Sudan: Double Standards?

Abd al-Wahab Abdalla (25 March) says “The worst massacre of the last 12 months was by JEM! It killed 128 Meidob over 2 days.”

There have been a number of allusions on this blog to the unrest at JEM’s base in eastern Chad on January 1 this year, but hard facts and clearly identified sources are signally missing — and no rights group appears to think the incident worthy of remark and/or investigation. (How different it would be if the “massacre” had been committed by the government — a comment that will no doubt be trumpeted out of context by the Sudan government’s pet “intellectual” and paid apologist, David Hoile, but that needs making nonetheless.)

The following is what I have been told, by Meidob contacts who have proved reliable in the past. At the end of 2008, JEM’s leader, Khalil Ibrahim, promoted four or five officers to the rank of general. All belonged to his own Zaghawa Kobe group. Other tribes protested — especially the Meidob, who had contributed young fighters in support of JEM’s attack on Omdurman last May (not always voluntarily). Khalil refused to rethink. At this point, accounts differ. Some sources say non-Kobe withdrew from JEM and were ambushed as they left the camp. Others say the commander of JEM’s northern forces, himself a Meidob, provoked the violence by drawing his weapon. All sources agree that the dissidents were subsequently disarmed, and some were then killed in cold blood. Abd al-Wahab says the victims were all Meidob. My information is that while Meidob were the majority, other tribes were affected — Berti among them.

Meidob sources have circulated a list of 123 people they say were killed and imprisoned by JEM. At the time the list was made, almost two months ago, only five of the 123 were confirmed as dead — Salih Abdulgadir Suliman, Abaker Ahmed Hassan, Abdul Aziz Adam Kharif, Adam Abdul Rahman Idris and Abaker Omer Ageed. Five is a far cry from 128. Perhaps El Tahir Adam El Faki, who so often graces this blog, could give JEM’s version of events and help facilitate investigation by an independent group. JEM has been dignified in the US and Qatar in recent months, and now portrays itself as the representative of the people of Darfur. This matter demands clarification. Was there a “massacre”, or not?

Whatever the truth of January 1, it is undeniable that the “worst massacre” of 2009, at least, was committed by rebels. Or, to be more precise, by individuals who portray themselves as rebels but who, as the original rebel movements continue to disintegrate, are little more than common criminals. In the second week of February, a group of “rebels” led by Ali Carabino attacked the village of Wadaa south-east of Fasher and, according to deputy shartai Abdullahi Hamid, a member of the Mima tribe that is Wadaa’s largest, killed 35 civilians, wounded 39 and burned 825 huts. Wadaa market was looted and burned, men and women whipped, and animals slaughtered. A UNAMID team that saw the destruction in Wadaa — and two newly-dug sites they were told were mass graves — believes the numbers given me are a “ballpark figure”, more or less correct.

The Mima of Wadaa did not mobilize for the government in 2003. They attempted to remain neutral. By 2004, according to Abdullahi Hamid, rebels had attacked villages in the area 22 times, killing approximately 220 non-combatants and looting many animals. In 2004, the Mima say, SLA-Minawi occupied the village, imposed a 10% tax on market traders and began a reign of abuse over local people characterized by rape, beating and looting. After further abuses in February this year, the Mima decided they had had enough. They killed the Zaghawa commander in Wadaa and expelled his forces. Carabino’s revenge came within days. “Disproportionate” does not begin to describe it. Wadaa looks like any number of Zaghawa villages I visited after they were attacked by government forces in 2003-04. It differs only in that it was almost completely unreported.

Once a senior commander in SLA-Minawi, Carabino tried to join SLA-Unity after the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement. Most recently, he has been spotted in Deribat, which is under Abdel Wahid’s control. Rebel, or opportunist? Others may count Carabino and his comrades as a “rebel faction”. I do not. Why should his gang be dignified as “rebels” and government-backed militias who kill, burn and loot be denounced as “janjaweed”?

The Mima do not conceal the fact that the Zaghawa occupying Wadaa were driven out “in full coordination” with the Sudanese army, which is manipulating the widespread animosity towards the Zaghawa (an animosity that is lamentably extended to all Zaghawa, combatants and non-combatants) to push Zaghawa forces out of South Darfur. Today it is the Sudan army that controls Wadaa, a strategic location on the road linking El Fasher to El Deain. First Gereida, then Muhajiriya, and now Wadaa. All Zaghawa-controlled since 2004. All subjected to persistent abuses by commanders linked (or once linked) to Minni Minawi. All now government-controlled.

