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“They come together, they fight together and they leave together.”

“We are the government!”  Time and again, members of Darfur’s Masalit community told Human Rights Watch that this was the response of the Janjaweed - at checkpoints, in the streets, in the course of robberies or cattle rustling - whenever civilians attempted to defend themselves and their property.

Adam, a thirty-two-year-old farmer burned out of Gokar village near Geneina, said a Janjaweed leader in Geneina, Omda Saef, told local people: “This place is for Arabs, not Africans.  If you have a problem, don’t go to the police” which are majority Masalit or other Africans, and therefore liable to sympathize with their complaints. “Come to the Janjaweed. . . . The Janjaweed is the government.  The Janjaweed is Omar Bashir.”119

In December 2003, Janjaweed moved into the army barracks in Murnei.  Hassan, a twenty-two-year-old student, said they soon established a new barracks barely a mile away: The boss was a man called Ahmad Dekheir, an omda of the Ma’alia tribe who was a well-known cow thief before he joined the Janjaweed.  They put a Sudan flag on the barracks.  120  

“Why do I say the Janjaweed and the government are the same thing?” asked Abdullah, forty-nine-year-old headman of Terbeba village.  “They come together, they fight together and they leave together!” 121 Human Rights Watch visited Terbeba in April 2004 and found it deserted and uninhabitable, its food stores looted and burned and 90 percent of its grass huts reduced to cinders.  Villagers said they were attacked by a joint force of Janjaweed on horses and camels and government forces in Land Cruiser vehicles on February 15, 2004, at 6:00 a.m.  Thirty-one people were killed.  

Government admissions of its Janjaweed relationship

The more international criticism the war in Darfur incurs, the more the government denies any involvement with or connections to the Janjaweed.122 Until recently this was not the case. 

On April 24, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail admitted common cause with the Janjaweed, but implied their cause was a just one.  “The government may have turned a blind eye toward the militias,” he said.  “This is true. Because those militias are targeting the rebellion.” He repeated government denials that it was not involved in ethnic cleansing and said the estimated death toll in Darfur—several thousands—was greatly exaggerated. “I would say not more than 600 people [have been killed] at most.”123

In an address to the people of Kulbus on December 31, 2003, President Bashir said his government’s priority was to defeat the SLA rebellion and said “the horsemen” would be one of the weapons it used - alongside the army.124 

One local leader, a sheikh, pointed to the reasons for the government’s preference for Janjaweed Arab militias over the government’s own army soldiers. “The government trusts the Janjaweed more than the army. There are many Masalit in the army.” 125 To face a rebellion of Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa, the government looked beyond the army to a nomadic fighting force that seemed ready-made for its purposes.

Sudanese government use of ethnic militias for counterinsurgency

Until the late 1990s, the fighters referred to as Janjaweed, although overwhelmingly Arab, appear to have been loosely organized groups from different backgrounds. 126 But the Sudanese government has a long history of using Arab and non-Arab ethnic militias to fight rebels who sprang from their traditional enemies.127

The government of President Nimeiri (1969-1985) initially armed muraheleen, Baggara (Arab) tribal militias of the Rizeigat from southern Darfur and Misseriya from southern Kordofan against southern rebels.128 In 1989 the muraheleen were incorporated into official government militias controlled by the army and continued to receive government support for the purpose of attacking Dinka and Nuer civilians, whose men had joined the southern rebel SPLA (formed in 1983). The government arming of Baggara men with superior weapons turned a usually manageable conflict into a one-sided orgy of slaughter of civilians, looting, burning—and slave-taking in northern Bahr El Ghazal.129

That template has now been imposed on Darfur, where some Arab nomads are given automatic arms and free rein to attack their usual African sparring partners, in the name of government counterinsurgency.130

Many or most of the Janjaweed leaders were emirs or omdas from Arab tribes, and several were appointed by the government in the administrative reorganization of the mid-1990s. The participation by ethnic-political leaders leads to increasing ethnic polarization as members of one ethnic group are summoned and recruited by their leaders to join in a free-for-all war against another ethnic group.

