Top officials from two of Sudan’s main rebel groups and journalist Tina Susman of Newsday discuss the situation in Darfur and the new peace agreement. Abdullahi Eltom of the Justice Equality Movement discusses why he opposed the peace agreement and Adam El Nor Mohammad from Sudan Liberation Movement on why he supported the agreement. [includes rush transcript]
It’s been three years and three months since the war erupted in Darfur, which is an isolated region in Western Sudan. As many as 400,000 people have died in the region and as many as three million people have been left homeless. The United Nations has labeled the conflict one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Congress and President Bush have declared the Darfur killings to be genocide. On May 5th the Sudan government and only one of three rebel groups signed a U.S-brokered peace agreement but experts say the plan is rife with problems and it is unclear if the plan will be effective at all. The cease-fire officially went into effect last Monday. The African Union, which brokered the deal held a meeting today of its Peace and Security Council in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to try to get the other two rebel groups to sign the agreement.
- Tina Susman, Newsday correspondent who recently spent 5 weeks in the region looking at the devastation caused by the war. Her series of reports titled, “Darfur: Inside the Crisis” began running in Newsday on Sunday.
- Adam El Nor Mohammad, Secretary of Public Service for the Sudan Liberation Movement, known as the SLM. The SLM is split into two factions — one of which signed a May 5th peace accord and one which rejected the deal.
- Abdullahi Eltom, senior Justice and Equality Movement member in charge of strategic planning and training. He participated in the most recent peace talks in Abuja. JEM is one of the main rebel groups that opposed the peace deal.
AMY GOODMAN: Tina Susman joins us in our Firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
TINA SUSMAN: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, talk about what you saw in Darfur?
TINA SUSMAN: What I saw in Darfur, the most striking thing is the absolute fear of the people there and the distrust they have. I spent an awful lot of my time in the displaced camps, which are holding at least two million people now across Darfur. The biggest of those, Kalma, is in a city called Niala, and it holds about 95,000 people. And the people there, some of them have been there two years now, and they are absolutely terrified to leave, even if they just leave to go and fetch firewood, which is one of the things they need to do for basic survival. They face constant threat of attack. In fact, one day when I was there, I actually witnessed an attempted attack from a distance while I was at Kalma. They can’t possibly think of going back to the farming villages where they were run out from, because there’s no security on the ground, and even with this peace agreement, I think the news we’re getting from there is there’s just this deep skepticism among the people. Their attitude is we’re not leaving until we have absolute guarantees that it’s going to be safe for us to leave.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the attack you witnessed.
TINA SUSMAN: Well, what happened was I was standing on the edge of Kalma camp, waiting for the women who go out to fetch firewood each day to come back. I was with a photographer, and we wanted to take pictures of these women and speak to them. And we noticed in the distance — I noticed in the distance what looked like some big dust clouds quite a ways out in the desert, and I was kind of curious as to what was happening.
The women started to come back. A lot of them weren’t carrying firewood, which is the first sign that something was amiss. And they started telling us through my translator that when they had gotten out there a few miles to get the firewood, a bunch of men on camels with guns, the co-called Janjaweed militia, had been there waiting for them. And the women had spotted them, and they had scattered and, you know, it had been quite chaotic. And the women all managed to get away. But it was just another — the fact that this happened in full view of the international African Union troops who are there monitoring the situation was just a sign of how bold these attackers are and how little intimidation they feel, even in the presence of the African Union troops.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who these Janjaweed, these attackers, these militia are?
TINA SUSMAN: Well, that depends on whom you ask. If you ask the Sudanese government, they will tell you, the Janjaweed, which translates loosely in Arabic to “armed men on camels,” are independent thugs over whom they have no control. However, U.N. investigators and others on the ground there, who have been looking into this for the last three years, say that the Janjaweed are for the most part a militia that has been drawn from Arab tribes in the region. They say that the government essentially recruited these guys to fight on their side when the war in Darfur began, because the government needed to bolster its forces on the ground there. The allegation is that in return for fighting alongside government soldiers and for essentially fighting the government’s war down there, the Janjaweed are given freedom to loot, rape and murder with impunity.
