General Rokero had been my guide for a visit to a rebel stronghold inside the Jebel Mara mountains. He introduced me to two girls who had been held prisoner and repeatedly raped by government soldiers. And over steaming bowls of thick brown ful in the little town of Goralang Baje, we discussed politics with Arab commanders who had abandoned the Janjaweed to join the Sudan Liberation Army.
Everything had been laid on for me, the visiting journalist.
But now he didn’t seem to want to take me to the little camp of tents where hundreds of women and children were living after fleeing the latest fighting. Every time I asked, he simply told me to wait and poured another glassful of sweet tea.
Eventually he stood up, as if at some secret signal, and suggested I follow.
The reason for our delay quickly became apparent as we scrunched along the grey gravel path in the hilly town. Children began streaming towards us from all directions, laughing and shouting. Each carried a home-made banner, often little more than a piece of paper covered in childish writing. “Go on International Criminal Court,” read one. “Welcome UN,” said another. They had been busy with pens as I waited for my tour of the camp, and now it seemed that I was in the middle of a demonstration demanding international intervention to end the war in Darfur.
This was May 2007. My journey into the Jebel Mara had been as arduous as it had been thrilling – a bone-numbing trek on a donkey wondering whether the planes overhead were Sudanese Antonov bombers. The air had grown cooler and the land greener as we climbed.
What I found amid the rebels’ mountainous redoubt was a microcosm of the whole Darfur conflict, its horrors, complications and its misguided hopes. It changed the way I saw the war. It was the start of a process that eventually prompted me to write my book, Saving Darfur, offering an alternative account of Sudan’s desert war.
General Rokero, of course, hadn’t intended that outcome. His was a relaxed easy manner, and like many rebel commanders he was keen that the media reported Darfur’s suffering.
The two girls certainly had horrifying stories. Sixteen-year-old Awatif buried her face deep in a lilac scarf as she told how she was held with about 100 other women for two nights. Each evening, government commanders would arrive, picking out which of the frightened women he would take home that night. She told me she begged to die.
After three days she escaped in the confusion of a rebel counterattack.
General Rokero also introduced me to Arabs in his ranks of fighters.
The Arab commanders – who once led bands of Janjaweed – were not the murderous, genocidal maniacs of popular imagination. Instead they seemed to be victims of the conflict just as much as the Fur tribe alongside whom they now fought. Each explained how they had taken government cash as their traditional way of life disappeared with each new advance of the desert. Each explained that had no belief in Khartoum, just a need for President Bashir’s money.
Yes, they admitted burning civilian villages and shooting opponents. But an alternative view of the Janjaweed seemed to be presenting itself. When all hope had run out, they had turned to the gun to survive.
This was not the war I had come to report. That war, the war described by a huge international lobby and its celebrity cheerleaders, was a slaughter of African tribes by Arab gunmen launched on a genocidal purge of Darfur by an evil, Islamist government. This war, the one that I found in the Jebel Mara, was no less horrific but it was much more confusing and complex. I couldn’t even tell the difference between the African commanders and the Arab ones. They all looked African to me.
And, with the growing realisation that the public campaigners had oversimplified the conflict, so too it seemed their solutions were simplistic.
It took another two years of interviews with rebels, Arab leaders, diplomats, aid workers and United Nations officials to develop my ideas. Gradually I would come to understand how huge pressure for UN peacekeepers distracted from the real business of building a peace; that concentrating on Darfur meant we would lose sight of the problems in Southern Sudan; and how the International Criminal Court would hobble the humanitarian operation. At that stage, though, in the tumbledown town, it was more of a feeling than a theory.
Like when a wrinkled old woman grabbed my arm.
“You have heard our problems,” she said, peering up at me. “When will you help us?”
I did what any journalist would have done. I explained that I was there to take her story back to the politicians who could make a difference. I kept my doubts to myself.
Rob Crilly’s book, Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War is published by Reportage Press this week.