Julie Flint, co-author with Alex de Waal of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, discusses some of the preliminary information coming out about the Darfur rebel attack on the Sudanese city of Omdurman.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: This is Bridget Conley-Zilkic, and with me today is Julie Flint, co-author, with Alex de Waal, of A New History of a Long War, which has just come out this week, I believe. Julie, thank you for joining me today.
JULIE FLINT: You are welcome.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I wanted to invite you on the program this week to talk about the recent attack by one of the Darfur rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM], against the capital of Sudan at Omdurman. But, to start, can you tell us who the JEM is?
JULIE FLINT: Yes, JEM is the smaller of the two original Darfur rebel movements, Justice and Equality Movement. Most of their leadership is composed of people who were middle ranking members of the National Islamic Front, so in the first years of this regime they were part of the regime. When the split happened between President Bashir and Hassan Turabi, most of them were on the side of Hassan Turabi. At the beginning of this rebellion, it was said by most people that JEM was basically the military wing of Hassan Turabi’s PCP [Popular Congress Party]. I do not believe that is true. They have connections with the Turabi party, as they had connections with the National Islamic Front, but they are not in any significant way involved with Turabi today. The leader of JEM, Khalil Ibrahim, has been extremely critical of Hassan Turabi, to a point which I think would anger Turabi. So today I think JEM is another Islamist force in Sudan. We have the National Congress Party of Bashir, we have the Popular Party of Hassan Turabi and we have JEM. It’s the third of the Islamist parties in Sudan. It’s Darfur-centered because its leaders are Darfurian, although its agenda is pan-Sudanese.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And can you tell us a little about how the JEM has been involved in the actual fighting on the ground in Darfur. Has their capacity changed during the extent of this conflict?
JULIE FLINT: This is very controversial, and JEM will not like what I am about to say, but I say it because I believe it. At the beginning of this rebellion, JEM had a very small force. The core of JEM is the Kobe tribe, most of the leaders come from the Kobe tribe. The Kobe tribe spans the border between Darfur and Chad, and most of them are actually in Chad. So Darfur-wide it’s actually quite small; its constituent heart is quite small. It [JEM] has always been quite a small group for many reasons. Most people in Sudan, and many people in Darfur, do not like the ruling Islamists. So JEM was at a disadvantage from the very beginning and its army at the beginning was definitely small. I have spent several months in Darfur and I have hardly ever seen JEM on the ground.
Recently, after the DPA [Darfur Peace Agreement, 2006], they seem to have expanded and they are now being referred to, for example, by Reuters, as the largest force in Darfur. I believe this is because they became, around the end of 2005, the front line of defense for President Idriss Deby in Chad, who is Zaghawa. JEM is basically Zaghawa -- Zaghawa Kobe. Idriss Deby is Zaghawa Bideyat. Deby has alienated most of the tribes of Chad, and JEM became his main defense. To reward them, they were supported by Deby, especially with weapons. Many of the heavy weapons, including some of the artillery that reached Omdurman ten days or so ago, were given to JEM by Chad. It is said that they had a force of a couple of thousand people. I don’t know where this force came from. I do not believe, and I may be wrong, that this is a loyal force supporting the principles of JEM. The reports many of us have is that many people were recruited from the refugee camps. I know for sure that some members of the Meidob tribe in the eastern part of North Darfur were basically scooped up as JEM advanced on Omdurman, not even told where they were going. So, to sum up, I believe the core force of JEM is actually quite small, but because they have access to money, because they had an influx of weapons, they are able to raise, by one means or another, an army that is not their natural constituency.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And can you tell us what you know of what happened then during that attack. Where did the JEM go, what was their strategy in trying to attack the capital of the country, what reports have you been hearing?
JULIE FLINT: Ever since JEM refused to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement [DPA], they have been saying very clearly that they are now aiming at regime change. They don’t believe that the international community sponsored a good peace agreement. And we have to say that the DPA was rushed through to a precipitous conclusion -- and failed. They say that the international community does not hold the government of Sudan to its responsibilities and we can’t find fault with that. That is true. Therefore, JEM says, we have to overthrow this government. And I think that is what they were attempting to do.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And who did they meet when they got into Omdurman on the government side? Was it government military or security forces?
