Excerpt from Rolling Stone
report by Dinaw Mengestu in Chad, 21 Sep 2006. [Note, it says Minnawi accuses the Chadian government, "which until recently was one of the SLA's biggest supporters, of sending troops into Darfur to attack his forces."]
If anyone embodies the conflicting nature of the war in Darfur, it's Minnawi. A poor village boy turned revolutionary, he is emblematic of any of the hundreds of men who have tried to lead a crumbling army into power in Africa, using violence and intimidation to simultaneously free and destroy their countries.
Born in 1969, Minnawi taught grade school until 2001, when he became one of eighteen rebels in the newly formed Darfur Liberation Army, the precursor to the SLA. For two decades the Sudanese government had failed to provide even the most basic assistance to Darfur's black African tribes and had stood by passively as thousands were slaughtered at the hands of Arab militias. In 2003, Minnawi and the SLA issued a manifesto calling for a "united democratic Sudan," one that would grant equal rights and protection to all of its citizens, regardless of race.
The rebellion grew quickly, but by 2005, as rumors swirled that Minnawi was planning to kill the group's first president, Abdelwahid al-Nur, the SLA had split into two factions. One faction remained loyal to Minnawi, who is from the Zaghawa tribe, the other to al-Nur, who is from the larger Fur tribe. That split left Minnawi with more territory and soldiers than any other rebel leader, while at the same time dividing Darfur along ethnic lines, setting the stage for an inter-rebel war.
The peace agreement was supposed to bring calm to Darfur, but instead it has brought even more violence. Minnawi was the only rebel leader to sign the treaty, a move that further split the rebellion into warring factions.
"The first rule of thumb in almost every profession is 'do no harm,'" says John Prendergast, a senior analyst who studies Africa for the International Crisis Group. "I think the mediators of the peace agreement potentially made things worse by securing a deal with only one rebel faction and leaving the other two outside the tent."
Calling him a traitor, Minnawi's former allies began attacking his forces. In response, the SLA has killed and tortured hundreds of people in Northern Darfur believed to be sympathetic to the other rebels. According to Amnesty International, Minnawi's forces went on a four-day rampage in July, raping thirty-nine women and killing seventy-two people in the village of Korma. Even those in Darfur who once supported Minnawi now refer to his SLA as "janjaweed 2."
Some of the rebels have taken to forcibly recruiting refugees from the camps in Chad and pressing them into battle - with the assistance of the Chadian government. In March, one faction of the SLA kidnapped 4,700 boys from Bredjing and Treguine and herded them into trucks with whips and clubs. Suleyman Abdeulaye, who lives in Bredjing, had left the camp to walk to the nearby market when a group of rebels ordered him to get in their truck.
"They said, 'If you don't get in the truck we will beat you,'" Abdeulaye told me. "They had guns and knives. Twenty-seven people were already in the truck." After staying overnight at a Chadian military base, Abdeulaye says, the rebels drove the boys to the Darfur border. There, for the next twelve days, they were forced to march for hours at a time in the blazing heat. "We are going to fight against the janjaweed," the rebels told them. "We are going to kill them, take their guns and then bring those guns for you. Then we will go back together to fight them."
Abdeulaye managed to escape and return to Bredjing, but he remains terrified. "We don't feel safe here," he says. "But I can't go anywhere else. All I want is a moment of peace without fighting."
I had come to Chad on my way to Darfur, where I hoped to meet Minnawi face to face. For years, his forces have been the only thing separating tens of thousands of Darfurians from the janjaweed. Until the peace treaty, most photographs of him showed him behind the wheel of a jeep, surrounded on all sides by armed men with their heads and faces wrapped in cloth. Now, photos tend to show him dressed in a suit, shaking hands with Sudanese officials or President Bush. Minnawi finds himself trapped between the good intentions and unfulfilled promises of the West, and the unrelenting violence of the Sudanese military and his former allies who feel betrayed by his move toward peace. He helped create the violence and suffering in Darfur, and, in the end, he may be the only one able to end it.
One night, outside one of the refugee camps, I dial the number of a satellite phone given to me by one of Minnawi's supporters. The rebel leader answers. He is exceedingly, almost excessively polite, while at the same time evasive and paranoid. There is a strong wind blowing, and I picture him standing in the wind-swept desert, his phone pointed eastward into the sky.
I ask Minnawi if he will be returning to Chad. He accuses its government, which until recently was one of the SLA's biggest supporters, of sending troops into Darfur to attack his forces.
"No," Minnawi says. "I will not be going back to Chad anytime soon."
The conversation is brief. "I am in Northern Darfur," he finally tells me. "If you come to Darfur, I think we will meet."
(This is an excerpt from the September 21st issue of "Rolling Stone" magazine, on sale September 8 2006.)
[via An Unforgivable Hell on Earth blog