AMY GOODMAN: And you wrote yesterday in the series that you have begun that continues today in Newsday about the issue of rape and rape being used as a tool of war.
TINA SUSMAN: Yes, rape is considered at this point one of the most prolific weapons of war being used down there. I mean, it’s not new that rape is used as a weapon of war. But in an environment like Darfur, it’s particularly devastating. This is a Muslim society where a woman who has had sex outside of marriage is often a social outcast. Sometimes her own family will cast her out, as will her society. And for that reason, rape is actually considered an effective tool if you are trying to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing or genocide, because not only can the rapist impregnate their victims and disturb the bloodline, but they can also render these women unfit in society’s views for marriage and children, hence actually diminishing the population of the non-Arab tribes there.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tina Susman, who is a reporter for Newsday, has just returned from five weeks in Sudan. When we come back, she’ll stay with us, and we’ll be joined by two representatives of two different groups from Darfur. One has signed on to the peace agreement, one has not.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our discussion on Sudan and Darfur, we are joined by two guests in Washington, D.C. Adam El Nor Mohammad is the Secretary of Public Service for the Sudan Liberation Movement, known as the SLM. The SLM is split now into two factions, one which signed the May 5th peace accord and one which rejected the deal. Adam El Nor represents the faction that signed the deal. We’re also joined by Abdullahi Eltom, who is in charge of strategy and planning for the Justice and Equality Movement, known as JEM. They’re one of the main rebel groups that opposed the peace deal. We will begin with you. Abdullahi Eltom, why did you reject the peace accord?
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: Good morning to you. We have rejected the peace accord or proposed peace accord, because we do not think that the document is a product of a negotiated settlement. In fact, we think that this document is a product of intimidation, bullying and diplomatic terrorism. It does not really reflect our own point of view. We have negotiated for about around five months, and that is only in the last round. But when the document came, it came completely different.
It is tilted towards the government’s side. In fact, surprisingly the document puts the same government, which has perpetuated all of the problems which people talk about, from genocide to war crimes, grave human rights — the same government is now put in power, and it has been given the control, the absolute control over everything, right from the lowest level up to the upper level. And that is one of our main reservations about accepting the document here. Even at the level of local government here, the government still has the absolute majority. You move up also at the level of the region, the government still has the absolute majority. You move up at the level of the national parliament and at the highest level — that is the presidential office — still, the same government which has been accused of all of the crimes, which the world now has acknowledged and learned very well and, of course, denounced — it is going be in charge of the implementation of whatever is being proposed to us as a peace agreement.
There are certain things which we regard as quite essential. Any agreement which you can talk about as sustainable has to be, of course, acceptable to all parties. This one, of course, failed that test. We are three groups. There are two branches of the SLM and a separate one which is JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement. That is my own organization, and as you know that only one side ratified the agreement, the rest denounce it. It’s not only us who are rejecting the agreement, but even the people at every level. Yesterday, as your audience might have heard, six people — these are six IDPs — six IDPs died yesterday rioting against the agreement.
AMY GOODMAN: Internally displaced people.
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: Yes, internally displaced people, yes. And also, of course, there are wide protests at other levels in Khartoum, as well as in the major cities of Darfur. So, the proposed agreement is summarily rejected throughout. However, the project also — the proposed document also lacks essentials which could make it a successful agreement. It lacks time frame, it lacks implementation modalities.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to Adam El Nor Mohammad.
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re with the Sudan Liberation Movement. You have signed on to the agreement. Why?
ADAM EL NOR MOHAMMAD: Thanks, Democracy Now. We are now in Washington, and we want to say that we have signed the agreement because — we know that it does not include all our expectations or our demand, and we know the struggle is not start on 30th of April. I think we are in about five or more than five years, we are fighting the government and the Janjaweed, and you know that the suffering now in the camps of IDPs and refugees increased, and it was been in different ways, and all of the people need the peace.
We also know that this peace is weak, but we support it by our will, and the implementation is not to be completely and also international community promised us to support the peace and to make development in our region. And I think the coming days may promise from you a search of our struggle from war to peace.
AMY GOODMAN: And these issues that Abdullahi Eltom of JEM has raised of there not being a timetable, of the government still being in power and controlling the legislature?
