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In Darfur, fault lines intersect and inflame

The battle over Muhajeria in southern Darfur, which saw rebel rivalry, tribal tension as well as government intervention points to the impunity in the region and the complexity of the conflict.

March 21, 2009|Edmund Sanders

MUHAJERIA, SUDAN — One side of Muhajeria is a ghost town. The only sign of life is the occasional animal left behind when thousands of people fled last month. Most huts have been plundered; hundreds have been reduced to ashes. Straw fences lie tumbled in ruins as wind blows through emptied streets.

Not far away are the "winners" in the recent fighting here. At first glance, their side of town seems equally dismal. Families live under scraps of plastic sheeting with limited food and water. All around are half-destroyed homes.

Yet they consider themselves the happiest people in Darfur. They were chased away three years ago and now are back.

"I may have nothing, but it still feels great," beamed Adam Mousa, 40, a father of seven who arrived two days earlier.

The 20-day battle for Muhajeria, one of the biggest clashes in Darfur in recent years, is a window into the complexities of the Darfur conflict and the difficulty of resolving it. Its facets include rebel factionalism, government manipulation, tribal tensions, an environment of impunity -- and at times, disregard for the suffering of thousands of people.

At a U.N. peacekeeping base less than a mile from where homes were being systematically burned, commanders said they knew nothing about it -- though everyone in Muhajeria had seen the plumes of smoke.

"It's a very complicated, multilayered story," said Toby Lanzer, the U.N. humanitarian chief for Darfur, of Muhajeria's recent turmoil.

The Darfur conflict started in 2003 with a rebellion against Sudan's Arab-led government in Khartoum. President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir is accused by the International Criminal Court of unleashing a brutal campaign against the rebels that killed 35,000 people and led to the deaths of another 100,000 through disease and starvation.

When Muhajeria erupted in January, news reports focused mostly on government airstrikes and attacks by pro-government militias known as janjaweed that have been responsible for much of the violence in Darfur, a western region of Sudan.

But according to witnesses and victims, janjaweed played a relatively minor role here.

Instead, the battle started as a struggle between two Darfur rebel groups. The government escalated the violence with a weeklong bombing campaign that caused more terror than damage. And finally, the most destructive phase appears rooted in long-standing tensions between two Darfur tribes vying for land and resources.

Both tribes, the Zagawa and Birgit, had been victims of the janjaweed. Now they're employing the same scorched-earth tactics against each other.

By the time the violence ended last month, about 30 civilians and dozens of combatants had been killed, and an additional 30,000 people were left homeless.

"That's the way it goes here," said Neimat Shafi, 40, a Muhajeria resident from neither tribe, as she rode a donkey through an abandoned neighborhood in search of straw and sticks. "One side burns down the homes of the other, so the other does the same thing in revenge. And it goes on and on."

In 2005, Muhajeria, which in normal times has a population of about 40,000, came under the control of rebel commander Minni Minnawi, who leads a faction that signed a 2006 peace deal with the government.

Since the peace deal, Minnawi has been distrusted by all sides, ignored by the government and hated by his former rebel allies. In particular, Minnawi is at odds with Khalil Ibrahim, an Islamist hard-liner with the Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM, the best-armed rebel army in Darfur. Before joining the rebellion in 2003, Ibrahim was an ally of Khartoum, leading Islamic militias blamed for killing hundreds of southern Sudanese during the 21-year north-south civil war.

Each of them claims to be the rightful leader of Darfur. So tensions were high Jan. 15, when JEM troops arrived at Muhajeria saying they wanted water and rest. That night they launched a surprise attack, driving out Minnawi's forces.

In town, few were sorry to see Minnawi go. Residents say his administration was characterized by corruption and excessive taxation.

But the arrival of JEM was no cause for celebration. The government tolerated Minnawi's control of the city because of the peace deal. It would not give JEM the same courtesy.

"As soon as they arrived, some people started leaving," said Hamed Asadig, 29, a teacher who fled town and now lives at a displacement camp.

JEM had used such tactics before. In early 2008, the rebel group invaded three towns near the Chadian border and then abandoned them as soon as the government attacked, leaving civilians unprotected and bitter.

To no one's surprise, airstrikes on Muhajeria began a few days later, targeting rebel positions on the outskirts of town. When JEM troops passed through the nearby village of Shawa, the government dropped 27 bombs on the hamlet in one day.

In total about a dozen civilians died in airstrikes around the region.

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