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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.

"One of the men got on the seat of the truck and asked, 'What is this?' " said Osman, who escaped unharmed with his colleague as the bandits made off with one truck. "I explained, 'It is a hand brake.' "

On a road leading south from here, carjackings are so frequent that World Food Program officials recently discussed using a helicopter to reach a camp of 50,000 displaced people that is a 30-minute drive away. Along a 30-mile stretch of road farther south are no fewer than 15 checkpoints manned by various militia or rebel factions. Heading west, Osman has been a victim four times.

The Wild West style of banditry is not happening only along the roads.

In recent weeks, a group of disgruntled militiamen -- the notorious Janjaweed -- rode into El Fasher on horseback and attempted to rob the National Bank of Sudan, complaining that the government had not paid them.

During the first four months of this year, 51 humanitarian compounds in towns across Darfur were raided by armed men, compared with 23 during the same period last year, according to the United Nations.

Relief groups in El Fasher are topping walls with razor wire and taking other precautions. Oxfam workers have resorted to using banged-up rental trucks, taxis and even donkey carts to deliver supplies, hoping to make themselves less enticing to potential bandits.

The insecurity has not yet reduced the impact of the relief effort. Rates of infant mortality and malnutrition have dropped significantly since 2006, for instance. But in the nearby Abu Shouk camp, where tents have been replaced by mud-brick houses and walls spiked with broken glass to deter break-ins, people have noticed that humanitarian workers visit less regularly.

"They used to check on us every week," said Tigani Nur Adam, a teacher who has lived in the camp for five years. "Now, it's not so often."

Of the seven Oxfam locations in Darfur, four are accessible to workers only by air, said Alun McDonald, a spokesman for the group who recently survived an assault on his compound.

"The conflict has become so much more complex," he said. "There were three rebel groups, and now I don't think anyone knows how many there are. . . . The lines of who's who are much more blurred."

It is a marked change from the beginning of the conflict in 2003, when the Sudanese government unleashed a brutal campaign to crush rebels who had taken up arms under the banner of ending decades of discrimination by a government of Arab elites.

Of the 450,000 deaths some experts estimate have been caused by the conflict, most occurred during the first two years, which produced the iconic images of Darfur: government planes bombing villages and allied militias rampaging on horseback, burning huts, raping women and killing civilians.

Though Arab and African ethnicities are very much intertwined in Sudan, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government used Arab nationalism, and money, as way to rally the landless, Arab nomadic militias against their farmer neighbors, who tended to identify themselves as African.

But the situation began to change in 2006, when only one rebel faction of the original Sudan Liberation Movement signed a peace deal with the government.

The rest of the rebels headed back to the desert and jockeyed for position as the divisions began: SLA-Unity, SLA-Free Will, Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, National Redemption Front and so on. "There's no need of counting anymore," a U.N. official said, referring to the factions.

The one rebel group that remains militarily strong is the Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM, which is backed by Chad and staged an attack last month on Khartoum, Sudan's capital, that failed to topple the government. So far this year, most government and militia attacks on villages have been in areas along the Chadian border controlled by JEM.

Otherwise, the Sudanese government has little need for military action, as Darfur is at war with itself.

Arab tribes are fighting one another over land, cows and other spoils of war. Disillusioned Janjaweed militiamen, abandoned by the government, have joined rebels and government soldiers in the business of looting, carjacking and petty shakedowns.

"Everybody is guilty," said Col. Augustine Agundu, chairman of the peacekeeping mission's cease-fire commission, who reserved special wrath for the rebels. "Emancipation, ending discrimination, that was their drive at the beginning, whereas today they don't know what they want."

The peacekeeping mission is in the middle of it all, saddled with the high expectations of advocacy groups that simply want the conflict to end.

The hybrid U.N.-African Union force, known as UNAMID, technically took over from an underfunded, underequipped African Union force of about 7,000 soldiers in December, but little has changed. The first new battalions have not yet arrived, nor has any new equipment.

The soldiers are authorized to use force to keep peace and protect civilians under imminent threat, but commanders fear that opening fire would jeopardize the mission by making it a party to the conflict.

Last month, bandits on horseback attacked a UNAMID commander and several peacekeepers, who surrendered their weapons and truck.

"What we are here to do is talk, not shoot," said Gen. Martin Luther Agwai of Nigeria.

That is all that Osman, the truck driver, can do, too. He's learned to sweet-talk the bandits, whom he often presumes to be rebels. Sometimes, he tries to shame them, explaining that he is bringing food to people who need it. The approach seems to have worked so far.

"I am from Darfur, and these people outside are our relatives," Osman said. "So I have an obligation to take food to them."

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