The Magazine

The Darfur Disaster

Up close and personal with the killers of Khartoum.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Khartoum, Sudan

FLANKED BY 18TH-CENTURY CANNONS, Sudan's presidential palace stands impressively on the bank of the Nile. At the main entrance, elaborately decorated soldiers stand sentry, toting AK-47s fitted with razor-sharp bayonets. Entering the main hall, you walk under two enormous elephant tusks and between two vintage five-barrel machine guns aimed directly at you. Welcome to Khartoum.

Here at the palace, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick sat down with the most powerful man in Sudan, First Vice President Ali Osman Taha. After their meeting on April 14 Taha took Zoellick on a palace tour, eager to show him the location of the most famous event ever to happen in that building: the killing and beheading of the British general Charles "Chinese" Gordon.

As the colonial governor in the 1870s, Gordon heroically fought to end the trade of black slaves by Sudan's Arab minority. A decade later, the British sent Gordon back to Khartoum to deal with an Islamic rebellion led by an ally of the slave traders who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, which is Arabic for the "expected one." The Mahdi's holy warriors overwhelmed the British, slaughtering Gordon in the palace. Although the precise circumstances of Gordon's death are disputed, Taha showed Zoellick the version depicted in the classic movie Khartoum, with Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier. In the movie, Gordon stood, unarmed, atop a stone staircase as one of the Mahdi's holy warriors thrust a spear into his heart. Gordon's head was paraded around Khartoum atop a stake, a gruesome symbol of the defeat of British imperialism on the Nile and a lesson to Westerners who try to control events in Sudan.

Robert Zoellick managed to get out of Sudan with his head, but Sudan poses one of the most perplexing challenges to President Bush's inaugural vow to oppose tyranny around the world. For the past two years, Sudan's western Darfur region has been the setting of an orchestrated campaign of murder and pillage. Last fall, Colin Powell called the killings in Darfur "genocide." Estimates of the number killed vary from 70,000 to over 300,000. So many villages have been torched and plundered that it seems as if everyone in Darfur has taken shelter in refugee camps. Of 2.6 million people in all of Darfur, an arid region the size of Texas, more than 2 million live in the camps. This is one of the largest humanitarian crises of modern times.

In the best-equipped camps, survivors have sufficient food and safe water, but that's about it. Most people are afraid to return to their destroyed villages. After his meetings in Khartoum, Zoellick flew to the El Fasher airport in Darfur and visited a camp of nearly 100,000 refugees called Abu Shouk. Everyone I spoke to there told a similar story of military aircraft bombing their villages from the sky and "Janjaweed" attacking on the ground. Janjaweed--which means, literally, devil on a horse--is what the villagers call the tribal militiamen.

LAST YEAR, the African Union sent a small force of monitors to Darfur. About 2,000 African Union troops are now there to watch and document the killing, but not to stop it. African Union monitors have seen the destruction firsthand and have compiled thousands of photographs and witness testimony. Their files are overflowing with evidence backing up the endless stories of villages being bombed from the air by Sudanese military aircraft and pillaged from the ground by marauders on horseback. These photos, together with thousands of pages of testimony from refugees, have been shipped off to the International Criminal Court in anticipation of future war crimes trials. Some of the most graphic photos were taken by a former U.S. Marine captain named Brian Steidle who went to work in Darfur for six months as a contractor for the African Union.

"We've got photographs that show the government of Sudan looting," says Steidle. "Show them burning, show them working side-by-side with the Janjaweed, the helicopter gunships shooting on civilian villages."

Steidle showed me his pictures. In fact, he is now showing them to anybody who wants to see them. But they are not easy to look at.

One shows a decaying human carcass fading into the sand, its skeletal hands tied over the skull, pants pulled down to the decaying feet. Here is photographic evidence of one person's final hours, tortured and left to die under the unrelenting desert sun. Steidle's aerial photos show the catastrophe on a large scale: burning villages as far as the eye can see. Look carefully at his photographs and you can see Sudanese military aircraft flying over the villages as they burn.

In a sign that at least one part of the State Department would prefer a less confrontational approach, Steidle was told to keep his pictures to himself. An official on the State Department's Sudan desk named Taiya Smith told him, Steidle says, that releasing the photos would anger the government of Sudan and make it difficult for Americans to get visas to return to the region. Not everybody in Foggy Bottom sees it that way: Condoleezza Rice later thanked Steidle for drawing attention to the issue.

The State Department says the attacks on villages have slowed over the past few months. There's good reason for that. Virtually all the villages have been destroyed. "I think they're nearing completion of their mission," says Steidle. "There's nothing left for them to attack."

Zoellick says the Darfur problem has "layers and layers of complexity." In a sense, he's right. There are about 80 tribes in the region, many with blood rivalries going back centuries. This is hardly the first time that tribal conflicts have flared up, villages have burned, and people have been killed. But the current crisis is dramatically different.