The Janjaweed are not simply a few side-lined ostracized outlaws, as the government suggests. Among the leaders participating in the war in Darfur against the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa are:

  • Hamid Dawai, an emir of the Beni Halba tribe and Janjaweed leader in the Terbeba-Arara-Bayda triangle where 460 civilians were killed between August 2003 and April 2004.131  He has residences in Geneina and Bayda.
  • Abdullah abu Shineibat, an emir of the Beni Halba tribe and Janjaweed leader in the Habila-Murnei area.  He has residences in Geneina and Habila.
  • Omda Saef, an omda of the Awlad Zeid tribe and leader of the Janjaweed from Geneina to Misterei.  He has a residence in Geneina. 
  • Omar Babbush, an omda of the Misseriya tribe and leader of the Janjaweed from Habila to Forbranga, with a residence in Forbranga.
  • Ahmad Dekheir, an omda of the Ma’alia tribe and leader of the Janjaweed in Murnei.

In recent months, Masalit say, some of the Janjaweed have been organized into structured liwa, or brigades. Rebel leaders say they have identified six Janjaweed brigades.  Masalit civilians, however, were able to name only two – Liwa al-Jammous, or Buffalo Brigade, formerly headed by Musa Hilal, and Liwa al-Nasr, or Victory Brigade, formerly headed by Shukurtallah.

These brigades are organised along the lines of the Sudanese army and headed by officers who wear the same stripes as generals in the regular army.  The only difference between Janjaweed and army uniforms, Masalit say, is a badge depicting an armed horseman that the Janjaweed sport on their breast pocket.  They drive the same Land Cruisers as the army and are accompanied by armed bodyguards.  They carry the same Thuraya satellite phones as senior army officers. 

The government compensates the Janjaweed officers and militia members. The homes, cars, and satellite phones are part of the compensation for the officers. They are also paid monthly stipends or salaries, according to Masalit interviewed separately, at different times and in different places. Four different persons agreed on the exact amounts - £300,000 Sudanese pounds a month (U.S. $ 117 as of mid-2003) for a man with a horse or camel, and £200,000 a month (U.S. $ 79) for a man without – roughly twice as much as a soldier of similar rank.132

Idriss, forty-three-year-old leader of a local Masalit self-defense group in Gozbeddine near Habila, said payments to Janjaweed in his area came from the government:

In August 2003, the government said all Arabs who came with a horse or a camel would get a salary of £300,000 and a gun.  The Arabs weren’t organised before; it was only groups of thirty or forty attacking civilians for their cows.  When I was in Habila, there was an office for organizing the Janjaweed.   It flew the Sudanese flag.  It used to be a PDF office.133   

Another person, a former police officer, said top Janjaweed officers receive as much as £600,000 Sudanese (U.S. $ 233), a respectable sum in a poor country.

A friend in the Janjaweed once told me he was paid £300,000 Sudanese.  He got it from an office near the mosque in Geneina.  Some soldiers say the top brass in the Janjaweed get double that…134

That many Janjaweed apparently now receive regular salaries suggests a degree of organisation and direction never enjoyed by “Arab nomads”. 

High-ranking civil servants, themselves not Janjaweed, appear to have a role in recruiting Janjaweed. In a document obtained by Human Rights Watch, the state governor or wali of South Darfur orders commissioners “to recruit 300 horsemen for Khartoum”.135 The letter, dated November 22, 2003, is from the office of the governor to commissioners of mahaliyas136—one of Nyala and the other of Kas, the capital and a large town in South Darfur, respectively.

It thanks the commissioners on behalf of the state minister of the interior and the governor for their “efforts against the rebels,” which were “highly appreciated.” It reaffirms a commitment to an agreement made between the minister and the commissioners “on all actions against the rebels” and asks the commissioners to implement it. The letter next lists promised donations and projects, apparently to benefit the janjaweed community, which include a campaign to vaccinate camels and horses; building of three classrooms and donation of books, desk, and clothes for students; construction of a health unit and donation of twenty-four hand pumps for eight villages.137

Recruitment of criminals to lead the Janjaweed

In Darfur, the government is also recruiting criminals to spearhead this counterinsurgency operation, with predictable results. The most prominent Janjaweed leader in West Darfur state is Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mohammed, a former army officer known universally by his nickname of “Shukurtallah.”138 He emerged at the head of the Janjaweed in Dar Masalit after he was arrested on charges of killing civilians. 

