RARE INTERVIEW: Sheik Musa Hilal, leader of Um Jalul tribe in his hometown of Mistariha, Darfur (Lydia Polgreen)
MISTARIHA, Sudan - Their camouflage uniforms bear no insignia. Their machine guns lack the brassy patina of long use. Instead of boots, most wear sandals or flip-flops. The armed men swarming this mysterious town, usually off limits to foreigners, look almost, but not quite, like soldiers. Their allegiance does not appear to be to any military commander, but to a tall, copper-skinned man in a white robe and turban named Musa Hilal.
Mr Hilal, the sheik who the State Department and human rights organizations say is an architect and perhaps the key leader of the fearsome Arab militias that have unleashed a torrent of misery in Darfur, laughed softly at the question of who these armed men were. "They are soldiers," he replied with an easy smile in a rare interview here. "Just regular soldiers."
But the commander of the African Union peacekeeping base two dozen miles away, Col. John Bosco Mulisa, said there was little doubt who these men really were. "They are janjaweed," he said, using the local term for the Arab militias. "This town is their headquarters."
Whoever their commander is and whatever they are called, these men and the weapons they carry will determine whether, after three years of conflict that has left at least 200,000 dead, the fragile efforts to bring peace to this shattered region will succeed or fail.
"The greatest threat to this peace agreement right now is the janjaweed," said a senior military intelligence officer with the African Union who is not authorized to speak publicly. "It is not clear what is in it for them or how it serves their interests to disarm. No one is sure what they will do or who exactly controls them."
The first and most critical step of that agreement, signed in May between the government in Khartoum and the largest rebel faction, is the disarmament of the janjaweed. The government pledged to submit a plan to disarm the militias of their heavy weaponry one month after signing the agreement and to finish the job before the end of October. But how do you disarm a phantom army whose sponsors and leaders deny its existence? And exactly who are the janjaweed and is it within the government's power to disarm them? "Who are the janjaweed?" asked Eltayeb Hag Ateya, director of the Peace Research Institute at the University of Khartoum. "It depends on what you mean and who you ask."
The term itself has long been used to refer to highwaymen and bandits from tribes living across Sudan's western border in Chad who roamed the vast, semi desert plains of Darfur, robbing Arabs and non-Arabs, nomads and farmers. But the word came to have a new meaning after rebels attacked a government outpost in Darfur in 2003, sparking the conflict that would engulf the region and eventually spill into Chad.
The militias that came to be known as the janjaweed were deployed as a kind of counterinsurgency proxy force that the government used in place of and sometimes alongside its military. It had used such Arab militias with brutal success in the 20-year civil war in the south. These fighters were paid a small stipend, but their greatest reward was the right to loot and seize livestock and land from the Fur and Zaghawa, non-Arab tribes from which the rebels drew their ranks.
The chief figure in the deployment of these militias, according to the State Department and human rights organizations, was Mr Hilal, who leads a powerful Arab tribe in Darfur called Um Jalul.
Long before the war began, Mr Hilal wielded control over a fearsome tribal militia, and because of his deep connections to the Arab elite of Khartoum, he was the first tribal leader the government turned to when the insurgency among non-Arab tribes began, human rights investigators say.
He responded to the call by summoning recruits to enlarge his militia to thousands of men, who were trained and equipped in vast barracks here in Mistariha. Soon, this dusty village nestled between a pair of mountains was a beehive of military activity, with truckloads of recruits and helicopters full of weapons and other supplies arriving daily. Platoons of armed men on camels and horseback arrived constantly, their animals weighed down with loot, according to witness accounts collected by human rights groups. At the center of it all was Mr. Hilal, the witnesses said, directing and rallying his troops and urging them to plunder.
Officially, the town was called the headquarters of the government's Border Intelligence Unit, though it is about 120 miles from the nearest border, with Chad.
In Mistariha, Mr Hilal took pains to explain that he was not a militia leader, merely an influential sheik. In a two-hour interview over a lunch of grilled meats and tea near a bustling market, Mr Hilal said repeatedly that the Arab militias he was accused of commanding simply did not exist.
