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Affecting the peace by sitting out talks

As Sudan's other rebel leaders meet today to map strategy, Abdel Wahid will wield his clout a continent away.

August 03, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — At the moment, the headquarters of Abdel Wahid's faction of the Sudanese Liberation Movement is a cafe in Paris.

"I may be in exile, but my people know I am still with them," says Wahid, reaching into his bag and pulling out four cellphones and a chunky Thuraya satellite phone with its thumb-like antenna.

"This one is for the commanders, so I can tell them what to do and what not to do. This," he said, holding up a newer Nokia, "is for civil society so we can discuss their next move. This one is for [displaced people] and refugees. This one is for students. Sometimes I address their secret meetings by speakerphone."

And who is the satellite phone for? "I can't tell you." He smiles.

Wahid, a round-faced 39-year-old, is one of Darfur's original rebel leaders, and even from afar, a man of secrets, contradictions and considerable power. He is a holdout who gains influence over the conversation about peace by refusing to talk; a would-be peacemaker who threatens more war; a fighter for the rights of displaced people, yet a figure who derives his power from their misery. And he is one reason it is so hard to stabilize Sudan.

Wahid began the SLM in 1992 while a law student in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to agitate for a secular democratic state and a greater share of the country's power and wealth for the long-neglected people in the vast western region of Darfur. The group evolved into an armed movement, which along with other rebels attacked Sudanese forces in 2003. The rebellion resulted in widespread retaliation by militias known as janjaweed, widely believed to be backed by the Sudanese government. The militias terrorized the villages harboring rebels, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and driving more than 2 million people from their homes into U.N.-run camps.

Though he has been living in Paris since 2004 for what he says are security reasons, Wahid remains one of the most influential leaders of the Fur tribe, which makes up the majority of Darfur's population and has been the main target of attacks.

In addition to working the phones, Wahid sends videotapes to camps, exhorting Darfur natives to press to return to the land from which they were forced, to hold out for compensation, to demand United Nations protection. It is a message of hope and defiance in a place where there is not much left but despair, and when you ask people in the camps who represents them, many still say, "Abdel Wahid."

Wahid's continued popularity explains why U.N. peace negotiators want him at the table at preliminary peace talks due to begin today in Arusha, Tanzania, not at this zinc cafe table sipping Coke Light. The talks are meant to help the splintered opposition find a common platform so they can face the government in negotiations this fall.

Unlike other rebel leaders, Wahid refused to sign the Darfur peace agreement in May 2006, holding out for additional compensation and a greater role in the central government for Darfur residents. Without the support of the Fur, the agreement quickly crumbled. But Wahid once again refuses to attend negotiations, even the Tanzania talks among fellow rebels, which run through Monday, saying that more signed paper is not the path to peace.

"There have been many agreements before and no change," he said, counting off 11 rounds of talks that yielded several unsuccessful cease-fire and peace agreements. "The government must show us they are serious by stopping the attacks.

"Just this week there were more attacks" by militias against villagers in Darfur, he said, his voice rising. "My trust of the government is under zero. I need to see action first. Once there is security in Darfur, we will know it is time to talk about peace."

Though past agreements have foundered -- on account of violations by the janjaweed, the government and rebels alike -- U.N. peace envoys believe that this time they have momentum.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council authorized the deployment of 26,000 peacekeepers to help stabilize Darfur. The government, facing growing international pressure and seemingly losing support of some Arab and African allies, is willing to talk. Neighboring countries that have been stirring the pot have agreed to step back. Most of the dozen or so rebel groups are trying to come together for the sake of peace.

The main holdout is Wahid.

"Without him, I am afraid the talks won't go forward," said the U.N.'s special envoy for Sudan, Jan Eliasson, who has spent months trying to nudge all the players to the table. "This is the big chance."

Wahid seems to take pleasure in rejecting the high-ranking dignitaries from the U.N., the U.S. and France, who come to quietly court, or warn, him. They have let him know that if he blocks the move toward peace, he will be subject to sanctions, just as surely as if he violated a cease-fire. Specifically, France could revoke his right to stay here.

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