Unlike the ancient tribal conflicts, this disaster started almost yesterday. The roots of the mass killings can be traced to February 2003, when a group of antigovernment rebels launched a series of brazen attacks on government property. Armed with Kalashnikovs and Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns in the back, they scored their biggest hit in April 2003 with an attack on the airport outside the town of El Fasher, destroying several Sudanese military aircraft. The ragtag group of rebels had the Sudanese government worried about large-scale insurrection. The government decided to hit back. The result is the devastation seen today throughout the region.

The rebels come primarily from Darfur's non-Arab tribes, farmers who live in small villages throughout the region; the government responded with a call to arms to the Arab tribes, nomads who survive by herding camels and cattle. Unlike Sudan's long-running civil war between Christians and Muslims, this conflict is not religious. Virtually everybody in Darfur, Arab and non-Arab, is Muslim. The nomads and farmers have clashed before, just as the grazers and farmers in the American west clashed over access to land and water, but this crisis differs in that the government has weighed in heavily on the side of the nomads.

DIPLOMATICALLY, the United States is hardly even on speaking terms with Sudan. The embassy in Khartoum is open, but barely. There hasn't been a U.S. ambassador to Sudan since 1996, and today only a half-dozen Americans work at the embassy. Last July, Colin Powell became only the second secretary of state ever to visit the country. The first was Cyrus Vance, who met with officials during a refueling stop at the Khartoum airport 27 years ago. Powell came armed with satellite images of the devastation in Darfur and a simple message to the government: We know what you are doing in Darfur. His trip, which also included a short stop at the Abu Shouck refugee camp, was quick and high on symbolism.

Zoellick came to the presidential palace in Khartoum, just as Colin Powell did last summer, to press the government to stop the killing in Darfur. But this was no drive-by visit. He spent two full days in Sudan, meeting with virtually everybody who has a stake in the issue: tribal leaders, refugees, the governor (or "wali") of Darfur, the African Union commander, relief workers, and, of course, top officials like Vice President Taha. Everywhere Zoellick took copious notes of potential "action items." His message: The U.S. commitment to this issue goes beyond rhetoric. Zoellick hopes to convince NATO--but, first, the Pentagon--to give the African Union forces logistical support. Beyond that, it's not clear what the United States can do.

Europe, for its part, has economic leverage. European business with Sudan has actually increased as the violence has escalated in Darfur. You can now fly Lufthansa, KLM, and British Airways to Khartoum. European companies have sunk money into developing Sudan's oil reserves. China has done the same, to an even greater degree. The United States has done the opposite, maintaining unilateral sanctions. Americans can't even use a credit card in Sudan. Unfortunately, the sanctions, along with limited diplomatic relations, leave the United States without much leverage over the government in Khartoum.

By meeting with Vice President Taha, Zoellick was taking the case to the man considered the real power in Sudan. Taha is an erstwhile protégé of Osama bin Laden's former host and mentor, Hassan al-Turabi. These days, though, he sports finely tailored Western suits. Eager to develop Sudan's oil reserves, Taha seeks international respect.

As Zoellick and Taha sat down for a quick photo op before the meeting, Carol Giacomo of Reuters had the audacity to shout out, "Vice President Taha, the United States accuses your government of genocide. Will you stop the violence in Darfur?"

After an uncomfortable pause, he answered, "We are working diligently to stop the violence."

The problem, I would soon learn, is that it is hard to get a government to stop doing something it denies is even happening.

AS ZOELLICK MET WITH VICE PRESIDENT TAHA, I asked a Sudanese newspaper editor to help me get an interview with the man in charge of the security forces, Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein, who is blamed for much of the violence in Darfur. I figured this would be a long-shot. Hussein is rumored to be on a secret list of 51 potential war criminals the U.N. has forwarded to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible indictments. Would he really agree to talk to an American reporter? To my surprise, I got a call back within minutes. "Go right away to the Interior Ministry," I was told. "He will do the interview now."

Dressed in military uniform, the gregarious interior minister wanted to make one thing clear: He will not let any of his men appear before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The U.N. Security Council voted on March 31 to refer the Darfur war crimes issue to the ICC. Hussein told me, in English, that anybody accused of crimes in Sudan must be tried in Sudan by Sudanese judges.

"What will you do if you are indicted by the ICC?" I asked.

"I will ask Rumsfeld to go with me because he has killed hundreds of people in Iraq," he said, laughing. "Why [should] I go alone? We should go together."

The interior minister talks like a clever lawyer. He knows the one thing the United States and Sudan agree on is the International Criminal Court, which neither country recognizes.

Hussein eagerly pointed to a recent U.N. inquiry report on Darfur as evidence his government is not guilty of genocide. And he's right. The report clears the government of genocide in unmistakable terms, stating simply, "The government of Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide." Case closed.