Shukurtallah is a member of the Mahariya ethnic group from Arbukni village just outside Geneina. He reportedly served in the Sudanese army in Juba for several years in the late 1990s before being transferred back to Geneina.  In 1999, according to Masalit residents of Geneina, he was taken to court by relatives of men he was accused of killing.  He was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, but was released and soon after appeared at the head of the Janjaweed forces in Dar Masalit.

Ahmad, a Masalit farmer from the Geneina area, said his family encountered Shukurtallah twice while Shukurtallah was still in the army – in 1994 and 1999:

In 1994, the army came to my village, Habila Canare, with Shukurtallah.  He was a very tall, thin, cruel man, with a scarred lip.  He hit me and jailed me for two months.  He told me: “You are a rebel!”  In 1999, he took me from Naga village, near my home, and imprisoned me for thirty-five days.139

In 2003, Ahmad’s brother, Mohieddine, was stopped by Janjaweed at one of the exits to Geneina.  They demanded a large payment on groundnut oil he was carrying.  When he protested that he had no money, they sent him to their “leader” in Janjaweed offices in the Medina al Hujjaj – the old customs yard in Geneina.  There he found himself face to face with Shukurtallah:

He asked me: “How did you know my place?”  I told him his men sent me there.  He wrote a letter to the Janjaweed saying: “Let him go.”  All the burning, all the looting was Shurkurtallah’s.  He had one office in the army barracks and another in the Medina al Hujjaj.  Sometimes we saw him in army cars and sometimes with the Janjaweed on horses.  He was a very cruel man.140

While many of the leaders who rallied their fellow tribesmen to form militias call themselves “general”, ordinary Masalit call them “mounted criminals” or, more simply, “thieves”.  Ali, a Masalit who left the police force after twelve years’ service, said many of them had been arrested and jailed for theft:

I was a policeman.  The Janjaweed are Arab criminals.  Some come from jail and then are trained by the army in Geneina - in the old customs yard, Medina al Hujjaj.  Shineibat, Hamid Dawai - Janjaweed generals, but thieves!  Just like many of the men who serve under them: Idman… Brema Labid… Ali Manzoul… All thieves!  All released from jail.141

Aqid Younis, a Janjaweed leader in Habila, has a reputation in the area as a cattle rustler.  Yousif, a farmer from the nearby village of Abun, said Younis has been notorious in the area for years:

He’s a thief, but they never put him in prison.  He was a nomad before, in the bush, but in 2003 he moved into Habila.  We saw him travelling in army cars to Geneina.142 

Impunity for the Janjaweed: Police Forbidden to Punish

The Janjaweed are not only persons whose criminal past is forgiven, they are also assured that they will not have to face local criminal prosecution for any of the crimes committed while pursuing and evicting, looting and pillaging, the ethnic groups allegedly aligned with the rebels.

Nureddine from Misterei village resigned from the police force in 2003 after “the government took the Arab tribes and allowed them to be the law, over everyone else”.  Abaker said the army chief in Misterei, a Dinka from southern Sudan called Ango, ordered the police “not to interfere with the Janjaweed.  To let them do whatever they wanted.”143

 Ahmad, a thirty-five-year-old farmer, said friends in the police force in Geneina were also told not to take action of any kind against Janjaweed:

We spent two months in Geneina early this year after our village was burned.  Some people brought their cattle with them, but the Janjaweed stole them inside Geneina.  Friends in the police force told me they were told not to lodge any complaints against the Janjaweed.  They were not to interfere with them in any way.144

The Janjaweed do not attempt to conceal their crimes, but they have attempted to conceal the organized and extensive nature of their military operations and logistical support system, at least in the larger towns. They are apparently treated secretly in hospital facilities in Geneina, capital of West Darfur state.  A nurse from the government hospital who entered these facilities one day said she was ordered to leave immediately:

The Janjaweed asked me: ““What are you doing here?  You are not allowed here.”  Doctors from our hospital told me they worked there secretly at night.  It paid well, they said.145

The hospital, formerly a private house, carries no signs identifying it as a hospital and is said to be used exclusively by Janjaweed. 