JULIE FLINT: They attacked a number of government positions based north of Omdurman… The interesting thing about this offensive is that the government chose to combat it with the Central Reserve Police and intelligence forces; they did not use the regular army. And I understand that the security forces told the army not to move and the army was only asked to intervene when the security forces were having trouble. But, again, we are not quite clear: why didn’t the army move at the beginning? We know there were problems in the army. Some officers were arrested. The government has said privately that they had a problem with the army. All this is very unclear still, but it was not the army that was asked to move against JEM. And, of course, many of the footsoldiers of the army come from Darfur -- and the army does not like the war in Darfur. It does not like this alliance with the Janjaweed -- abusive, ill-disciplined. Many professional soldiers do not like the war in Darfur at all.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you describe a little -- you said that where they attacked in Omdurman is a heavily populated civilian area. Can you just describe for us a little, is it a well-to-do area or a more common place? Who lives in the area that was attacked?
JULIE FLINT: They did not attack it. As I understand it, they attempted to get into Khartoum through Omdurman. One of the areas in which the government has really been rounding up Zaghawas after this attack, is a place called Umbadda, which is heavily populated by Darfurians. Omdurman is a huge, huge city. Some of it is very rich; some of it is middling rich; some of it is not rich. You have a lot of Darfurians in some areas.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: The reports are that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000, possibly, soldiers coming in with the JEM, into the capital. How could it be possible that they weren’t noticed?
JULIE FLINT: I find this very difficult, too. But Chadian rebels managed to cross the whole of Chad to get to the gates of N’Djamena [in February] and a JEM commander died on the steps of the presidential palace. So these lightening offensives and these Toyotas going 150 kilometers an hour across the desert at night, they are hard to spot at night and they move extremely fast.
What is surprising to me is that the government knew they were coming. I mean, the government was looking for them for three or four days before they actually reached Omdurman. They bombed a village called Shigeg Karo about five hours into Darfur coming from Chad and killed about 15 people, including children, wounded about 30. There was great outrage about that: they bombed a village. But my understanding is that some of the JEM who had been moving towards Omdurman had passed through there the day or a few days before. They were looking for those JEM fighters. So on the Tuesday they knew where they were coming but several days later they managed to reach the capital.
We now have all the repercussions. If you poke the beast, and JEM has been poking the beast, the beast will respond as we know this government will respond: with mass arrests, with indiscriminate attacks on the Zaghawa tribe, with mass arrests simply because people are Zaghawa. If you poke the beast the beast will respond, and I am afraid that is what we are going to see.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What other kinds of repercussions have you been hearing about?
JULIE FLINT: At the beginning of the rebellion in Darfur, many people in Khartoum did not really know what was going on in Darfur. It is a remote area, there are very few NGOs there so there was not much information coming out of Darfur. It was very hard to get there. And, of course, as soon as the rebellion began the government clamped down on the media so there were no reports from Darfur reaching Khartoum. Over the years, and many years have passed now since this rebellion began, there has been a degree of sympathy for the people of Darfur in Khartoum, as word of the government’s war has come out and people see the atrocities that are being committed in Darfur.
But when you have Darfurians attacking the national capital, hundreds of miles outside the borders of Darfur -- people who came from within the regime and whose own democratic credentials are not perfect -- you begin to lose support among northern Arabs for the rebellion in Darfur. And I think that is extremely regrettable. We are now going to see a polarization, and I fear that there will be a rallying to the government of people who don’t like the government because they like even less the fact that Darfurian rebels have attacked their capital and killed civilians.
There have been at least 200 arrests. I have got a list of more than 200 names of people who have been arrested by the government of whom only a minority has been released. I have been through this list with a person who lives in the area most targeted by the government, and he has only identified one person among the 200 as somebody who is sympathetic to JEM. These are Zaghawa who have been picked up because they are Zaghawa. It is a random rounding up of people on a tribal basis.
