Sunday, April 12, 2009

SLA's Jebel Marra, the Switzerland of Sudan

In a guerrilla-held area lush with pastures, streams and groves, villagers go about self-sufficient lives very different from those of the displaced people huddled in dry, dusty camps below.

The rebels on the mountain
From Los Angeles Times
By Edmund Sanders
April 12, 2009
Reporting from Jebel Marra, Sudan —
To enter rebel-controlled territory at the base of this extinct Darfur volcano, you have to walk across a 100-yard no man's land that separates government soldiers from Sudan Liberation Army fighters. As we leave the United Nations trucks and cross a barren field toward our SLA hosts, rebel silhouettes sprout on the mountaintops standing guard. It feels oddly -- and a little amusingly -- like some sort of hostage exchange.

Getting here took nearly as much negotiation. There were awkward teas with local bureaucrats and a flurry of satellite phone calls with various insurgents before we finally procured the needed government stamps and rebel permissions. Roads to the mountain are so bandit-ridden that even the government advises against using them. Little wonder no journalist had visited in seven months.

It's agreed that U.N. peacekeepers can drop us at rebel lines but proceed no farther, because the SLA faction that controls Jebel Marra doesn't trust them any more than it does the government.

At the handoff, however, tensions quickly melt and soon rebels and troops are exchanging greetings and even posing for pictures.

The rebels are straight out of central casting. Most are teenage boys, their faces covered by sunglasses and head scarves. They'd look like schoolkids dressing up if the Kalashnikov rifles and bullet straps on their chests weren't real.

Every one of them is well-versed in the movement's dogma about the Darfur region's oppression at the hands of the Khartoum-based Sudanese government.

Asked why he joined, dreadlocked fighter Deng Khamis, 29, takes a drag on his cigarette, exhales with a dramatic sigh and says, "I was born marginalized."

From there it's a jerky, body-bruising ride up the rocky mountainside. As we climb, an unfamiliar world begins to materialize, like a mirage in the Darfur desert.

Most of western Sudan is flat, dry and almost bare of plant life. Here suddenly are pastures, streams, even forests. Past mango and orange groves lie dozens of small, quiet villages where people go about ordinary, self-sufficient lives in what some call the Switzerland of Sudan.

They live in scattered huts with plenty of land. They grow crops on terraced plots carved into the mountain. The World Food Program says the region hasn't needed regular aid distributions since 2006. The people here have rejected overcrowded displacement camps, dependence on foreign aid and the daily threat of banditry and government harassment in favor of a somewhat normal, if isolated and fragile, existence behind "enemy" lines.

It's a reminder of what Darfur must have been like before the 6-year-old insurgency engulfed it. "Up here things are OK," says Abdulkarim Hussein, 45, who was born in the village of Kutrum. "Once you leave the mountain, that's where the problems start."

It's not an easy life, he says, but it's better than the camps. "It's a trade-off," he said, pointing to bullet holes in his front door that were left in a 2007 skirmish. "But I choose this."

Fears of renewed violence have grown since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant last month for Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who is accused of leading a brutal counterinsurgency.

"The past year was the first time in a long time that we didn't have to live every day with our shoelaces tied" to be ready to run, said Hawa Yagoub Abdalla, 35, a mother of three who lives in Kutrum. "We are worried about what will come next."

The government's recent expulsion of 13 international aid groups from Darfur, including Doctors Without Borders, is creating a healthcare crisis as well. Many clinics in Jebel Marra are seeing a steady increase in meningitis cases, though they ran out of vaccinations weeks ago and are short of antibiotics.

Rebels say they are helpless to fill the gap. "We are still a movement that is in the bush, so we don't have the resources," SLA commander Mergheani Ahmed said. Ahmed, 35, spent a decade working as an intelligence officer for the government. Seven years ago he defected, and he hasn't left the mountain since.

"My face is too known," he says. "I can never leave."

For a brief moment, we're not sure we can, either. After the third flat tire, the rebels' Land Cruiser is stranded and we're late for the U.N. pickup back at the mountain base. After 30 minutes of sprinting down the mountain, motorbikes are commandeered to complete the journey. We pass the villages, the mango groves and the buffer zone to arrive back at the flat, dusty and familiar reality of Darfur.

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