By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 1, 2007
JUBA, Sudan, Nov. 30 -- Suited up in pressed camouflage uniforms, sunglasses and casual loafers instead of combat boots, Darfur rebel leaders streamed by the dozens into a hot, packed conference hall here for the ceremonial end of talks aimed at unifying their young and fragmented movement.
After six weeks of discussions, leaders said Thursday they had merged about 17 rebel groups into just two. But amid the speeches and hearty handshakes, a larger sort of unity seemed to be taking hold at the meeting in this city in semiautonomous southern Sudan.
In addition to the rebels from the Darfur region of western Sudan, delegations came from eastern Sudan, the central region of Kordofan, several Arab communities and other regions to rally around a common grievance: marginalization by a government of elites in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.
The host of the talks, the rebel movement-turned-government of southern Sudan, took the role of a mature elder brother to the Darfur rebels.
The southerners have complained bitterly in recent weeks that the Sudanese government is deliberately failing to implement a 2005 peace deal that ended 21 years of civil war. In October, a group of ministers from southern Sudan pulled out of the unity government in protest and submitted a list of demands to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, which have yet to be addressed.
With the various delegations -- including Arab pastoralists in flowing white robes, cheering "Equality!" and "Justice!" -- Thursday's event felt at times like a pep rally for a larger cause.
"Your big brothers and sisters in the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement will always stand by you and will never let you down," southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who is also a vice president in the national unity government, told the Darfur delegation. "Sudan is changing, and I believe Sudan will never be the same again."
There has been talk that perhaps the southern Sudanese wished to host the Darfur rebels in order to form a military alliance in the event that hostilities between the north and south break out again.
Officials here said that was not the case. But they noted that it was always the vision of the southern movement to unify the suffering periphery of Sudan against its powerful center, which has been dominated for decades by an intertwined ruling elite.
"The SPLM extended its liberation movement to Darfur as far back as 1991," said Luka Biong Deng, presidential affairs minister for the southern government. "It was always the vision of the SPLM to engulf all marginalized people in Sudan."
He added: "We don't see any incentive for war or to use the Darfurians as a tool to pressure the government of Sudan."
Even as the ceremony was underway Thursday, fighting was reported between rebels and government forces in Darfur, where experts estimate that hundreds of thousands have died from violence or disease and that more than 2 million have been displaced.
While analysts and the rebels consider the merger of the groups a significant step, at least two important rebel leaders have yet to join either of the main groups.
Fragmentation among the Darfur rebels has become a major stumbling block to a settlement that could end the crisis in Darfur. Many analysts viewed recent talks in Libya that were mediated by the United Nations and the African Union as premature, saying the rebels needed more time to reach a common negotiating platform before entering discussions with the Sudanese government.
Southern Sudanese officials said the rebels finally got that uninterrupted time in this sand-street town along the White Nile.
Before the ceremony Thursday, rebels wearing "delegate" tags on red lanyards chatted and sipped coffee on a patio outside the conference hall.
"Before, we didn't get a full chance like this to talk," said Haidar Galucuma, a spokesman for one of the unified groups. "Now, we will share these discussions with our political and military leaders in the field and try to form one negotiating team."
About 10 a.m., they headed into the hall, where guards frisked them, confiscating several daggers, a few canes and handguns that tend to be carried as a matter of course.
In his speech, Kiir urged the rebels to take their newfound unity to the field.
"I would like to assure you that you have so many friends all over the world," he said. "Don't disappoint them."