[119] Human Rights Watch interview, Adam, Chad, April 2, 2004. Omar Bashir is the President of Sudan

[120] Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, April 8, 2004.

[121] Human Rights Watch interview, Abdullah, Chad, March 24, 2004.

[122]  In a joint appeal with the U.N. to the world community for U.S. $ 140 million for food and medicine for the people in need in the war-hit Darfur region, Sudan's Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Ibrahim Mahmoud, told reporters that he blamed Arab militiamen of the Janjaweed for conducting a genocide campaign against the black African population of Darfur. “Sudan Government, U.N., Call on Donors to Help Darfur,” Sudan Tribune, Khartoum, May 2, 2004, (accessed May 4, 2004).

[123] “Sudan Minister Hails U.N. Rights Vote,” Associated Press, Khartoum, The Guardian (London), April 24, 2004

[124] “Sudanese President says the war against outlaws is a government priority,” AP, Khartoum, December 31, 2003.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview, Sheikh Abdullah, Chad, March 24, 2004.

[126]  These fighters included Popular Defence Forces (a government Islamist militia organized in 1989), Darfurian Arabs and nomadic and semi-nomadic Arabs from neighbouring areas including southern Kordofan and Chad– operating independently of the regular army but without interference by it and always with impunity.

[127] The Sudanese government began to arm African Nuer militias, known as Anya-Nya 2, as soon as these groups lost power within the nascent SPLA rebels in Ethiopia and fled back to Sudan in 1983.

[128] Arms continued to flow to the muraheleen through the Darfur state administration and Umma Party government of Sadiq al Mahdi (elected government 1986-89). The Umma Party traditionally drew support from the Ansar Sunni Sufi Islamic sect, founded by Prime Minister al Mahdi’s ancestor whose Baggara Darfurian followers drove the Egyptians from Sudan in 1881.

[129] For additional information on the Baggara militias used to fight the civilians associated with the rebel forces in Bahr El Ghazal, see Famine in Sudan, 1998: The Human Rights Causes (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999).

[130] Slave-taking is a phenomenon occurring in attacks on southern Sudanese but although there have been numerous abductions of children and women in Darfur, so far it is not clear whether any such pattern is emerging.

[131] Human Rights Watch Interview, Khamis, Chad, March and April 2004.

[132] Human Rights Watch interviews, former government soldiers, Darfur, April 2004.

[133] Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, April 6, 2004.

[134] Human Rights Watch interview, Nureddine, Darfur, April 11, 2004.

[135] “Office of the Wali (governor), Republic of Sudan, South Darfur State, to: Commissioners, Nyala and Kas Mahaliyas, Serial No. WGD/MW/69/A/1, subject: Gardoud Visit, date: November 22, 2003 (translation by Human Rights Watch).

[136] A mahaliya is a subunit of a province. See Appendix B.

[137] Office of the Wali, South Darfur State, November 22, 2003.

[138] See “More abuses against the Massaleit people,” Representatives of the Massaleit in Exile, Cairo,  Egypt, July 14, 1999, (accessed April 30, 2004): “One of the most notorious Arab officers, of the rank of Major, is Ahmad Sukurtala. He is from the Umjullum Arab group of Geneina [West Darfur] . . .  The Major mounts sudden inspections to Massaleit villages, frequently followed by Arab militia attacks at night. The pattern has implanted a deep-seated insecurity in the minds of the ordinary people. Locations visited by the Major are invariably vacated by the local people, for it signals bad things to follow.”

[139]  Human Rights Watch Interview, Ahmad, Chad, April 6, 2004.

[140] Human Rights Watch interview, Mohieddine, Chad, April 6, 2004. The SLA claims it killed Shukurtallah in fighting with government and Janjaweed forces in December 2003, but this is disputed.

[141]  Human Rights Watch Interview, Ali, Darfur, April 11, 2004.

[142]  Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, March 27, 2004.

[143]  Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, April 5, 2005

[144] Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, April 6, 2004

[145]  Human Rights Watch interview, Chad, April 14, 2004.

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