Stand-off with Darfur rebels is poor omen for peace talks


The Jem rebel group says the Sudanese government had gone back on earlier promises, writes Rob Crillyin Kornoi

EVERY MORNING and every evening the Antonovs have circled above the rebel positions, scouring the never-ending desert for any sign of the camouflaged pick-ups hidden in shallow hollows or beneath ragged thorn trees.

Each morning they dropped their deadly cargo of crude shrapnel bombs before returning in the evening for a fresh round of bombing.

For the past week they have been seeking out a column of rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) who snatched the town of Kornoi 10 days ago.

The town itself has little of note – today it is a sad collection of sticks and torn mats where homes used to stand. But the fighting suggests peace talks between the two sides due to resume in Qatar tomorrow have little chance of success.

Sitting cross-legged on a woven carpet spread in the shade of a spindly thorn tree in a rebel bush camp outside Kornoi, Lieut Gen Suleiman Sandal said the government had already gone back on earlier promises.

“We signed the good intentions agreement to see if the government had good intentions or not. We asked them to release our captured brothers in Khartoum and not execute them,” he said. “The government has refused to release these prisoners.”

In February the two sides agreed to further talks and promised a series of goodwill gestures. Khartoum said it would ease conditions for aid agencies in Darfur, who have long been harassed and bullied by government officials.

However, in March Khartoum expelled 13 international non-governmental organisations.

It accused them of spying for the International Criminal Court, which had just issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Jem has been trying to position itself as the only rebel group worth meeting, recruiting commanders from rival factions and territories far beyond Darfur.

Lieut Gen Sandal said the expulsions had also prompted Jem to reconsider its guerrilla tactics. Now he said the movement was intent on setting up a “liberated zone” allowing aid in from neighbouring Chad.

“We can receive aid, international organisations and people who are fleeing,” he said.

The boom of heavy artillery sounded from somewhere far behind him. It was the sound of rebels testing guns seized in the battle for Kornoi.

Along with several army trucks, Jem also captured more than 40 soldiers. They were driven away perched on empty ammunition cases. They looked relaxed, relieved rather than frightened for their futures.

Many had the long limbs and ritual facial scarring of southern Sudanese tribes – a reminder that the Khartoum government doubts the commitment of its own Darfuri soldiers, and would rather use troops from further afield.

But they have less of a stomach for the fight.

So when Jem guerrillas lined up their technicals – mounted with Katyusha rockets and heavy machine guns – around the town of Kornoi, many simply turned and ran.

Their mud-brick barracks were left in disarray: camouflage jackets still hung from doornails, dinner bowls littered the floor and a concrete arms bunker was left filled with bombs for helicopter gunships. The fighting was over within two hours.

Since then the rebel column of some 100 technicals, smeared with mud to make them invisible from the air, has been locked in a game of cat and mouse with government Antonovs.

Their bombs are homemade and indiscriminate, as likely to kill children and donkeys as Jem’s guerrilla fighters. A 3ft crater in Kornoi shows the brutal carnage packed into the crude weapons. Twisted lumps of steel cable – like those used to reinforce concrete – are scattered around the site. They would have been jammed into oil drums filled with explosives to make a simple shrapnel bomb. It is easy to imagine the fear these ageing Russian cargo planes can bring to a civilian population when you stare into craters like these, or hunker down under thorn trees hoping the white speck in the sky passes harmlessly over.

At this time of year, a dry wind whips sand into dust clouds, providing extra cover but making life all the more difficult in 45-degree temperatures. The rebels spend their days sprawled on blankets under trees waiting for their next orders. People have begun to trickle back to Kornoi, to water their donkeys or reclaim looted shops.

Bagheat Yacoub Tahib was selling cold sodas stacked up in a porous clay pot filled with water. It cools as the water seeps through the thin sides of the vessel – the closest thing here to a fridge. He said he wanted to bring his family back from Chad once the Antonovs had stopped flying overhead. “We were afraid of coming to the town because the government was here. Now things are safer,” he said.

Rob Crilly’s Saving Darfur: Everyone’s favourite African Waris due to published by Reportage Press in November.