, adding that he ran guns and money for his rebel movement in Darfur before going into exile in Egypt.

The conflict became entrenched even though international efforts to stop the fighting began early. By 2004, rebel leaders in the bush had pens from the Hotel Ritz in Paris sticking out of the pockets of their fatigues, souvenirs of a peace junket. One prominent rebel leader now lives in Paris.

At this weekend's talks in Libya, rebel negotiator Tadjadine Bechir Niam waved a copy of the 2006 peace accord.

Niam, a member of a splinter faction of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, attended his first round of Darfur peace talks in 2003, he said.

How many Darfur talks had he logged in all? "Seven -- this will be number eight," Niam said, noting a look at his suit, which unlike Dosa's was neatly tailored.

"Don't go by this," Niam said. "After this, I go back to the bush."

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