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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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."


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


"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.