ADAM EL NOR MOHAMMAD: We hope our friends in JEM and Nur [inaudible] to sign, and let us together to struggle, and the elections also is near and to organize ourselves well this attempt and to find ourselves in among our people that they are suffering daily. The people in Darfur are suffering, and the donors may not continue to bring relief to the camps, and they said that, I think, before the World Food Program now also said to us, “We are not going to continue the relief among the people suffering,” and we must also to evaluate the situation, the general situation. Our people are dying, and this genocide is continuing. We want to stop it.
AMY GOODMAN: Nor Mohammad, let me ask you, what happened to the last peace agreement in 2004? Why did that fall apart?
ADAM EL NOR MOHAMMAD: 2004, we signed a ceasefire for humanitarian issues, but I think that agreement is very, very weak and consists of ceasefire only, and not power sharing and wealth sharing. And, of course, the agreement is not the main purpose. The main purpose was how to keep this peace and to stop the killing and looting the things of the poor people, the rape. Tthese are the main issues. The international community must put more pressure on the government and on the Janjaweed to disarm them. This is very, very important
AMY GOODMAN: Abdullahi Eltom of JEM, the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said today, “Rich nations must provide immediate funding for the African Union mission in Darfur to ensure the success of the peace deal to end three years of war in Darfur.” One of three Darfur rebel factions and the Sudanese government signed the peace accord, as you know, on May 5 in Abuja, Nigeria. You were there. You were negotiating, though your group has not signed on. News of the agreement, as you pointed out, has sparked violent protest. Annan said that the peace in Darfur is fragile, that there’s no time to lose. He said the only guarantor of security there, the African Union mission in Sudan needs immediate help. Do you agree?
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: Well, the African Union, of course, has not been successful in maintaining peace, and that is why alternatives have been sought. And the records are clear in front of you. So, from that angle, yes, we are cooperating with the African Union, but we know that we have to prepare for a different scenario in which perhaps the United Nations will be, I suppose, assisting in the maintenance of peace in the area.
But I would like to go back to one point which you raised earlier, that why did the ceasefire fail of the first agreement you referred to 2004? It failed simply because this is essentially a political problem. You cannot ignore the political side and expect that by tampering with the security side that the problem will be over. That is the main problem. The government of Sudan, of course, continued violating the ceasefire throughout, but also some members of the rebel movement, and that is because the political side is not dealt with, and here we are moving to the same scenario. So, when I mentioned earlier that things have gone wrong, and it is — we are likely to go into a situation of a missed opportunity.
The American ambassador, in one of the last few, the last meetings of perhaps the 30th or 29th of April, came and declared that the security arrangement is within the national interest of the United States, but his government is not interested in the political issues and the wealth issues. So the focus has been also again been put on the security side, which is, of course, a fallacy, because we went into a negotiating settlement, because we realized that while there is no military solution for this problem, there is a political solution now.
AMY GOODMAN: Abdullahi Eltom of JEM, why are you in Washington, D.C? Why are you both, from JEM and from the Sudan Liberation Movement?
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: Well, we are here — we were invited by the University of Kentucky, and then, of course, we are touring around to meet some other members of our organizations, the Darfur community in various cities, and that is why we are here. Last night we had a meeting with the Darfur community in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you assess the U.S. involvement with what’s happening in Darfur?
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: The U.S. involvement?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: I think — you mean in the negotiations or — ?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, overall, both in negotiations, but also the role that it’s playing.
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: Well, to be honest, they have not provided good leadership. They thought that by just simply bullying people, that everybody will just take a document, which was presented on the basis of “take it or leave it,” and that is, of course, presented by the African Union to us, and the African Union said, ’”Well, you have to use it. If you want to change it, you go to the government.” That is not the way you do negotiations. That is not — you conduct some sort of a peace agreement that is acceptable to all parties. We expected the United States to take leadership and lives up to its own responsibility, but it followed the same method, and it [inaudible] that idea of forcing the agreement down the throat of the organization. Of course, it did not work.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Abdullahi Eltom, who is with JEM, one of the major organizations in Darfur, major parties there. He participated in the most recent peace talks in Abuja. They have rejected the peace plan. Adam El Nor Mohammad is also with him in Washington. He is with the Sudan Liberation Movement, which has signed onto the peace accord. Tina Susman, in our studio, has just returned from Sudan, Newsday reporter, is doing a series. In terms of how this breaks down — and I want to ask our guests in Washington, as well — what the conflict is, how would you assess it, Tina Susman?
