Rebels in Khartoum #2

When news stories break, there is always the danger that reporters write about them too early. Usually because they see others doing so and don’t want to appear to be flagging. We all do it. This happened in the Gillian Gibbons case. And it happened over the weekend, too, during the rebel attack on the city.

At first, I wasn’t going to write about it. As interesting as it was, I had other things on my agenda. But inevitably, since there are actually so few journalists over here, I did become embroiled in covering it – this time for the Economist – and in so doing learnt a tremendous amount. I only write this blog entry now, however, since I didn’t want to pre-empt anything that the Economist might publish.

When the attack happened, I, and many other commentators, dismissed it as a show of strength by JEM, to show to the government that they are still very much alive and kicking in Darfur, and should be considered in any future peace map. The government have been secretly talking to the SLA, the other major rebel group, and more openly to the internationally community.

JEM clearly are feeling sidelined, but that didn’t just attack the city to get noticed. They attacked because they thought they could bring the government down in one fell swoop. As Al-Tayeb Zein Al-Abdin, political commentator and old friend of Bashir, told me: “In this, they seriously miscalculated.”

They had thought that, if they made a stand against this government, which they are presuming to be deeply unpopular (I think they need to re-evaluate that, too), factions from within the city would rise up against the regime and join them in their struggle. Well, it’s happened before.

But it didn’t happen this time. Some Darfuri students from Al-Nilein and Sudan university gathered in the centre of town to demonstrate, but government troops quickly dispersed them. There were also isolated disturbances in other parts of the city – usually heard about by an erroneous text message from a friend that the rebels are attacking again – but these were far from a mass uprising. Yet JEM genuinely believed this is what would happen.

Two days ago, I was taken on a fascinating tour of Omdurman, where most of the fighting took place, and, by rifling through the belongings left behind by the rebels, was able to piece together what happened. There was, in particular, a very interesting diary kept by one of them. The government, of course, had its own motivation for letting me into the area: right from the start, they wanted to make it clear that Chad was behind the attack. After all, how could such a ragtag bunch of soldiers get so far without outside help?

There was definitely Chadian involvement. I’ve seen and studied all the ID cards, and the caps with the Chadian flag stitched on and the artillery shells. Well, on this last point, the evidence is less clear since, not being a military man, and having no military expert next to me, there was no way I could tell whose stamp the shells were marked with. A shell is a shell is a shell, surely.

Whilst there was clearly Chad memorabilia in the kit, this of course in no way proves that Idriss Deby was behind the attack. It just proves that members of the group had some relationship to Chad, which is inevitable given that the border is so porous, and the tribal ties so strong.

The diary I saw gave details about the advance. The rebels started in Abéché, in eastern Chad, where they held their last meeting before beginning their long journey. They started the journey with 1231 soldiers and 191 land cruisers. Their route took them north of El-Geneina, then on to El-Fasher, where they took the back streets. At El-Fasher, the convoy separated into six different convoys, so that they would confuse the government and avoid being wiped out in a single attack.

They continued in this fashion towards Khartoum, regrouping every six or seven hours. When they were 100 km from the city, they paused for a final meeting and for a rallying speech from their leader. Meanwhile, the government, contrary to speculation, knew of their advance and sent out planes to dispatch some of them. But they couldn’t send out a large military vanguard, seeing as this would then leave the city undefended. So their best option was to wait things out and prepare for the attack in Omdurman.

When they attacked, the heaviest fighting was in two key areas. Um Badda, site of the Whirling Dervishes, and Karrari, where the famous battle between British and Mahdi forces took place in 1898. Ironic that it was Karrari where I was taken, to probe the belongings of the rebels at the security station, when only a few months ago I was arrested for an hour by the military there.

The government reckon that they killed 200 rebels in the desert and a further 100 within Omdurman. They tell me that they have arrested 300 rebels. Get the calculators out, and you will see that, if these figures are correct, the rebels have lost half their number and are down to about 600 men. Unlikely to attack again in the near future, despite what Khalil Ibrahim might be saying. I spoke to a couple of JEM contacts and they repeated  parrot-fashion what Ibrahim has been saying: that the rebels are still in and around Omdurman, and that they will keep attacking until this government falls. JEM also sent me countless statements, which I’ll try and get translated and put here. I’m extremely curious how JEM can justify this attack. Commentators are saying that they committed political suicide. On this, I’m inclined to agree. The government say they have now severed ties with the rebels.

I am not a huge fan of the regime in Khartoum. I know that they do some rather underhand things in this country. But then, I am not really a fan of governments in general. The cynic in me says that governments are very much like an enactment of A Clockwork Orange: absolutely no one is good. They want power just for themselves. Fortunately, in Europe and America, we have developed a good system of checks and balances, which limits the powers that individuals can seek. This is not the case everywhere in the world.

But, to be fair to the government, they are holding this country together. If they go or they weaken then, as we have just witnessed with JEM, expect civil war brought on by a gaping power vacuum.

I would think it extremely worrying if JEM ever gets two close to the seats of power, for a few reasons. One, let’s not forget it is an Islamic movement (I have seen some dreadful coverage recently which just calls JEM ‘the Darfur rebels’, with no indication that they are actually Islamic: this is the most important facet to their character). Therefore, if they came to power, they will just be replacing one Islamic regime with another – and, not just that, but a particularly extreme variety. This would bit JEM against other rebel groups in Darfur, especially the SLA, and result in further marginalisation of the region. Not just that, but any newcomer to power, especially when such power is taken by force, feels vulnerable and needs a way of consolidating their base. This is usually done by killing people. It will, in short, be 1989 all over again.

This government may not be all that good, but right now it is the best option available to the country. As I’ve written in the past, the government is pretty sure of itself right now, and therefore can concentrate on finding a solution to the problems of this country rather than fret about having to give up all the perks and privileges of office. Let’s not try and destabilise things, guys.

Oh yes, and thanks to everyone that pointed out that Khalil was in fact a doctor (not a teacher) before he become a rebel leader. I have now removed the error, but the lingering guilt at such sloppiness remains. I guess, then, perhaps a career as a rebel is not for me. I know nothing about the health profession.

You can see the article I wrote for the Economist here.

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