There has been an attack in the northeast of Darfur by the army against the Meidob tribe (which has a senior commander) in the SLA. The SLA did not participate in this offensive. It was exclusively JEM. SLA Unity did not participate. SLA Abdel Wahid did not participate. It was only JEM. And a concern I have now that the government will use this as a pretext to clamp down on and to attack all rebels in Darfur.
[insert section] This attack into the nation’s capital has empowered the hardliners. They now say, “the rebels have no interest in peace; why should we think about peace with people who do not want peace, who are attacking us in our capital?” The great concern now is that the hardliners in the Sudan government will crack down in the way we know they crack down, with massive human rights violations, as we have seen ever since they took power first in Southern Sudan, then in the oil fields, then in the Nuba Mountains, then in Darfur… Massive violations of human rights.
The international community has to say to the government of Sudan, ‘you have a moment of rare political capital because international community is united in opposing this attack by JEM. Do not squander this moment; do not unleash your security forces to crack down on the rebels of Darfur using the attack of Omdurman as a pretext. Don’t do that. Try to use this moment of sympathy to move the peace process forward, make a gesture to Darfur. Don’t unleash the security forces and go back to being an international pariah.’
There is no excuse for any crackdown on the Zaghawa tribe or on any of the rebel movements not involved in this. If this escalates, we will go back, we risk going back to the firestorm years of 2003-2004. We have to use this moment to try to move peace forward, not permit the government of Sudan to go back to some abusive crackdown in Darfur. We have to send that message loud and clear. ‘Restrain your security forces, look for another way out of this crisis.’
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you also address the accusations that the Sudanese government has made that Chad was involved. You have, thus far, differentiated Chad’s earlier support for the JEM, but could you talk about how you felt they were involved or the Sudanese government’s accusations that they were involved in this assault?
JULIE FLINT: I think President Deby has to be held responsible. He has a degree of responsibility in this attack because between the end of 2005 and the beginning of this year, the Chadian government supported JEM. JEM would say it did not, but it did. JEM, as I said, became the front line of defense for Deby’s regime when it was attacked by Darfur based Chadian rebels. We are all shouting about the abuses of the government of Sudan, but President Deby has fixed three elections, executed people who oppose him, with no political opposition allowed, no civil society allowed, financed by the oil money of ExxonMobil. But we never pick up on Chad.
Between the end of 2005 and the beginning of this year, JEM was supported to a significant degree by Deby. Since February, I understand, he has not supported JEM. A good friend of mine in the Darfur rebel movement, Suleiman Jamous, who was a humanitarian coordinator of the SLA, was with Deby, meeting Deby, and personally heard Deby telephone the chairman of the JEM, Khalil Ibrahim, to order him back to N’Djamena within 24 hours. Deby wanted to get all the rebels together to work on rebel unity in Darfur and to work towards some kind of peace in Darfur.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And, Julie, are they any positive signs from that? Overtures between Chad and Sudan -- if they have both tired of the rebel proxy war?
JULIE FLINT: If indeed Deby has decided that he needs stability in Darfur to maintain himself in power, this might be a moment in which we could move to address the difference of opinion between Khartoum and N’Djamena that makes each support the other’s internal rebels. If indeed Deby does not want to support JEM any longer and wants peace in Darfur, this might be a moment to try to get some kind of regional summit at least to take away the proxy backing of the rebels in Darfur to make a Darfur peace simpler.
But President Bashir has said he doesn’t want it. Bashir has no confidence in Deby. He absolutely does not trust and has no confidence in Deby. You would need to make Bashir believe that Deby really was not behind this attack on the capital before he would even begin to think of sitting down to come to some kind of genuine reconciliation with Chad. We have monthly summits between Chad and various regional powers and they say, yes, we have agreed to make peace. This is all nonsense. They never, they don’t progress things one half an inch. We need a serious regional summit to address this wider war. It should include the United States; Britain; France, as a supporter and empowerer of Deby; [and China].
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Julie, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today.
JULIE FLINT: You are welcome.
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