TINA SUSMAN: The conflict is, first of all, a lot more confusing than people think, and that’s the one thing that everybody down there kept explaining to me. This is a conflict that is often described as African versus Arab or Black versus Arab. Essentially it seems to be pitting the Darfur tribes — Darfur meaning homeland of the Fur, the Fur being the main tribe down there. These tribes are, for the most part, sedentary farmers. They’re referred to as the African tribes — against the Arabs, the nomadic Arab tribes. And the reason that this conflict is confusing is because it didn’t just start in 2003, like most people think. It was building up over the years.
Everything from, you know, climate change, desertification in that area, droughts has had an impact. That’s because those droughts tended, especially in the 1980s, to drive a lot more of these Arab nomadic tribes people further into what had traditionally been the African sedentary farmer region, Darfur. And so, the conflicts that erupted and full scale war in February 2003, they had been simmering for a number of years. They just became an official war in 2003 for a variety of reasons. When you’re down there, it’s not as if you can just walk down the streets and look at people and know immediately, oh, that must be an African, that must be an Arab. It’s really not that simple at all, but that is still the way it is described by the people on the ground there themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: How would you describe it as a conflict between?
TINA SUSMAN: I would describe it as a conflict between — I think it has its roots, just like the North-South war in Sudan, between people who feel they’ve been neglected and discriminated against for decades against the government that they feel is guilty of perpetuating that discrimination.
AMY GOODMAN: Abdullahi Eltom, would you agree with that assessment of this American reporter?
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: I certainly do. We have a government, which is, of course, dominated by the 5% who are living in the very north of Sudan. That is the Northern region, and they have a specific project of Arabization of the entire area. The project included, of course, pushing the frontiers of the Arab culture.
Here, we have to distinguish between our Arabs in Darfur. We have no problems with them, but certain are [inaudible] of them who have acquired the term “Janjaweed,” who have responded to that some sort of call, and they have taken the responsibility of pushing those who are classified as non-Arabs away from their own lands, using every conceivable methods, including rape, burning of villages, destruction of properties, looting of animals, and so forth. So that is — it is obviously true that we have been thrown into a situation where we have been divided into two groups: those who are classified as Arabs and those who are classified as “Zurga.” That is the term which the people use locally, which means blacks or Africans.
AMY GOODMAN: Given the number of people who are dying and increasingly made homeless, what will it take for you to sign onto a peace accord? And do you, yourself, see a timetable that this will happen in? And in terms of what’s happening now in Ethiopia, the discussions that are going on?
ABDULLAHI ELTOM: I understand very much what — where you are coming from, and I also concur with my friend from the SLM that there has been too much suffering. There is too much suffering now, and the suffering has to be brought to an end. The problem is that we do not think that the present document which is in front of us is likely to stop that, simply because it has enabled — it has given the same government, which has perpetuated the problem, firm control. In order to stop the suffering, we need the people to have confidence in the peace agreement which is in front of us, and that can only be done if we, the people of Darfur, and especially the people who have raised arms that they have been given fair participation in the running of the affairs, particularly in Darfur, whether at the very low level local government or at the regional level. That will, of course, ensure that we can work together and stop the suffering. Otherwise, I don’t see the suffering stopped.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this issue. Abdullahi Eltom is a senior JEM member in charge of strategic planning and training, participated in the most recent peace talks in Abuja. We’ve been joined in Washington, D.C. by Adam El Nor Mohammad, Secretary of Public Service for the Sudan Liberation Movement, as well participated in those talks, has signed onto them. Abdullahi Eltom has not. And in our New York studio, Tina Susman, national correspondent for Newsday just returned from Sudan, and we will link to the Newsday articles, the series that you’re doing, Tina, at democracynow.org.