"It is a lie," he said. "Janjaweed is a thief. A criminal. I am a tribal leader, with men and women and children who follow me. How can they all be thieves and bandits? It is not possible."
He said there were no tensions here between Arabs and non-Arabs. By way of demonstration, he ordered one of his soldiers to round up a group of market women. When the women arrived, cowering under their bright robes as Mr Hilal hovered over them, one by one said there were no tensions here.
"I am a Fur," said Fatouma, a woman who sells millet in the market, naming the largest non-Arab tribe in the region. Her eyes avoided Mr Hilal's imperious glare. "We get along with the Arabs fine," she added, before begging to be allowed to return to her market stall.
"See!" Mr. Hilal exclaimed to his foreign visitors. "We have no problems here. We live together in peace."
But in much of his territory the only peace is the peace of a graveyard. The road leading here from the nearby town of Kebkabiyah tells another story new Arab villages line the road, while old Fur and Zaghawa villages are burned-out husks.
In one Zaghawa village, bullet holes scar a crumbling schoolhouse. All the thatch roofs have been burned away, and rain and desert winds have worn the walls of the decapitated huts down to mere suggestions of habitation. In time, even those will disappear, leaving no trace of the Zaghawa.
Mr Hilal's claim that he has no control over any militia does not bear scrutiny, said Alex de Waal, an Africa scholar who studies Sudan. "He is at the center of all of this," Mr de Waal said.
In letters to government officials and other tribal leaders, Mr Hilal has repeatedly said his fighters are engaged in a jihad, or holy war, and will not disarm even if the government demands it.
"We will not retreat," he wrote in one such letter in 2004 to the leaders in Khartoum. "We continue on the road of jihad." Trying to disarm his men, he wrote, would be "cowardly," and impossible to enforce.
Another communique from Mr Hilal's headquarters in 2004, obtained by Mr de Waal, demanded that the militias "change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes."
The janjaweed so far have not respected the new peace agreement, attacking rebel-held towns in the area of Kutum in northern Darfur and Shearia in South Darfur, killing dozens of people.
Indeed, the Arab militias did not sign the peace agreement. They were represented, after a fashion, by the government, which has steadily denied their existence. Even so, one of the assumptions of the agreement was that the government had control over the Arab militias and the power to disarm them. This is based on a deeper assumption that the interests of Darfur's Arabs would be tended to by Khartoum. Neither is turning out to be true.
"If you ask me where my allegiance lies, with the government or with Darfur, I will have to tell you Darfur," Mr. Hilal said.
This is not the first time the government has promised to disarm the Arab militias. It pledged during seven separate rounds of peace talks over the past three years to neutralize them but has failed to do so. These failures have met with no sanction, so there is little confidence the government will take action now.
"Frankly it is the weakest link in an otherwise deeply flawed agreement," said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, an organization that studies violent conflicts. "It leaves intact the same promise the international community has relied upon, and that is that the government is principally responsible for reining in and otherwise neutralizing the murderous militias. It hasn't happened before and there is no new reason why it would happen now."
For some time, the government has been simply integrating the janjaweed militias into its official paramilitary Popular Defense Forces and the regular army, Mr Prendergast said. That process is likely to speed up in the coming months as negotiations continue over whether Sudan will allow a United Nations peacekeeping force to take over the understaffed and underfinanced African Union mission here.
If the alliance of convenience between the Arab militias and the government crumbles, there is little incentive for the militias to play along. Under the peace agreement, they are likely to lose control of land they stole, and there are deep fears that Arabs will be subjugated by the small but influential Zaghawa tribe, which leads the most powerful faction of the rebels.
"There is going to be a lot of conflict between the government and some of the Arab leaders," Mr Prendergast said. "But the government built the Frankenstein monster and now they have got to deal with it."
Photo: Sheikh Musa Hilal, a Sudanese chief who heads Darfur's largest Arab tribe, is seen inside a small shop in Mistariha, Sudan, May 23, 2006. (Reuters/STR/Sudan Watch archive)