In Darfur, some Arabs now fight alongside rebels
Some Arabs fighters are growing so disenchanted with unfulfilled promises from Sudan's government that they're switching sides in the conflict.
Jebel Mara, SUDAN — There was once only one reason for Tusher Mohamed Mahdi, a member of one of Darfur's many Arab tribes, to venture into the mountainous rebel enclave of Jebel Mara: to kill as many non-Arab guerrilla fighters and their supporters as possible.
Now he comes here to take orders.
Mr. Mahdi used to lead a band of 150 Arab fighters, part of the brutal janjaweed militia that fights as the Sudanese government's proxy army in the country's troubled Darfur region, which has seen more than 200,000 people killed and more than 2.5 million displaced since fighting erupted in 2003.
But like a growing number of Arab militia leaders now disenchanted with the Sudanese government, he has thrown in his lot with the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel force, as Darfur's four-year conflict enters a new chapter.
"In the beginning we were proud to fight because the government was telling us that all this land would belong to us," he says over a glass of sweet, black tea in the small hillside town of Gorolang Baje.
"But later we discovered that would not be true."
Rebel leaders claim that dozens of janjaweed commanders are joining their struggle against the Sudanese government after promises of land, cattle, and money proved worthless.
In Jebel Mara they say 4,000 Arabs have bolstered their forces in the past year.
Darfur conflict not so simple
The deals undermine the simple narrative developed during four years of war: black African tribesmen pitted against an Arab-dominated government and their nomadic Arab allies, the janjaweed.
The truth has always been more complicated.
Many of the Arab tribesman in Darfur suffer from the same lack of development that led the rebels to take up arms in 2003.
In some parts, Arab sheikhs refused government money only to see their authority undermined by younger military commanders who were happy to sign up for war.
At the end of last year a new rebel grouping emerged. The Popular Forces Army, based in neighboring Chad, draws its strength from Arab tribes opposed to the government.
The result is a complex morass of conflicting loyalties and interests, suggesting that a resolution to a conflict that has killed at least 200,000 people remains a distant hope.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group said that Sudan's governing National Congress Party (NCP) had resorted to "divide and rule tactics."
Experts: Talks must Darfur's Arabs
Sally Chin, one of the report authors, says any solution to Darfur's multilayered conflict would have to take account of their interests.
"Many Arab tribes have always refused to support the NCP policies or take part in the janjaweed militias. For a comprehensive peace in Darfur it is critical that they are also somehow represented in the next round of talks."
Janjaweed commanders have become frequent visitors to rebel villages in the heart of the Jebel Mara mountains, accessible only by donkey.
Mahdi used to head a unit of militias who kept control of the main road into the hills from Nyala, the state capital of South Darfur.
He reels off a list of eight villages that his fighters pillaged.
"We would wait for the government to bomb an area, then we would go in," he says, a government issue AK-47 at his side. "Then our job was to go and loot and burn everything we could."
At first, trunks of cash and ammunition would be distributed by government soldiers before an attack.
But then the money ran out. Then their food.
How Mahdi joined the rebels
Disenchanted with the government and rumors that other Arab tribes were being treated better, he led his men to an SLA checkpoint waving a white flag.
They were debriefed and questioned for days, before each being handed a copy of the Koran and welcomed into the SLA.
"It made us feel bad that we had believed the government's lies. We were told that the SLA wanted to kill us and take our animals, that's why we did what we used to do," he says now.
For the past eight months his men have defended the southern slopes of Jebel Mara, making it a buffer against government forces.
He now takes orders from Gen. Elsadig Elzein Rokero, one of the SLA's senior commanders.
General Rokero says he is prepared to welcome anyone into the SLA if they are willing to sign up to the principle of ending Darfur's marginalization.
"It means we do not just represent the Fur – or the [non-Arab] tribes – we represent everybody," he says.
Rokero claims to have some 4,000 Arab militiamen arrayed around the margins of his territory, protecting the civilian population within.
He says the deal has already started to make a difference to the people he is fighting for.
The price of sugar has begun dropping as trucks make the six-hour journey from Nyala to the edge of the Jebel Mara.
And aid agencies can begin bringing food to the isolated people here without fear of hijacking.
That is the real reason for the unlikely alliance, say some Sudan watchers.
"The SLA is able to move food and supplies in along a road that used to be unsafe, while the Arabs can move their animals without fear of SLA harassment," says an aid worker speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
"It's a marriage of convenience not ideology."