The following excerpts, from excellent commentary by Paul Salopek (copied here below) echo some of what I've pointed out here many times before:
"...negotiators on the ground [in Sudan] worry that a well-intentioned human-rights campaign, launched by Western activists on behalf of Darfur's civilians, may actually be locking in the violence."
"...Insurgents I interviewed on the Chad border had little vision for the future of their people. Some resembled warlords from such dismal places as eastern [DR] Congo: sleek businessmen of war using children as cannon fodder."
Note, Paul tells us:
"... our dusty little party was driven off in an SUV with tinted windows and a Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Ministry logo emblazoned on the doors."
I wonder if the logo says SHAM or HAM. Pity no photo.
Jailed for 34 days, Tribune reporter writes: What I saw in Darfur (by Paul Salopek) - Oct 8 2006 AP report - via Guardian via POTP:
One cloudless Sunday morning in early August, while traveling on a desert road in the remote Darfur region of western Sudan, a teenager sporting dreadlocks and an AK-47 rifle stopped my vehicle. My translator, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, stepped out and offered the youth a cigarette -- standard etiquette in African war zones. But Moussa immediately returned to the car, frowning.
In this incidental way, I learned that we had just lost our freedom.
The young gunman belonged to a pro-government militia. And his patrol, after beating us and stealing our car and equipment, handed us over to Sudanese military intelligence. Moussa, my driver, Idriss Abdulrahman Anu, and I spent the next 34 days behind bars in Darfur, ending up hostage to a regime accused of mass murder. The government in Khartoum charged us with espionage, spreading "false news" and entering Africa's latest killing field without a visa.
It was hard not to feel, however, that our real crime was unspoken: reporting on a humanitarian catastrophe that is largely invisible to the outside world, and that is poised to grow worse in the weeks ahead.
Thousands of villagers will likely die soon in Darfur, the arid homeland of millions of farmers and herders who have been targeted in a ruthless civil war that some call genocide. Their torched huts, seen from the air, look like cigarette burns on a torture victim's skin.
Currently, a peace deal between the government and a major insurgent group is coming unglued. With the advent of the dry season, the Sudanese army and the fractious Darfur rebels are primed for a new military showdown. And, paradoxically, negotiators on the ground worry that a well-intentioned human-rights campaign, launched by Western activists on behalf of Darfur's civilians, may actually be locking in the violence. With Khartoum tarred as the bully, there is scant hope for any last-minute dialogue before the offensives begin.
Ironically, I wasn't focused exclusively on the Darfur tragedy when I crossed the desolate border separating Sudan and Chad on Aug. 6.
My Chadian colleagues and I were working on a much broader freelance assignment for National Geographic on the Sahel, the immense and turbulent band of savanna that runs across northern Africa, home to some 90 million struggling people.
Darfur was a side trip. Other journalists and aid workers had described how some Darfur refugees in Chad were drifting back to their ruined villages to rebuild their homes. It seemed a rare chance to profile civilians clinging to life in an intractable war zone. With our arrest, we unwittingly became part of that survival story.
For years, foreign correspondents have covered the Darfur crisis by slipping into rebel-held territory from Chad. Sudanese officials in Khartoum are stingy with journalist visas. Thus, much of what the world knows about a conflict that has killed at least 200,000 people comes from quick reportorial forays into the beautiful, lawless, corrugated plains and rocky escarpments controlled by Darfur's half-starved rebels.
Unfortunately for us, those insurgents can no longer be relied upon to guarantee our safety.
A cease-fire accord signed in May, brokered partly by the U.S., has shattered the rebel movement into dozens of small, competing bands. Loyalties are fluid. Confusion and treachery are common. Case in point: We were captured by a unit answering to Minni Minnawi, a pro-peace former rebel who only two weeks earlier had shaken President Bush's hand in the White House.
