Inside the Janjaweed: how one man escaped the ethnic cleansing in DarfurA young deserter from the Arab militia whose bloody campaign has terrorised western Sudan tells his own shocking story
To the victors went the spoils. Outsiders might have found the loot meagre; but to the Janjaweed militiamen who raided the Darfur village of Ain-Sirro it was a triumph.
The Janjaweed returned to their camp at midnight, leading camels laden with the booty of a bitter guerrilla war; blankets, radios, the suitcases in which Sudanese villagers keep their clothes, and herds of stolen goats and sheep.
According to a witness - a youth who was recruited to the Janjaweed, but deserted - the militiamen had been roused for battle with songs and speeches that declared all black civilians to be their enemies.
The deserter, Mustafa Yusuf, 18, told The Observer: 'There were many songs against the Zurgha [a term for black Africans]. They sang in Arabic: "We go to war, we go to defeat the rebels - we are the original people of this area."'
The village had been attacked because a camp of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army was said to be based on a hill nearby. Looting the tawdry possessions of the African villagers was both a reprisal and a reward.
Yusuf has given this newspaper an account of life with the Janjaweed that offers a rare insight into the militias responsible for a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing in western Sudan.
Last week, it emerged that a group of Janjaweed were responsible for one of the most horrifying atrocities of the conflict, in which a group of African villagers were chained together and burnt alive in a marketplace.
During a week spent at the camp of Mistriyah, in north Darfur, where around 6,000 militia fighters were based, Yusuf witnessed how the racial hatred that has fuelled such crimes was whipped up against black Africans. He also saw evidence of government backing for the Janjaweed, including the flying in of weapons and provisions by military helicopter.
His story illustrates the fluidity of Darfur's racial boundaries; for Yusuf is from one of the 'black' tribes of Darfur, the Zaghawa, whom the government believe to form the backbone of the rebellion.
Yusuf, a slim, dark-skinned youth with high cheekbones, was recruited into the militia along with his neighbours in the north Darfur town of Kapkabiyah.
The men who recruited him did not know he was Zaghawa, he said. 'My face is not like the Zaghawa. Also, I do not speak the Zaghawa language because I lived in Kapkabiyah for a long time.'
But his former neighbours knew he was black and held it against him. 'They called me Zurgha [black]. They told me: "You are lucky to be here, this camp is only for Arabs."'
When he was recruited, he believed the militia was simply a local defence force. The militia leader, an Arab tribal chieftain named Musa Hilal, told men in the town of Kapkabiyah: 'This area is in danger, and we need volunteers to defend it from the rebels.'
The recruits slept on mats under shelters of thatch and wood. Their day began with a sip of black tea, followed by weapons training with Kalashnikov rifles.'They put a stick in front of you, at a distance, and asked you to shoot the stick,' Yusuf said.
Then the men and boys were sent out scouting, searching for signs of rebel activity. The deserter said: 'Musa Hilal came in the evenings, and he asked one question: "Is it safe or not?"' Weapons were brought in by helicopter gunship, as was food because of rebel activity on the roads.
Most of the men in the camp rode on horses or camels, but the leader and his guards used eight Landcruisers mounted with machine guns - further evidence of government backing.
The racist character of the militia became evident. 'At the beginning I thought they were giving out weapons for self-defence,' said Yusuf. 'But after I stayed for a few days, I discovered that it was an Arab militia.'
In the first speech militia leader Hilal made in front of the recruits, he told them all African civilians were the enemy. 'He said: "Zurgha support the rebels. We should defeat the rebels,"' Yusuf said.
The labels of 'Arab' and 'African' do not always fit the reality of Darfur. In the past, differences between ethnic groups were not given so much emphasis. There was intermarriage between communities who spoke Arabic as their first language and tribes who also spoke a traditional African language.
But in the violence that has engulfed the region since early last year, race has become 'a cruel and crucial reality', according to the latest Amnesty International report. The human rights group heard how a group of militiamen told some black African women: 'Do you have a God? Break the Ramadan! Even we with pale skins don't observe the Ramadan. You ugly blacks pretend. We are your god! Your god is [Sudanese president] Omer al-Bashir.'
Yusuf escaped from the Janjaweed with the help of relatives, who smuggled him to Khartoum, where he now lives and where The Observer made contact with him through a senior UN official, to whom he has given his account.
Back in Darfur, refugees report that Janjaweed militiamen have begun settling their families in the emptied villages of black tribes. A refugee at a camp in Chad told a human rights group: 'They started to plant and then to harvest our land ... they have all the cattle of the whole of Darfur now, they have all of our fertile land, they will not leave.'
According to refugees, the Janjaweed have looted thousands of cattle, goats and sheep. The looting points to the underlying economic rationale for the conflict. Over the past two decades, the traditional balance between largely Arab nomads and mainly African farmers has broken down. In the past, the nomads would graze their goats and cattle in the north of Darfur during the rainy season, then move to the greener south during the dry season.
After the rains, when the farm ers had gathered in their crops, the nomads would tend their herds in the farmers' empty fields.
'The farmers would be happy to have the nomads in their lands, because the herds would fertilise their lands - there was a sort of symbiosis,' said Elizabeth Hodgkin, researcher for Amnesty International. 'It has broken down because of increasing population.'
As the population has grown, both sides have sought to buttress their way of life. Nomadic groups have sought farmland on which to settle, while farmers have started to keep their own herds of cattle.
A conflict over resources was brewing, but it was political calculations that lit the spark. When the war in Darfur exploded in early 2003 with a string of rebel victories, the government was negotiating a settlement to a separate struggle - the civil war in south Sudan.
It was a time when Khartoum needed to send a message of strength to potentially rebellious provinces. The government was concerned about using the regular army, because much of its rank and file is drawn from Darfur's black tribes, who might prove reluctant to fight their kinsmen.
Instead, they activated their network of Arab tribal contacts in Darfur. Tribal leaders were encouraged to enlist men to the government's banner. They were supplied with weapons and air support from helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers. And a pogrom was unleashed.
· Sudan said yesterday that it would comply with a UN resolution threatening it with sanctions if it failed to restore security in the crisis-hit Darfur region.
'Sudan is not happy with the Security Council resolution, but we will comply with it to the best of our ability,' Osman Al-Sayed, Sudan's ambassador to the African Union, told a news conference in Ethiopia.
'Should we fail to do so, we know our enemies would not hesitate to take other measures against our country,' he added.
· Mustafa Yusuf is a pseudonym.