Darfur: The War for Jebel Marra
Hundreds of civilians are feared killed in Jebel Marra, and tens of thousands thought to be displaced without relief within the mountain, as government forces besiege the stronghold of the absentee SLA Chairman, Abdul Wahid Mohamed al Nur, after a month-long land and air offensive. The little information that is coming out is sporadic and partial. But everything suggests that, with a (recently postponed) deadline of 30 March set in Doha for a final settlement to the conflict, civilians are being targeted as they were in the early days of the war.
In 2002, a government-militia attack on Kidingeer in the south-east of Jebel Marra killed 30 civilians including three brothers of Shartai Suliman Hassaballa of Dar Umo. Shartai Suliman, the only Fur shartai remaining in rebel-controlled Jebel Marra, told me the force came in 30 vehicles, supported by aerial bombardment. After it withdrew, Kidingeer buried its dead in three places: by the market, south of the school and on the hill. Today, an estimated 60,000 people who had gathered around Kidingeer as the fighting gathered momentum are reported to be “˜hiding and starving in the mountains’, victims of another attempt by the Sudanese government to capture Jebel Marra and defeat the SLA.
The wheel has come full circle: as in 2002, attack by infantry, aircraft and militia (as I reported almost two weeks ago), displacement and death, no protection for civilians, repression on an as yet unknown scale in the wake of the offensive, no humanitarian relief, near-total silence from the international community.
This was understandable, perhaps, in 2002, when few people could find Darfur on a map. It is not in 2010.
I first wrote about Darfur, that something new and terrible was happening there, in the same month that Kidingeer came under attack in 2002. Abdul Wahid, leader of the then-united SLA, had called, by thuraya, from Jebel Marra to ask for help in getting international action to stop “˜genocide against my people’. In 2002 no newspaper was interested; I was able to write only in specialist magazines that required subscriptions. Eight years have passed. How is it possible that there is virtually no information coming out of Jebel Marra today? Where is the narrative the movements should be constructing? Where is the news that must surely be reaching expatriates? With UN sources speaking a full 10 days ago of as many as 400 possibly dead, where are the voices of those who have been shouting “˜Never again’? Where are the Save Darfur activists and celebrity “˜experts’? Where are the “˜protection’ forces of UNAMID? (That’s a cheap shot, I know. UNAMID still lacks resources, including helicopters, and had no hope of keeping the peace without a peace to keep. For all its failings, it has done better than I, for one, thought it would).
Abdul Wahid was unwise to ignore clear government signals that Khartoum intended to resolve the Darfur situation by the elections in April. The ongoing “˜resolution’ however seems to turn the clock back to the terrible, early days of the war. Yet where are the voices of international protest? Where is Gen. Scott Gration, who, in the middle of the offensive, on 8 March, sent a round-robin email saying: “˜Over the last several weeks… major progress has been made with the signing of the landmark ceasefire and framework agreement between the Government of Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the largest Darfuri rebel groups. This agreement, combined with the recent Chad-Sudan agreement and the normalization of relations between the two countries, provides an unprecedented opportunity for a significant reduction in violence in Darfur. With the involvement of other major rebel movements, such as the newly unified Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), as well as civil society, there is also a key opportunity for an inclusive and comprehensive peace in Darfur.”
Not a word about Jebel Marra””even though Medecins du Monde, had already been forced to suspend its activities and had already said 100,000 people were displaced.
Yesterday, according to Radio Dabanga (one of the few outlets that have come up with snippets of information about the fighting), an SAF spokesman claimed (not for the first time) that the army controls Jebel Marra. UN reports suggest a far less clear-cut and stable situation, with government forces occupying Deribat but withdrawing from Feina, some 10 miles north-west of Kidingeer. Some sources say that towns like Feina, Labei and Jawa, which had big markets, have been completely destroyed.
The UN reports sporadic clashes are continuing in Katur, Alaradeb, Alashara and Deribat, with “˜a number of cases of violence against civilians’. IDPs in Hassa Hissa have reported serious violations of rights in Deribat and Bro Basi villages on 24 February when the villages were simultaneously bombed and attacked by armed men in green uniform travelling in vehicles.
The government offensive was preceded by intensified disagreement and fighting within SLA-AW, beginning on 5 January, as I wrote on this blog on 1 February (before the government offensive began). These divisions within SLA-AW weakened the movement and cannot be ignored. One of the main fault lines in the movement is between Fur from Jebel Marra proper (the jebeliin) and those from the lowlands (the suru kwa, in Fur), who believe they are not only discriminated against within the SLA but are the victims of politically motivated attacks. The in-fighting has given the government a new divide to rule.
Today, according to rebel delegates in Doha, government forces surround Jebel Marra on all sides, enforcing a virtual blockade on movement of people goods and relief in and out of the mountains. These forces have reportedly been joined by SLA commanders hostile to Abdul Wahid, for whom the government is said to be preparing a “˜peace’ ceremony in Nyala. (I understand that a leader of the anti-Abdul Wahid wing of the SLA, a certain Abdel Latif, is already in Nyala, gifted 20 vehicles by the government.) Suleiman Jamous, the former humanitarian coordinator of the SLA but now with JEM, tells me the alliance was forged around 20 February, amid rumours that Abdul Wahid loyalists had joined forces with JEM and were preparing to attack the dissidents.
One of the many things that is not clear is when exactly the government offensive began and how many forces are involved. Gamal Adam, of the ruling family of Dar Umo, is one of the few expatriates who have made public the new suffering of the ordinary people of Jebel Marra. In the first detailed report of the offensive, which he published on 27 February, Gamal said that towns like Kidingeer, Laibei, Feina, Deribat and Dobo “˜have been exposed to continuous attacks from the air by helicopters and Antonov and MiG planes and by forces of infantrymen and janjaweed from the ground… Every single attack there is accompanied by hundreds of Arab men each of whom has at least three camels following the military vehicles. The government forces open fire indiscriminately on the villagers killing and wounding civilians. The survivors among the villagers just flee with the clothes they had on and leave everything behind.’
Gamal’s information is that the “˜janjaweed’ are from the Sa’ada tribe. The Sa’ada deny any involvement in the offensive. They do, however, have form. The Sa’ada arrived in Darfur from Chad in 1938, according to Shartai Suliman, and settled in a village called Kugi, which they renamed Gardud, meaning “˜Grazing Plains’. “˜It was Missiriya land,’ the shartai told me. “˜The Sa’ada were given an omda in 1990, and another five when the NIF came. They were given weapons and training and made “janjaweed”’.
Today, according to Gamal, “˜men from the Sa’ada tribe who accompany the invading military convoys, enter the homes and shops and take all the valuables, destroy the property that they cannot carry and rustle cattle and small stock.’
What else do we know? IDP camps around Jebel Marra are appealing for extra relief for the new displaced. A native of Jebel Marra writes to Radio Dabanga: “˜I am from Deribat and the people who died or are displaced are my parents and relatives. Those who still live there are in very bad condition because NGOs are not able to assess the area yet. That is because of the obstacles made by the Government of Sudan.’ The villages of Timu, Bomboge, Sara Woumly, Allu, Tire, Diberna (sic) and the market of Deribat have been destroyed, according to Radio Dabanga. When UNAMID tried to verify the government’s claim to control Deribat, its troops were ambushed. The government blamed rebels.
“˜The most dreadful thing,’ according to one of my sources from Jebel Marra, “˜is the oppression that is now in order. It needs a general outcry to reverse it.’