Article — From the November 2008 issue

The Activist

Alex de Waal among the war criminals

( 7 of 10 )

Our most unnerving meeting was with Abdullah Safi al-Nur, who, as a member of Bashir’s government at the time of the genocidal campaigns, had put thousands of Kalashnikovs into the hands of Hilal’s horsemen, among many other janjaweed factions. De Waal approached the meeting believing that Nur had come to regret his actions and might want to use his considerable influence with the current military leadership in Khartoum to achieve some sort of peace. But Nur, we would discover, had his own reasons for inviting de Waal. Nur lives in a large house on a quiet unpaved square in Khartoum. Before we saw him, we saw his grandson, perhaps five years old, riding his tricycle in and out of his gate, occasionally pretending to start the tricycle with the key to a Land Cruiser. In his airy, cool sitting room there were faded certificates from the United States Air Force proving that he had trained in Fort Worth in 1984. At lunch, the grandson sat on Nur’s knee, playing with his grandfather’s pack of Benson & Hedges. Nur used his thumb to gently push mutton from the communal platter into the boy’s mouth.

As the meal continued, more men began to arrive. Without telling de Waal, Nur had invited some of his associates. All of them were wealthy Arabs—politicians, businessmen, academics—who were similarly entrenched in Bashir’s power structure. They wore djella bahs and expensive shoes. By the time Nur settled into his post-lunch cigarette and tea, perhaps a dozen newcomers had gathered. De Waal glanced at me as the guests arranged themselves around us like a tribunal. He was surprised to be made a trophy but saw that even this might be profitable. The assembled men wanted to talk with de Waal about some of his writings. They claimed that there were many mistakes in his latest book, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. De Waal asked the men to please correct him.

They stressed that it was the non-Arabs of Darfur who had started the war, that it was they who continued to cause problems, that they were in the internal-displacement camps because they wanted to be there, that the accusations of genocide were simply false. Ahmed Balla, a soft-looking, pockmarked man in desert fatigues, was the most strident. “They say Arabs come with camels carrying dushkas!” he said. Dushka is slang for a type of Russian anti aircraft gun. “I swear an oath that no man with his own living eyes has ever seen a camel with a dushka!”

De Waal had repeatedly heard, usually from eyewitnesses, that when the janjaweed came to burn their villages and rape their wives they always came with camel-mounted dushkas. As one military attaché explained to me, you could put a dushka on a camel’s back and carry it into battle, but there is no way that you could fire it without ripping the camel itself to pieces.

The main point of contention, though, was over who exactly the janjaweed are and what the word means. De Waal acknowledged that the etymology of the term is unclear. Most people agree that janjaweed refers to “armed men,” or “devils,” on horseback or camelback. But the word is not Arabic. One theory is that it is derived from the Persian jangawee, meaning “warrior.” Another is that the word was the namesake of a particular bandit, but no one knows who he was or where he came from or why he decided to become a criminal. “How could you call a man a janjaweed in your book,” Balla demanded, “when you just agreed you don’t know the exact definition of the word?”

Definition, de Waal allowed, is crucial, especially in light of U.N. Resolution 1556, which calls on the government of Sudan to disarm the janjaweed militias. This resolution is the project the peacekeeping force currently in Darfur is supposed to be overseeing. But the term janjaweed can be applied to a bewildering array of tribes: Ereigat, Hottiya, Mahamid, Mahariya, Sa’ada, Terjem, and so on, many of which are themelves divided. Moreover, at least one of the tribes that could be accused of producing janjaweed, the Zaghawa, is made up of non-Arabs, and therefore is more commonly held to be the victim of genocide than the perpetrator, though some Za g hawa do in fact ride camels and horses and fire their weapons at civilians.

Echoing his words to Counselor Babiker at the Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa, de Waal told Balla that the international community would ultimately hold “Khartoum” responsible for the crimes taking place in Darfur, even if some of the definitions were hard to nail down. Such news was obvious but none theless unwelcome. To one degree or another, Abdullah Safi al-Nur and his associates all knew that jail might be in their future. And they knew that de Waal was involved, somehow, in the system that would put them there, even if only because he is the expert on their country and on them. It was a long, tense afternoon. One man, a former newspaper publisher who is now a member of Sudan’s parliament, noted over tea that “it would be very easy for me to kill someone such as Mr. Alex.”

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