A Darfur town empties as the janjaweed return

Evidence mounts that Sudan is remobilizing Arab militias against the people of Darfur.

All but a few civilians have fled this town in Sudan's troubled Darfur region. Instead, Tine's marketplace is filled with feared janjaweed fighters sporting flip-flops, assault rifles, and a mishmash of uniforms and T-shirts. African Union (AU) commanders say more than 1,000 janjaweed militiamen arrived in town just over two weeks ago to back up 3,000 government troops.

Under a peace agreement signed last May, Sudan's government was supposed to disarm the janjaweed and inform the AU commanders of any troop movements. They have done neither. In fact, the arrival of the fighters in this border town is fresh evidence that the government is remobilizing the janjaweed and other irregular Arab militias in large numbers.

Five peace deals have failed to hold since the rebellion in Darfur began three years ago. Then, local non-Arab tribes took up arms to protest against underdevelopment of Darfur. The Arab-dominated government responded by arming mostly Arab janjaweed militias. More than 2.5 million civilians have fled their homes and at least 200,000 have died. The United States has termed it "genocide," a claim hotly denied by Sudan.

The government's apparent remobilization of the brutal janjaweed (mostly former herders) comes after Sudan's Army lost two recent battles, and morale among the troops fell precipitously. "The government troops are very weak.... Soldiers have refused to fight us. They even brought soldiers from the north and they refused," says Jar al-Neby, a spokesman for the National Redemption Front , the largest rebel alliance. "So the government is mobilizing janjaweed, which is very bad for the civilians because they attack our people all the time."

The remobilization is confirmed by other reports from international aid groups and UN agencies. And, with greater mobility brought by the end of the rainy season, observers say the violence is set to worsen.

The AU says at least 92 people, including many women and children, were killed last week by Arab militias at Jebel Moon, a mountainous border area to the north of El Fashir. Raids across the Chad-Sudan border are increasing, with each country accusing the other of destabilization.

Arab gunmen on horseback have killed up to 220 villagers in eastern Chad in the past week, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said yesterday.

Once home to 70,000 people, Tine has been emptied by a series of bombing raids and Sudanese government attacks over the past two years. Today, its terrified inhabitants huddle on the other side of a dry riverbed under flimsy stick-and-plastic shelters in a camp that marks the border with Chad. From just a few hundred yards away, they watch their abandoned adobe homes collapse with the passing seasons.

The janjaweed – many of whom are former criminals released from prison – have been accused by local civilians and human rights monitors of hideous abuses, including gang rape, throwing babies in boiling water, and burning civilians alive. This week, the deputy sultan of Tine said he was attacked in his home, threatened with death, and had cash and guns stolen by drunken men wearing government uniforms.

"I have been here for three years," he says through a translator. "The [government of Sudan] and the police, they are not doing this. This is not the real Sudanese army."

Now, he says, he is in fear of his life, but balks at confirming the janjaweed presence under the glare of the government minder who has insisted on being present at all interviews.

Even the Sudanese soldiers, who have been stationed here for nearly two years, find the janjaweed embarrassing. "These guys are causing chaos in this area," complains one officer to the minder, before realizing that there is an Arabic-speaking journalist present.

The 200 soldiers and observers at the African Union camp here say there is little they can do to stop attacks on the people of Tine should they return to the town. Outnumbered by government troops by 200 to 1 and lacking a mandate to intervene, there are few civilians left to seek their protection. At night, the headlights of rebel convoys across the border shine through the razor wire like cats' eyes and the distant boom of government bombers wakes the soldiers in the AU camp from a sweaty slumber.

"The AU has no teeth. We cannot bite," says a frustrated Lt. Col. Thomas Chaona, the commander in charge of the camp on the Sudanese side of the border.

Underresourced and undermanned, even senior AU commanders are calling for the intervention of the UN. In one recent incident, an officer who went to investigate a massacre got lost after being given the wrong coordinates. The people who had gathered to speak to him, he says, were attacked by janjaweed, and many were killed.

"We were designed to monitor a cease-fire, not be a peacekeeping mission," says the AU officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We have never had the resources to do this job."

But there is no one left in Tine to protect now. "This is a ghost town. All the people are dead or have run away," says Virginia Mukuka sadly. A Zambian who is one of 30 civilian police attached to the AU force in Tine, she says she has only dealt with one complaint in four months.

"We came to help our brothers and sisters," she says. "But they are gone."

Meanwhile, the various forces fight. These days, squabbles over power and disputes over peace deals have spawned so many factions that the rebels themselves cannot name them all, although many have a loose alliance under the National Redemption Front (NRF).

This is the group that most concerns the government. The NRF has beat the government in two battles, taking over 100 prisoners and capturing vital vehicles and weapons.

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