Minnawi's field commander along the northern border, a skinny, rakish guerrilla named Ibrahim Garsil, initially threatened to kill us. Luckily, his demoralized, war-weary men disregarded those orders. Instead they deserted by twos and threes every night, leaving their rifles propped against the nearest thorn tree. Others got drunk on date wine gulped from old automotive antifreeze jugs. Still others went on impromptu safaris with my stolen vehicle, taking potshots out the windows at wild cranes and storks. (They missed.) After holding us in lice-infested huts for three days, Garsil traded us to the Sudanese army for a large box of new uniforms.
Our Sudanese military helicopter ride to the garrison town of El Fasher offered a rare glimpse into Darfur's secretive air war, in which government pilots are accused by groups such as Human Rights Watch of strafing and bombing civilian villages. Only this time, the tables were turned.
Our chopper took ground fire over the contested town of Kutum. Bullets pinged through the passenger compartment. With my hands tied behind my back, I felt doubly helpless. A spent round knocked a Sudanese officer out of the seat opposite me. He clawed at his back, feeling for blood, and guffawed with relief when he discovered he was only bruised.
Off to the 'ghost house'
After wobbling to a hard landing on the airfield at El Fasher, our dusty little party was driven off in an SUV with tinted windows and a Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Ministry logo emblazoned on the doors. Our destination was a "ghost house," one of Sudan's notorious clandestine jails. For the next 10 days we were held incommunicado and interrogated. I spent my time in solitary confinement, in a barren room with a cot and a permanently buzzing fluorescent light. During my five-minute morning walks around the perimeter of a sandy courtyard, I managed to fling several distress notes scribbled on cigarette paper over the high wall. These ridiculous calls for help may have bounced off the heads of government soldiers; I learned later that our prison was in the middle of a large army base.
Obviously, Moussa, Anu and I saw little of Darfur: a succession of pestilential huts, mud-brick prison cells and interrogation rooms.
Still, we kept our ears and eyes open while inside the belly of the very security agencies that were helping prosecute the government's war in Darfur. And our keyhole view of the conflict offered some bleak insights into the future:
Vastly oversimplified as a good-versus-evil contest between African farmers and rampaging Arab herdsmen armed by Khartoum, the complicated struggle in Darfur is about to get a lot murkier -- and more unstoppable. Once loosely united by the neglect and cruelty of the central government, the region's squabbling rebels now maul each other. They are a messy obstacle to peace. Many have devolved into ethnic militias, or worse, simple bandits. Insurgents I interviewed on the Chad border had little vision for the future of their people. Some resembled warlords from such dismal places as eastern [DR] Congo: sleek businessmen of war using children as cannon fodder.
Flouting the peace deal, the Sudanese government has unleashed an offensive that is supposed to crush the remaining rebels. Whispered conversations with our jailers confirmed that, so far, it has failed miserably. Khartoum reportedly lost dozens of vehicles and hundreds of soldiers. That said, troop planes roared nightly over our prison in El Fasher. Military activity is set to escalate when the battlefields dry after the rains. Even our pudgy guards were being mobilized.
An African Union peacekeeping force can't stanch the bloodshed in Darfur, despite a promised addition of 4,000 troops. Sources as varied as Sudanese military officers, rebels, refugees and even frustrated AU officials themselves said the ill-equipped force remains outgunned and overwhelmed. Moreover, their credibility as an honest broker is in tatters. A typically depressing incident overheard in prison: In August, pro-government raiders called janjaweed attacked women and children gathering wood within sight of an AU firebase in southern Darfur. Several women were shot down. I was told that the AU contingent of Nigerian soldiers didn't lift a finger. Only when infuriated villagers surrounded the peacekeepers' base, chanting and waving sticks, did the AU at last react--dispersing the civilians with armored personnel carriers.
"Abuja? What is Abuja?" a slender woman named Fatim Yousif Zaite, 40, asked in a destroyed village where I was briefly held by the ragged militia, early in my ordeal.
Abuja is the popular name for the Darfur peace accord, signed in the Nigerian capital of the same name. Zaite had never heard of it.
