Darfur’s Emerging Arab Leader under Government Assault
Towards the end of the Abuja talks, an Arab intellectual sympathetic to the Darfur rebels remarked: ‘Ninety percent of the Arabs of Darfur are neutral so far. We cannot continue like this if there is no agreement. We may take a role.’ Eighteen months later they are, slowly but surely, in many ways. In recent weeks the Sudan government has begun responding with predictable force””aerial bombardment, ground attack, arrests of family members. Alex has drawn attention to how the Arabs of Darfur feel abandoned by the international community, collectively demonized for the sins of the government and the Janjawiid. (Re-Visiting North Darfur’s Arabs, 29 November 2007). But there is a new problem today, and one that needs addressing urgently: how are the growing number of Arabs who have chosen to stand against the government to be protected as the government turns its guns on them, in their turn?
The Arab challenge is absolutely critical. Without Arab support, Khartoum could not prosecute its war in Darfur as it is. The regular army is poorly motivated, poorly trained and demoralized by a series of crushing defeats. Much of its officer class dislikes the enforced partnership with the Janjawiid and the abuses that have characterized it, for which the International Criminal Court is now pressing charges.
At the centre of the latest storm is a 31-year-old Arab called Anwar Ahmad Khater, the founder of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) that took up arms against the government last year and a member of the Mahamid tribe (Awlad Zeid section) from which most of Musa Hilal’s forces are drawn. At least 26 of his men were killed last week when government forces attacked one of his camps in the Jebel Kengo area north-east of Zalingei. Some escaped on donkeys after their cars were destroyed and were given refuge by local farmers who offered them water, not caring that they were Arabs. As an SRF militant said in reporting the attack: ‘You see how wonderful Darfur is, but for this mess of government policy and individuals spreading hatred.’
A number of Anwar’s relatives have been arrested, including several of his brothers, and children in the family have been interrogated about his whereabouts. A security officer told one of them: ‘We should have killed him when we had the chance. He is more dangerous to us than Abdel Wahid [Mohamed al Nur, the leader of the original Sudan Liberation Army] because he is working in our zone’. In other words, he is active among Arabs””seeking above all to neutralize them, to prevent the government using them for its own nefarious purposes.
Many Darfurians””including Abdel Wahid, who puts great emphasis on good relations with Arab tribes””believe that Anwar Khater is the person best-equipped to unite the Arabs of Darfur. He is educated (a computer engineer) and free of any suspicion of Janjawiidism (unlike the other Arab ‘rebel’ making news at the moment, Mohamed Hamdan Dogolo ‘Hemeti’). The few foreigners who have met him say he has enormous charisma. Most importantly, perhaps, Anwar Khater has cachet among the Mahamid: his father, Ahmad Khater, was an advisor to Hilal Abdalla, the late sheikh of the Mahamid who is as much revered among the Arabs of Darfur as his son, Musa Hilal, is controversial.
Offered a scholarship to the U.S. on completing his studies, but not permitted by the government to take it up, Anwar Khater returned to Darfur from Khartoum in 2004 and immediately began rallying Arabs against the government. He was detained by Security twice in 2004, once after distributing pamphlets in Zalingei denouncing the political and economic marginalization of Darfur. In 2005, he was detained for a month after a similar protest in Geneina. In 2006, as his influence grew, especially among young Arabs, he was detained by Musa Hilal and flown to Khartoum, where he was imprisoned for more than three months. Security chief Salah Gosh told him: ‘The UN [peacekeepers] will fight you as Arabs. If you do not join us you will never survive in Darfur. The international community’s war will be imposed on Darfur.’
Upon his release, Anwar Khater returned to Darfur once more and began to make contacts with internationals to explain the program of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front””a name recently hijacked by Hemeti, with whom Anwar Khater has refused to cooperate, saying ‘I can never put my hand in the hand of anyone accused of killing innocent people’. His main concern, he said at the time, was to combat the government’s efforts to isolate Darfur’s Arabs and make them voiceless. Since then, he has been working, quietly, to bring Arab dissidents from different tribes together in a single, united body. He has forged good relations with several SLA factions including that of Abdel Wahid.
The SRF’s rebellion is just one example of a new mood among the Arabs of Darfur. Another is the mutiny of Hemeti, whom U.S. officials consider one of the most abusive government-supported militia leaders of Darfur, responsible for much burning, killing and rape. When Hemeti mutinied in October, he cited the double betrayal of Darfur’s Arabs: broken promises to provide their nomadic communities with health and veterinary services, and schools and water, and unfulfilled commitments to pay militia salaries and give compensation for war dead. He said he took up arms to defend his tribe after thousands of camels were stolen and scores of his relatives were abducted by SLA Zaghawa rebels. That was then. Today the Zaghawa SLA leader, Minni Minawi, is Senior Assistant to President Omar Bashir””with power, on paper, over reforming Arab militias after becoming the only rebel leader to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006.
The significance of Hemeti’s revolt is very different to that of Anwar Khater’s. His record makes him a problematic figure, both for the international community and the rebel movements. But while Anwar Khatar has credibility as a young and educated Arab leader with clean hands, Hemeti has guns. The government gave Hemeti brand-new vehicles, Thuraya telephones, heavy weapons and, reportedly, millions of dollars as the price of participation in an offensive against the rebels after they tried to take the war to Kordofan three months ago. But Hemeti double-crossed them, withdrew with his forces to Jebel Marra, and announced his opposition to Khartoum. In response, the government unleashed its air force and ground forces against him.
Both Abdel Wahid’s SLA and Khalil Ibrahim’s Justice and Equality Movement have signed non-aggression pacts with Hemeti and his militia. Abdel Wahid told me in Paris a month ago, ‘There is no UN force to stop the Janjawiid killing my people and I have no force to stop them, so I have to bring them on my side or neutralize them.’ Neutralization may be as far as he is wiling to go with Hemeti, but he wants Anwar Khater on his side. Anwar, for his part, does not rule out eventual unity, but not until political programmes are clarified and the SLA has put its chaotic house in order.
With only a few hundred armed men, the strategy of the SRF thus far has been to target those responsible for recruiting Arabs into the Janjawiid. ‘Arabs,’ Anwar Khater said last year, ‘do not access humanitarian aid because the international community considers that the Arabs are the perpetrators of all the crimes committed in Darfur. This is not true.’
The SRC believes that Khartoum plans a ‘comprehensive attack’ on its men in the coming days, ‘to finish Anwar during the holidays when UN staff will be on holiday'””and before the UNAMID force becomes operational. Anwar, they say, ‘can be the bridge between Arabs and the international community’ “” if he survives.