Horrific crimes were committed by government forces and their militia allies in 2003-04, on a scale without comparison in the Darfur war. But insufficient attention has been paid to the reasons why the Arabs of Darfur were so ready to take up arms against the rebels. Two weeks in Darfur, meeting Arab military and tribal leaders, have convinced me that Arabs believed the rebellion was first and foremost anti-Arab. Non-Arab tribes led the rebellion. Non-Arab tribes refused to support the government against the rebels. In several areas, Arab civilians were targeted. There were other reasons for the Arab mobilization — impoverishment, lack of political awareness, localized resource conflict. But fear of a campaign against the Arabs, although over-emphasised perhaps in these ICC days, was undoubtedly genuine.

In 2009, the prevailing narrative is still that of the “victims” in the displaced camps and the marauding “janjaweed” outside them, who are blamed for almost everything. Some of the accusations are correct; some are not. A lot of the reporting from/of Darfur is frankly horrible.

A recent article in The Times of London is a piece of propaganda for JEM, making no mention of January 1 but waxing lyrical about a leadership that “boasts an impressive array of doctors and lawyers and a sophisticated agenda that extends to redistributing power among Sudan’s oppressed and marginalised peoples.” A blogger is suitably impressed by the correspondent’s take: “I am extremely grateful JEM have taken up the task of defending the poor victims of Darfur and other oppressed people in Sudan. If anyone can bring Al-Bashir to be judged by the ICC, they can and I wish them all the very best of luck in achieving this feat!” For heaven’s sake!

The Christian Science Monitor reports that “people like Yacoub Suleiman Hari are still staring death in the face [in Muhajiriya], forced to flee their homes after recent attacks by the notorious government-backed Arab janjaweed militia.” But the latest trouble in Muhajiriya began when JEM, the only rebel force with an offensive military capability (courtesy of the support of neighbouring countries) attacked and occupied the town. Since 2004 Muhajiriya had been occupied by SLA-Minawi and omdas there told UNAMID they preferred JEM to the constant abuses of the previous commanders. It was, nevertheless, JEM’s advance that triggered the trouble in Muhajiriya: the government and its proxy forces only moved into Muhajiriya to move JEM out. The UNAMID force commander estimates that 20-30 civilians were killed by all sides. Hardly a “janjaweed rampage”.

There is, of course, some careful, and informed, reporting. For the complex reality of Muhajiriya, see Edmund Sanders in the Los Angeles Times. He navigates a fractured picture deftly. As he says, “according to witnesses and victims, janjaweed played a relatively minor role here.”

The mere use of the word “janjaweed” evokes 2003-04, the firestorm that drove millions into exile and displaced camps. It should be used with care. Some Darfurian Arabs have committed appalling abuses and, like the commanders who give the rebels a bad name, refuse to acknowledge the breadth and depth of their crimes. But Darfur’s Arabs have been collectively vilified and their kinsmen, admittedly often hard to access, have been excluded from international relief operations that have focused on the “victims” — the largely non-Arab IDP camp-dwellers. At the edge of Nyala, at the exact point where the capital of South Darfur state meets the desert, an estimated 3,000 displaced Arab pastoralists are camped less than 100 yards from the impoverished home of their omda. None of these Darfurians have seen an international NGO; none have received relief — medical care, water, education etc. In their culture, to seek succour in a displaced camp would dishonour the tribe. It is the collective that must care for the individual. But the collective was impoverished before the first shot in this conflict was fired.

In the seventh year of the war (I count from the second half of 2002, when government-backed Arab militias attacked Jebel Marra massively) the situation in Darfur is so complex, so fragmented and so uncontrollable as to inspire despair — not only for the camp-dwellers, some of them apparently under orders from comfortably self-exiled leaders to refuse aid in the wake of the recent agency expulsions, but also for the Arab victims of the war, stigmatized, along with their wives and children, as “janjaweed”. The antipathy towards President Bashir and in his inner circle has been transposed onto a group of impoverished nomads on the other side of the country. Yet it was not the “janjaweed” who killed their own comrades in eastern Chad, or took over Muhajiriya, or destroyed Wadaa. It may not be apparent from afar, and it may not be comfortable to those who still see the Darfur conflict as a Lord of the Rings struggle between Good and Evil, but it’s the truth.

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One thought on “Sudan: Double Standards?

  1. Word comes today, 30 March, that a senior JEM official has confirmed to a tribal elder, identified only as Omda Salih, the deaths of 19 men. Twelve were reportedly Meidob. The identity of the other seven was not mentioned.

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