Not so fast. The comprehensive 176-page U.N. report offers a devastating indictment of the government, tying it directly to the Janjaweed that have inflicted so much destruction on Darfur. "The government of the Sudan and the Janjaweed are responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law," the report says. "These acts were conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, and therefore may amount to crimes against humanity." So why not genocide? Because "genocide" is a legal term that requires evidence that the government intentionally pursued policies designed to eliminate all or part of an ethnic group. The U.N. report concluded that the government isn't trying to wipe non-Arab Africans off the face of the earth. But the government is ruthlessly engaging in "counterinsurgency warfare." The government wants to crush the rebels, and if that means killing thousands of civilians in the process, so be it.

Colin Powell put the United States on record calling the Darfur killings genocide last September. Until that point, the Europeans had resisted any significant punitive action against the government of Sudan. Powell's pronouncement elevated the issue and made it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore. Within a week, the U.N., with Europe's support, launched the investigation into the atrocities committed in Darfur.

But there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on a word. The killings in Darfur are horrible, indiscriminate crimes, whether or not they fit the legal definition of genocide. In fact, Human Rights Watch, which has done more than any other human rights group to sound the alarm about Darfur, has not used the term genocide to describe what is happening there. The United States stands virtually alone in making that statement.

The interior minister would like to deny that anything illegal has happened in Darfur. When I ask him about all the burning villages, he offers a creative explanation.

"If you notice the way the houses are built," he tells me. "They are built from grass. One bullet from a Kalashnikov can burn a whole village."

"Do you acknowledge the Sudanese military has killed innocent people in Darfur?" I ask.

"I don't think."

"None?"

"You mean, did they intend to kill innocent people?"

"Yes."

"No. Definitely no," the interior minister tells me. "But if you said during the conflict that some innocent people died, between the two groups fighting, that may happen, definitely. Because any war, whatever it is--if it is done by the Americans or done by the Sudanese--civilian people die. War is war."

What about the well-documented reports of Sudanese military helping the Janjaweed to destroy villages?

"Never. It never happened. Never happened," Hussein says.

"There are photographs," I say, "of people in Sudanese army uniforms at these villages as they are being destroyed?"

"Yes," he replies, "and there are photographs of American army doing bad things in prisons."

I HAD ONE MORE INTERVIEW I wanted to get before leaving Khartoum. Sheikh Musa Hilal has been named by the United States and human rights groups as the most ruthless of the Janjaweed leaders and the prime candidate for a war crimes indictment. Like his father and his grandfather, Hilal is the chief of a tribe of Arab camel-herding nomads. His family has been considered desert royalty in Sudan for decades, maybe even centuries. He may also be the most media savvy camel herder in the world. Over the past year, he's done interviews with BBC, the New York Times, and other Western media outlets.

The Sudanese newspaper editor who helped me get in to see the interior minister said he would try to help me with Hilal too. But Hilal was supposedly no longer talking to the media. He was keeping his head down, I had heard, because of the prospect of war crimes trials for Darfur. One reporter told me that the government had ordered Hilal to stop talking to the media.

I was just about to give up when another Sudanese journalist (these folks are amazingly generous with their sources) gave me Musa Hilal's cell phone number. "Just leave me out of it," he told me. There's something odd about calling a suspected war criminal on his cell phone, but, sure enough, he answered. I explained who I was and asked if I could meet with him. In perfect English, he responded, "Musa Hilal doesn't speak English" and hung up.

Eventually, with the help of an interpreter, Hilal agreed to meet with me. I found him at a formal dinner of tribal leaders in Khartoum. Dressed in white tribal garb, Hilal is in his 40s and bears a striking resemblance to a younger Muammar Qaddafi. Hilal said the reports of genocide in Darfur are a "media fabrication" and repeatedly said, "I am not a war criminal." But amidst the denials, Hilal subtly offered a more mundane defense: He was following orders.

"When the rebels of Darfur knocked down the planes at El Fasher airport," Hilal explained, "the government asked everybody to help it defeat the rebels." He added: "I have my own territory and when I was asked by the government, I tried to keep my territory quiet and peaceful." Keeping it quiet and peaceful apparently meant destroying the rebels and all the villages they come from.

There are "layers and layers of complexity" here after all. Hilal's dinner was with 50 or so leaders of the Fur, one of the largest non-Arab tribes in the region (this is the tribe the region is named for). These are leaders of the people Hilal stands accused of terrorizing. The "chief of the chiefs" of the Fur tribe sat next to Hilal as I interviewed him. The chief is an elderly and desperate man. He wants reconciliation with Hilal because he wants his people out of the camps, where they are essentially wards of international relief agencies, and back to their villages. He doesn't have much faith in the power of the international community to get his villages back, so he is going directly to his enemy to ask for peace.

The United States has a different approach to Musa Hilal. Last July, Powell presented the Sudanese government with the names of seven people who should be arrested for war crimes. Hilal was at the top of the list. That's not going to happen. The place where I interviewed Hilal was a kind of social club for police officers. Far from fearing arrest, the man called a war criminal by the United States seemed to have the run of the place.

Jonathan Karl is senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.