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Jonathan Miller on his Recent Visit to Darfur

August 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JONATHAN MILLER: We drove northwest towards a town which we heard was overrun by displaced people. The Janjaweed remain active throughout this region. Every day there are fresh reports of violence, murders and rapes. Halfway there a string of villages, some of them abandoned; the Janjaweed had been through here. This is the heartland of the largest of the African tribes here. But Darfur, the land of the Thor is theirs no longer.

In centuries gone by, nomadic cattle herders traversed Darfur as seasons changed sticking to precise routes prescribed by tribal custom, but pressure on the land has brought them into conflict with settled farmers. Yet not all the farmers here are African. The black Arabs, as they’re known here, shared the same villages as the Fur and other tribes. This Arab farmer told me it was terrible what had happened, but in his village, all the Fur are gone. Arabs have occupied the empty houses – complicit, at the very least, in the ethnic cleansing of their neighbors.

In Cass, a town of 40,000, swamped by more than twice as many displaced people, we met a tribal sheikh too scared to show his face or give his name. He told me after the Janjaweed attacked their village, they tracked down those who fled. They lined up all the men and opened fire with the machine gun. The sheikh was hit in the head but survived by playing dead. The others were all killed. The main road east Muhajiriyah turned out to be more of a B road. From Nyala, the provincial capital of South Darfur, it took just an hour to reach the front line, a village called Ishma. But there wasn’t a soldier in sight from other side. We drove on. We are now in territory controlled by the Sudan Liberation Army. The difference is immediate.

Fields being plowed and crops planted, villages with people in them — all a stark contrast to the deserted villages elsewhere in South Darfur where the government-backed Arab militia, the Janjaweed, have driven African farmers from their land.

Welcome to liberated Darfur, one of several large swathes of this province in this rag-tag rebel army’s hands. The SLA had launched their war last year, angered by decades of discrimination and neglect by Khartoum. But the brutality of the government’s response has shocked the world. Commander Ramadan Jabar had been a brigadier in the Sudanese national army before switching sides. I asked him whether by starting the war the SLA had brought Darfur’s humanitarian crisis on their own people’s heads?

COMMANDER RAMADAN JABAR: If you look at the situation, it must shock the inner feeling of everyone. But we are forced, we are forced to start the war. We don’t like to stop it before we get our rights. What shall we do if we stop the war? You see, you have seen with your own eyes they are going to displace our people, you see.

JONATHAN MILLER: The commander claimed there were sixty thousand displaced people in SLA territory, half of them camped on the outskirts of Muhajiriyah. All had fled attacks by government forces and the Janjaweed. The men had fled with their families from villages further south. Many were from one particular village, called Baraka.

All of these men here claim that their houses were burned down by the Janjaweed when they attacked their villages. But what’s significant about what they’re saying is that on the 31st of July they were bombed by government aircraft in a village just to the south of here. That’s nearly a month after Kofi Annan and Colin Powell secured an agreement from the Sudanese government not to bomb villages any more.

The 31st of July was also the day after the UN passed a resolution urging the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed. There’s no independent confirmation that the bombings happened when they said they did but all those I talked to were adamant and unanimous.

The United Nations does not have a presence in SLA areas; the first foreign aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontiers, ventured in just two weeks ago. At Muhajiriyah Hospital, many bore the scars of the Janjaweed rampage. The wounded almost all came from Baraka and nearby villages. Their accounts were gruesome and graphic. We decided to go to Baraka and were given an armed escort.

As we drove south, SLA gunmen would appear from nowhere, out of the bush. Unlike in government-controlled territory, villages here are under SLA protection. The rebels claim they’ve no outside support; their guns, they say, are seized on the battlefield. This is the aftermath of the scorched-earth policy the Sudanese government and its militias have employed in Darfur, as it did in its two-decade long war in the South.

We’re in Baraka, on the southern fringe of rebel-held territory, where most of the wounded and displaced people we’d met had fled from. And they’re still leaving. It’s better than living in terror. This area remains a conflict zone. The Janjaweed are continuing to attack nearby villages. Many people died in Baraka. We were told more than 60. 22-year-old Abu Bakar Jalari said all 26 members of his family were killed by the Janjaweed. Now he’s alone — the sole survivor.

JONATHAN MILLER: And what did the Janjaweed say when they were doing this?

JONATHAN MILLER: He claimed the Janjaweed had yelled: “You’re just slaves. We have to kill you.” Now, he says, he wants to join the SLA.

The rebel army’s rank and file has been swollen by teenaged orphans of this conflict. A shaky cease-fire between the Sudan Liberation Army and the government has held now for four months. But the SLA, and the other rebel group in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, say there’ll be no negotiations until the Janjaweed are disarmed.

Although the Sudanese government and Arab Darfurians uprooted by this conflict accuse the rebels of human rights abuses, not a single one of the displaced African farmers I met blamed the insurgents for inviting the catastrophe that’s befallen them. Yet even here in what they call “liberated” South Darfur, there’s still a steady stream of bereaved, dispossessed, traumatized people who’ve salvaged what little they had in the first place and are now making their way to somewhere they hope might be safer.