For rebels in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, every day is a struggle. With the hopes of their beleaguered people on their shoulders, they roam some of the world's least hospitable terrain, avoiding attacks by Sudanese helicopters and protecting villagers from raids by the government-backed janjaweed militia.
But, increasingly, the rebels are at risk of becoming the key stumbling block to peace, say analysts. In recent months, the rebels have:
• Split into more than a dozen quarreling factions.
• Accused one another of seeking personal fame, being bought off by Sudan's government, and representing the interests of specific tribes instead of all of Darfur's people.
• Killed 10 African Union (AU) peacekeepers, according to AU commanders, in the worst attack since the troops were deployed in 2004.
Now, with the patience of the international community wearing thin, Darfur's disparate rebels are meeting in South Sudan in hopes of forming a common agenda for Oct. 27 peace talks in Tripoli, Libya. But even if they do come up with a unified position before heading into the UN-sponsored talks, observers say that getting rebel leaders to agree on who should represent them will be much more difficult.
"The rebels need to get their act together," says Alex de Waal, a Darfur expert at Harvard University, adding that the Sudanese government "is loving every minute of this."
With key rebel leaders set to boycott next Saturday's talks, top-level international officials are ratcheting up pressure to make them participate. Last week, Britain's Lord Malloch Brown, the minister for Africa, threatened to cut any groups that don't show up for the talks out of all future peace negotiations. Last month, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte threatened to "sanction" rebel leaders who boycott the talks.
So far, these threats have failed to move Abdul Wahid Mohammed Nur, who leads a main faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel group from his base in Paris and commands widespread support among many Darfur refugees. He says there is no point in talking until there is security on the ground. Many smaller factions agree.
But Ahmed Tugod Lissan, the spokesman for one of Darfur's largest and most cohesive rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), says a workable peace agreement that addresses the root cause of the Darfur conflict – namely the longstanding underdevelopment and neglect of the region – must be signed before sending in more troops.
"If the agreement doesn't address the root causes, we are re-creating the conflict," he says, adding that it would be a big mistake to deploy more peacekeepers before signing an agreement.
JEM demands that the people of Darfur be represented at all levels of the Sudanese government, and that the government resettles and compensates the more than 2 million refugees that have been displaced by the conflict.
Most rebel factions share those core demands, but cannot agree on who should represent the people of Darfur at the negotiating table. The squabbling has devolved into a crippling legitimacy crisis.
"Anyone with three cars has come and said: 'I have a movement,' " explains Terab Mohammed Abdullah, a JEM leader based in eastern Chad. "This is part of the problem."
Among the top concerns of rebel leaders recently interviewed by the Monitor was that other rebel leaders have accepted money from the Sudanese government to sow discord among the rebel groups. Each of the leaders raised this issue without naming guilty parties or providing specifics of how the other groups are bought off.
But a different concern is emerging from the commanders in the field. Abakar Abdullah Abakar, the SLA military commander for all of West Darfur, says the factions' political leaders are too far removed from what's actually happening on the ground. The leaders' distance, he says, has loomed large over previous failed peace efforts, like the agreement signed in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2006, before which negotiators had neglected to consult on-the-ground fighters and ordinary Darfuris.
"The leaders there had no battlefield or refugee support," he says, adding that he expects the same from next week's talks in Libya. "Those that can represent the people won't be at the talks."
One group, which recently split from the SLA and calls itself the Sudanese National Liberation Movement (SNLM), is seeking to address the legitimacy problem with a proposal for a grand meeting of all Darfuri tribal chiefs to vote on issues and leadership of the rebel movement. But the fighting in Darfur would preclude such a meeting, says Farah Mohammed Farah, the SNLM's vice president.
"We want refugees to have more of their own voice in any negotiations," says Mr. Farah. "They have been excluded for too long by the leaders, but international forces must provide security for the refugee chiefs to gather."
Despite the divisions and the disagreements, Darfur's rebels say they won't give up until their demands are met. "We are not sure how long it will take," says the SLM's Mr. Abakar, "but we will fight until we solve the problem."