Darfur’s rebels pose latest threat to the displaced

Times Staff Writer

This sunbaked displacement camp, considered the largest in Darfur, has become a virtual no-go zone.

Aid workers abandoned Gereida in December after gunmen stormed their compounds, raping an international staffer and stealing a dozen trucks. Last week, African Union troops suspended daily patrols after the shooting deaths of two Nigerian soldiers outside their base.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 14, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Sudan caption: A photograph accompanying an article in Section A on Tuesday about rebels in Darfur, Sudan, was taken in Kuteri, not Gereida.

Now anxiety and desperation are growing among the 120,000 people crammed inside this camp in the southern part of Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

The misery is depressingly common in this region torn by war, but the prime culprits are new: Darfur’s rebels.

Until now, the bulk of the suffering in Darfur involved attacks by Arab nomad militias, known as janjaweed, allegedly backed by the Sudanese government.

But the attacks against aid groups and the African Union soldiers came not from the janjaweed or government troops, officials say, but from factions of the Sudanese Liberation Army, or SLA, the rebel group formed in 2003 to defend Darfur’s tribes against assault. Once viewed by many here as freedom fighters, the rebels over the last year have fractured into more than a dozen feuding factions.


Their attacks underscore a new and rising threat to Darfur’s long-suffering people.

Many here ran out of food in January when rebel attacks forced the United Nations World Food Program to halt visits. The International Committee of the Red Cross took over emergency work last month, resuming food deliveries and stabilizing the water supply. But camp residents fear other humanitarian workers may never return, leaving them to fend for themselves in a hostile desert.

“Nobody cares about us,” said Issa Dalill Degas, 48, lying last week in a hospital cot after being shot by bandits while driving to a nearby town. His 23 children get only one meal of corn and beans a day because he’s worried food will run short again. “We’re hungry and tired,” he said. “After the aid groups left, we haven’t anything.”

More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, mostly of disease and hunger in the early years of the fighting. An additional 2.5 million residents have been displaced.

Still, since 2004, more than $1 billion in aid has poured into the region, and aid agencies have created what they see as one of the world’s biggest humanitarian success stories. Malnutrition rates in camps have been slashed in half, to below the 15% emergency level. Mortality rates have decreased by one-third. Many displacement camps offer not only food and water, but also schools, health clinics and marketplaces.

Now, however, the increased attacks on aid workers are putting those gains at risk.

“People can’t do what they need to do,” said Dawn Blalock, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Because of security concerns, aid groups have resorted to “hit-and-run” aid, Blalock said. “You sweep in with a four months’ supply and then hope everything will be OK until you can get back,” she said.

Cameron Hume, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, said factionalization of rebel groups was a growing cause of crime and bloodshed in Darfur.

“Most of the violence now against the [aid groups] is by the rebels or by the non-government-backed forces, though that doesn’t exonerate the government,” he said.

Many accuse the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of encouraging the rebel split by pursuing a “divide-and-rule” strategy, bribing some of the groups while bombing others.

In May, the government signed a peace agreement with one SLA faction led by rebel leader Minni Minnawi, who received a plum government job in exchange. Other rebel commanders rejected the deal, leading to further splits, power struggles and aggressive behavior.

“They’re like a lot of warlords,” said a security official for one aid organization who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the past, rebel fighters resupplied their arms and vehicles by attacking government forces. With a decrease in direct clashes between rebels and the government, experts say, rebels are now attacking aid groups to resupply.

Aid groups report near-daily carjackings around Darfur. A dozen Sudanese aid workers have been killed in the last year, most during robberies. Usually the attackers are never identified.

In the attacks in Gereida against the aid workers and the African Union soldiers, witnesses said they recognized SLA soldiers among the gunmen, according to AU officials.

“We know it was the SLA,” said Capt. Kris Amadeco Anogo, operations officer for the African Union peacekeepers in Gereida. “You can’t trust them.” He said an AU vehicle carrying four soldiers on a routine patrol was stopped by SLA gunmen on foot. One soldier was injured and another escaped unharmed. But the attackers seized the truck with the two additional soldiers still inside. The peacekeepers’ bodies were later discovered nearby.

In the aftermath of the attack, African Union relations with the camp and SLA have turned frosty.

Last week, AU soldiers began digging foxholes and building sandbag positions around the base. Patrols were halted, and visitors from the displacement camp were turned away at the barbed-wire fence.

“Tempers here are very high,” Anogo said.

“We’re in mourning.”

SLA leaders said concerns about lack of security were exaggerated.

“Security is OK,” said Abu Gasim Ahmed Mohamed, SLA commander of Gereida. “There are no problems.” He downplayed tribal divisions and said that the biggest security threat was the Sudanese government’s failure to disarm the janjaweed that roam the town’s perimeter.

The rebels denied any role in the attack on the peacekeepers. “They always accuse us, but we’re innocent,” said Abdul Aziz Abdalla, the local SLA chief of security.

He refused to say how many fighters were based in Gereida, but said he could muster an army of 10,000 on short notice.

His forces patrol the tiny town in topless Toyota Land Cruisers, guns and grenade launchers strapped to the side. Mohamed said he restocked his weapons by stealing them from government troops, but experts say guns are also being funneled in through neighboring Chad.

SLA fighters condemned the AU as ineffective and battle-shy. They complained that AU soldiers preyed on local women, got drunk and left base without adequate protection or interpreters. Last year, AU officials investigated complaints involving suspected sexual misconduct by their troops and seven women in Gereida.

SLA officials also denied orchestrating the Dec. 18 attack against the compounds of Action Against Hunger and Oxfam International. In addition to the rape, foreign workers were subjected to mock executions. Despite SLA denials, AU and aid workers say it would be impossible for bandits to escape with a dozen SUVs and not be stopped or noticed by SLA checkpoints.

The day after the attack, more than 70 international aid workers left Gereida. Their work is now handled by fewer than a dozen Red Cross employees.

“The attack in Gereida was a new level,” said a representative for an aid group that has pulled out of the camp. Humanitarian groups say they will not return until SLA forces can guarantee their safety and arrange for the return of their vehicles.

Gereida is not alone. Aid workers have also evacuated other hot zones in Darfur, including Kutum, about 200 miles northwest of here. Some aid groups have restricted staff to the three provincial capitals in the Darfur region. Citing the rising risk, the French organization Doctors of the World terminated operations in Darfur in January, and others have threatened to follow suit.

Those living in Gereida’s displacement camp say they are the ones paying the price. The Red Cross health clinic remains open, but another operated by the British aid group Merlin stands empty, with just a guard.

UNICEF once gave out school notebooks and clothes and subsidized teacher salaries. Since December, some teachers’ pay has been cut in half, forcing them to pressure students and their families to pay fees.

Water pumps, latrines and classrooms are falling into disrepair because aid groups are no longer around to fix them.

Abakar Osman Adouma, 27, supported his wife and five children by working at French food distributor Action Against Hunger. Now he’s lost his job and his $5-a-day salary.

To earn cash, he said, he’s trying to repair shoes in the camp. But few residents have money to spend. And he doesn’t dare go into town in search of other customers, he said.

“It’s not safe,” he said.



Back story

Fighting broke out in 2003 between Sudanese government forces and rebel groups who said the Darfur region had been neglected. Arab militias known as janjaweed are accused of committing some of the violence, allegedly with support from the government.

Violence continues despite the signing of a cease-fire and a peace deal. Estimates are that more than 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million forced from their homes.

The United States declared the conflict a genocide in 2004.

African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stop the fighting, but Sudan has rejected elements of a plan to deploy U.N. troops too.

Source: Times wire services