SLA-Minnawi rebels torture of civilians and disappearance of humanitarian Suliman Gamous clouds peace hopes (Julie Flint)
Fifteen days after the Sudanese government signed the Darfur peace agreement with one of Darfur's rebel factions last month, fighters loyal to rebel leader Minni Minawi entered the village of Bir Maza in North Darfur and seized at gunpoint the man they chose as their humanitarian coordinator when they first took up arms - 61-year-old Suliman Gamous.
Gamous has not been seen since and all efforts to win his release, including those by senior U.S. officials, have failed.
His daughter, living in Fort Wayne, is beside herself with worry.
"I have no idea if my father is alive or not," Safia Gamous said in a telephone interview last week. "This is the third time Minni Minawi has arrested him. The first time was for one week, the second for three days. This time it's more than two weeks.
"Eighteen people from my family went to ask why he was arrested. They tied them with ropes and hit them. Two of them cannot talk now because they have so much pain."
Safia Gamous came to the United States in 2004, believing it "the best place to improve your life."
She has lived in downtown Fort Wayne with her husband, Abdalla, and 7-month-old daughter for the past three months.
Photo: Safia Gamous of Fort Wayne holds pictures of her father, who is missing since his arrest by Darfur rebels after the signing of the Darfur peace agreement. U.S. pleas for his release have so far failed. (Samuel Hoffman/The Journal Gazette)
The gang that abducted her father was led by Minawi's chief of staff.
Relatives who visited chief of staff Arko Suliman Dhahiyah to inquire about Suliman Gamous were tortured - tied, pistol-whipped and burned with cigarettes - and then imprisoned in wretched conditions for six days.
Officers from the African Union force in Darfur who visited Bir Maza have confirmed the torture. Richard Lourens, the AU's sector commander, described burn marks and swollen jaws caused by beating and ropes. Safia Gamous' relatives told her they were tortured for opposing the peace agreement.
Minawi's story is that Bir Maza was attacked by "Chadian mercenaries" seeking to disrupt the Darfur peace.
Speaking privately, senior African Union officials say this is not true. But Minawi knows that those who forced the peace agreement across the finish line - primarily the United States - are concerned by reports that Chadian President Idriss Deby is arming Darfurians who oppose the agreement to strengthen his own defenses against Khartoum-backed Chadian rebels based in Darfur.
As Suliman Gamous' disappearance lengthens, there is growing concern that Minawi is playing the Chad card to win time and space to silence his critics while he consolidates his new power.
Under the peace deal, he could - if he wishes - become the fourth official in the land: senior assistant to President Omar Bashir.
Gamous is a critic of both leaders of the divided SLA - Minawi and SLA Chairman Abdul Wahid Mohamed al Nur - but above all of Minawi's human rights record.
Minawi appears determined to impose himself in peace as he did in war - by force. A 50-year-old trader named Abdalla Ali Hassaballa is one of the men who visited Dhahiyah. He has testified that Dhahiyah told the group: "I can shoot Gamous and I can sodomize you!"
After this, he said, "They stripped us, tied us and put us in the open under the sun and started beating us. They also shot rounds to terrorize us."
Three members of the group were driven around the village, naked on open trucks, for all to see.
The other villagers were told: "We can force the peace on you!"
Photo: Darfur rebel leader Minni Minawi arrested Suliman Gamous in Bir Maza in North Darfur. Eighteen relatives of Gamous were tortured when they asked Minawi's chief of staff why he had been apprehended. Julie Flint/Special to The Journal Gazette
As the peace talks drew to a close last month, the United States took over defining the solution. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick flew into the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on May 2. Three days later the peace deal was signed.
The U.S. says the agreement can end a conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives since the government unleashed its army, air force and Janjaweed militias against the tribes that support the rebels.
But most Darfurians see the agreement as "a peace between two criminals" that will not enable them to return safely to their villages and rebuild their shattered lives, much less end Darfur's political and economic marginalization.
U.S. support for Minawi appears to be based on the assumption that he is the strongman of Darfur who can deliver peace.
But Minawi's Zaghawa tribe comprises, at most, 8 percent of the population of Darfur and is itself divided, with more and more rejecting Minawi's brutal leadership.
Today the Zaghawa, more than any other Darfurians, live in the "dars" - administrative areas - of other ethnic groups.
Their success, especially in the fields of trade and commerce, had caused tensions with other tribes even before the present conflict.
But since the rebellion began, the behavior of Minawi's forces has soured relations between Zaghawa settlers and their hosts in many regions and has awakened old fears that the tribe has a hidden agenda - the creation of an expanded Zaghawa homeland carved out of the more fertile lands of others.
It is the Zaghawa who have the most to lose if this peace fails. It is their land that is dying, their bombed and burned villages that desperately need development; their civilians who are being victimized because of the abuses of Minawi's men.
A first test of the peace is whether Suliman Gamous is released unharmed without further delay.
If the U.S. is unable to bring about the release of Gamous, what chance does it have of the far more difficult task that faces it - persuading the Sudan government, which has not honored a single commitment made since the war began, to honor the Darfur peace agreement?
Photo: SLA rebels in a village destroyed by government troops and Janjaweed, which the Sudanese government has released against the tribes that support the Darfur rebels. (Julie Flint/Special to The Journal Gazette)
June 6 2006 BBC Sudan's Darfur rebels accused of torture - Last week Minnawi's SLA faction targeted Bir Maza, Minnawi's home town occupied by rival rebel group