She wore a yellow wrap and a luminous smile, and she was planting a small plot of sorghum in fields that, by her estimate, had been cratered nine times by government bombers since the outbreak of the war in 2003. Five of her relatives had been killed in the war. Standing in the field, she kept gently pulling her 3-year-old daughter's hand away from a small bucket of seed grain. The girl was hungry. She was eating the seeds.
A fruitless hunger strike
I knew hunger briefly in prison in Darfur.
For seven days I refused food in the ghost house in El Fasher. I was protesting my separation from Moussa and Anu, and our secret incarceration. This was the only weapon I could muster. But the bored duty officers simply shrugged, mentioning Guantanamo, the U.S. military base in Cuba, where several Sudanese are being held as terror suspects. Disheartened, I resumed eating on the eighth day.
I believe that our arrest in Sudan was a billboard-size warning to foreign journalists: Khartoum is fed up with the drumbeat of negative news emanating from Darfur.
Yet moderates within the regime must have ultimately prevailed in our case. For on Aug. 19, we three scruffy "spies" were transferred to a civilian jail. We still faced a penalty of 20 years in prison. But now we enjoyed access to Sudanese attorneys. Better yet, Moussa, Anu and I were reunited, albeit sometimes with 16 other men--pickpockets, con men, gun runners--in a 15-by-15-foot cell. We were delirious with relief. I traded my wristwatch for a cell phone call to my wife. Our police guards acted like human beings.
Six days later, the U.S. vice consul in Sudan and several American military advisers to the AU negotiated even better conditions for us at a courthouse jail. There, the affable judge who was to try us as enemies of the state bought us sickly sweet mint tea. By the end, I even was playing chess with the jailer who administered 40 lashes to town drunks under Shariah, the religious laws enforced under conservative Islam. The whip-man's name was Salah. To him the beatings were a job. At night he studied microbiology.
On Sept. 9 we were pardoned by President Omar al-Bashir, thanks to the humanitarian intercession of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and the Herculean efforts of the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum. Worldwide pressure from the journalistic community, in particular our tireless colleagues at the Chicago Tribune and National Geographic, gave us heart. So did letters of support from public figures as diverse as Bono and former President Jimmy Carter.
Yet for the hapless people of Darfur, there appears to be no such happy ending.
Reacting to public outcry, the Bush administration has classified Darfur's almost incomprehensible suffering as genocide. The White House is pushing hard for a UN force of 20,000 police and soldiers to replace the weak African Union peacekeepers. And Sudan is resisting bitterly. On Thursday, Khartoum sent threatening letters to nations promising troops to a UN force.
In truth, there are no guarantees that even a powerful UN force will do much better than the AU in Darfur.
The violent badlands of western Sudan are larger than Texas. And the proliferating gangs of rebels and pro-government militias, whether steered by Khartoum or renegade commanders, recall the nightmare of Bosnia. There, blue-helmeted UN troops hunkered down and performed abysmally.
Roots of discord run deep
Meanwhile, the ancient roots of Darfur's feuding will remain: racism between ethnic Arabs and Africans, and competition for threadbare natural resources--water and pastureland.
"A political settlement has been completely overlooked or downplayed by the U.S.," insists Alex de Waal, co-author of the book "Darfur: A Short History of a Long War." "The whole debate has gone off on a red herring--UN troops. From experience, we know that, ultimately, there is no real military solution to these kinds of complicated ethnic wars."
Yet relations between the West and Sudan are now so polarized that negotiating a new peace accord before the killing flares anew seems like a pipe dream.
During my last night in the ghost house in El Fasher, I endured my longest interrogation at the hands of an army colonel named Abdallah. He grilled me for nearly six hours, bludgeoning me robotically with accusations of espionage, absurd charges that I knew even he didn't believe. At 1 a.m. he finally played the good cop, and asked if I had any questions of my own. I did. I wanted to know the fate of Darfur.
"More war," he said without hesitation. He stared hard down at his desk.
After days of lies and mind games, these were the first honest words that escaped his lips.