A Wide-Open Battle For Power in Darfur

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 20, 2008

EL FASHER, Sudan -- Five years after the Darfur conflict began, the nature of violence across this vast desert region has changed dramatically, from a mostly one-sided government campaign against civilians to a complex free-for-all that is jeopardizing an effective relief mission to more than 2.5 million displaced and vulnerable people.

While the government and militia attacks on straw-hut villages that defined the earlier years of the conflict continue, Darfur is now home to semi-organized crime and warlordism, with marijuana-smoking rebels, disaffected government militias and anyone else with an AK-47 taking part, according to U.N. officials.

The situation is a symptom of how fragmented the conflict has become. There were two rebel groups, but now there are dozens, some of which include Arab militiamen who once sided with the government. The founding father of the rebellion lives in Paris. And the struggle in the desert these days is less about liberating oppressed Darfurians than about acquiring the means to power: money, land, trucks.

Though there are some swaths of calm in Darfur, fighting among rebels and among Arab tribes has uprooted more than 70,000 people this year, compared with about 60,000 displaced by government attacks on villages, according to U.N. figures.

Although powerful countries such as China, which is heavily invested in Sudan's oil, have been criticized by human rights activists for not doing more to pressure the Sudanese government to end the conflict, some analysts say the breakdown of command lines on all sides has made the situation increasingly impervious to outside influence.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of banditry has become the biggest threat to humanitarian groups undertaking the largest relief effort in the world and to a nascent U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force. Their trucks and SUVs are stolen almost daily, used as fighting vehicles or sold for cash to middlemen who haul them to Chad and Libya.

Carjackings were once rare in Darfur, but 130 humanitarian trucks were taken last year, and the count so far this year is 140. Of those, 79 belong to the World Food Program, which sometimes recovers the trucks from the side of the road, abandoned by bandits who ran out of gas.

The insecurity has crippled food distribution. Last month, the organization was forced to halve rations for millions of people in camps and villages.

"This is a new dimension for us," said Laurent Bukera, head of the program's North Darfur Area Office. "This week, there's been a carjacking every day -- every day."

World Food Program truck driver Adam Ahmed Osman said the bandits who attacked his convoy were young, skittish amateurs.

They popped out of a dry riverbed in trousers and head scarves, pointing rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns at Osman's 20-ton truck and another returning from delivering food a few hours from this bustling market town.

The nine men told Osman and the other driver to lie in the sand. The attackers took their cellphones, Osman's watch and some money. Then came a question.

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