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Misreading The Truth In Sudan

EL FASHER, Sudan, 8 Aug 2004 Tucked behind the featureless hills that rise abruptly from the Saharan sands outside El Fasher, Musa Khaber sits cross-legged beneath a parched tree in the early dusk. Clothed in a flowing white djellaba and turban, Mr. Khaber, a Janjaweed militia leader, is guarded by armed followers, their guns trained nervously on the meeting spot.

Mr. Khaber is a wanted man. It is Janjaweed bands like his that the international community accuses of waging a proxy war for Sudan's government against rebellious African tribes in Darfur. Seventeen months into this conflict, some 30,000 people have died and more than one million have been forced from their homes.

It is also bands like Mr. Khaber's that expose three myths of one of the worst humanitarian crises - that the Janjaweed are the sole source of trouble and are acting only as proxies for Khartoum; that the conflict pits light-skinned Arabs against black Africans; and that the Sudanese government can immediately end the war whenever it wishes. Until the international community puts aside these simplifications, no sustainable solution can emerge.

Last month, the United States Congress denounced Khartoum for genocide in Darfur, and the United Nations Security Council last week adopted a resolution giving Khartoum 30 days to disarm the militias. "Since they turned it on, they can turn it off," Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, summarizing the conventional view.

It may be clear to Washington that Khartoum controls the conflict, but in Darfur the situation is more complex.

Mr. Khaber, for one, denies that his Janjaweed are aligned with anyone. "We are not with the government, we are not with the rebels," he said. "We are in hell. We want what is due." For 25 years, he said, he and his gang have waged war against a succession of regimes that failed to adequately care for his people.

Mr. Khaber's group is made up of Arab and African tribesmen. A dark-skinned Berti African, Mr. Khaber describes himself as an Arab.

The Darfur crisis is as much a problem of regional and national instability as it is local. A principal rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, is said to be backed by a Sudanese opposition leader, Hassan al-Turabi. Khartoum says the movement also receives munitions and support from elements within Chad, and indeed several rebels have been captured with Chadian identification papers and arms.

The other rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, is said to have backing from Eritrea, another of Sudan's uneasy neighbors. Until last year, the group was known as the Darfur Liberation Front, engaged in low-level insurgency for decades.

After these rebels launched lightning strikes in February 2003 against military and civilian targets across North Darfur, a surprised Khartoum unleashed Arab tribal militias as a line of defense. Viewing this as carte blanche for vigilantism, these militias now pursue age-old vendettas.

Pressured by international attention, Khartoum now vows to disarm militias like Mr. Khaber's. Some captured Janjaweed have been tried and sentenced, and some have received the death penalty. But disarming the Janjaweed will not be easy. The area is awash in small arms, and even in the best of times Khartoum holds only titular control.

As despicable as Sudan's regime is, the international community may wish to restrain from setting early deadlines for intervention. Such deadlines only encourage rebel intransigence in pursuing peace deals, as last month's unsuccessful talks in Ethiopia proved. With outside action threatened, there is little incentive for the rebels to negotiate a lasting cease-fire.

Likewise, the threat of international peacekeeping troops could provoke further violence in an already unstable Muslim world. Lately, fliers have appeared in Khartoum mosques urging jihad.

"We refuse to let Darfur be like Iraq and occupied," says Mr. Khaber. "We hate the foreigner; we will fight the foreigner, more than the mujahedeen in Afghanistan." And then, noticeably fearful that his interviewers have been followed by Sudanese troops, he and his men abruptly slip into the wide Sahara.
The New York Times

Sam Dealey is a former editorial page writer for The Asian Wall Street Journal