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Sudan's president hits the road with defiance

After several days of rallies in the capital, Bashir flies to Darfur, where he railed against the international arrest warrant and played to the crowd of thousands of supporters.

March 09, 2009|Edmund Sanders

EL FASHER, SUDAN — Call it the "Defiance Tour '09," Sudanese-style.

After three days of packed performances in the capital, Khartoum, President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir took his nose-thumbing act on the road Sunday to the scene of his alleged crimes.

With a planeload of diplomats and journalists in tow, Bashir made his first visit to Darfur since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on war crimes charges over a six-year counter-insurgency here that killed 35,000 people and led to the deaths of an additional 100,000 from disease and hunger.

Standing in the back of a heavily guarded truck, the president took a victory lap through a dusty field and soaked up the adulation from thousands of cheering supporters. Once on the stage, he danced and joshed with the crowds. He poked his cane in the air and swung his hips.

Then as if on cue, the fans broke through the police lines and crushed toward the podium, arms stretched out toward the rock-star president.

"Bashir is in our hearts!

"Bashir is in our hearts!"

Sunday's rally was largely a show and everyone knew it. Less than a week after the arrest warrant was issued, Sudan is eager to demonstrate to the world that Bashir remains solidly in power.

As part of the "What, me worry?" strategy, Bashir even told the crowds that he didn't care anymore whether the U.N. Security Council votes to block the ICC case. That's something the government has been desperately seeking for months.

It was here in El Fasher that the Darfur rebellion began in 2003, when rebels attacked the airport. As the president's plane landed Sunday, it was clear no opposition would have a chance to do so again. (Though there was a rumor that one rebel group had threatened to fire at the plane.)

Soldiers and policemen stood guard every 30 yards along the road. Hundreds of intelligence officers mixed with the crowds. An occasional jet or helicopter flew overhead.

The precautions were in stark contrast to the daily scene in Khartoum, where the president in recent days has stood just a few feet from exuberant crowds, without barriers or security checks.

"No tyranny, no discrimination. Darfur is one nation!

"No tyranny, no discrimination. Darfur is one nation!"

As he has before, Bashir vowed to never turn over any Sudanese to the Hague-based court and shrugged off the case as irrelevant. At the same time, he sent a clear message that, when it comes to the international prosecution, you are either with him or against him.

"Anyone who supports the court is under my shoe," he said.

Not surprisingly, those with an opposing viewpoint steered clear of the rally. Amid the security, even those who supported Bashir appeared nervous to speak to Western news media.

"The situation is very bad," said one El Fasher resident who did not attend the rally and did not want to be identified. "Security is everywhere. People are very afraid."

Bashir didn't visit any of the displacement camps around El Fasher, where some of Darfur's 2.5 million homeless people live.

During a string of speeches, one man claiming to represent displaced families took the stage and expressed support for Bashir.

"We stand by our president," Anwar Mohammed Abdullah said. "He is innocent. There is no extermination in Darfur."

The man went on to say that displaced people in Darfur were unconcerned by the government's expulsion of more than a dozen foreign humanitarian aid groups in reaction to the arrest warrant.

Try saying that while standing in one of Darfur's increasingly desperate camps today and you might not make it out alive. Anxiety levels are rising inside the camps, United Nations officials say, though demonstrations have been peaceful.

Bashir alleges that the expelled aid groups, including Doctors Without Borders, Care International and Oxfam, turned over incriminating evidence about the government to ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and were working to unseat him in the upcoming election.

"Ocampo is an American dog!

"Ocampo is an American dog!"

Adding to the showbiz feel have been the president's frequent costume changes. These days, Cher has nothing on Bashir. At times he dons a well-decorated military uniform; on other occasions he prefers a Western-style suit jacket.

On Sunday, he began in a tan African safari suit and ended in traditional white robes and Arab headdress.

His 40-minute speech hit familiar anti-Western, anti-U.S. themes, rattling off a list of American ghosts -- slavery, mistreatment of Native Americans, Hiroshima, Vietnam and Abu Ghraib -- and asked what right the United States has to judge Sudan.

"Is that not genocide?" he said.

"Down, down USA! We won't be ruled by the CIA!

"Down, down USA! We won't be ruled by the CIA!"

Hoarse and sunbaked, Bashir concluded by urging the crowd to work toward unity. But he told them to also be prepared for a fight.

"Get ready," he said. "We are the grandsons of martyrs."

The crowds dispersed -- by foot, by camel, by horse and in the backs of pickup trucks.

For Bashir, there was just enough time for a quick lunch and public prayer before jetting back to Khartoum for his next gig.


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