WORLD

THE ISSUE IN . . .

December 25 2006
WORLD

THE ISSUE IN . . .

December 25 2006

Where enemies become friends

A hospital in Chad cares for soldiers from both sides of the Darfur war

WORLD

BY MICHAEL PETROU • In a filthy hospital room, not far from where they recently tried to kill each other, injured fighters from both sides of the war in Darfur lie side by side, with bandages and splints immobilizing their shattered limbs, and try to keep each other’s spirits up. “We have become friends and brothers,” one man, Abdullah Karim, says.

Until two months ago, Karim was a member of the Sudanese army (names have been changed to protect the soldiers’ identities). On Oct. 7, Darfur rebels, drawn predominantly from the region’s black tribes, attacked

and routed a Sudanese army encampment near Kariari, on the border between the Sudanese region of Darfur and Chad. Perhaps as many as 300 Sudanese soldiers died in the battle. The survivors fled. But about 130 Sudanese were captured alive, some after spending up to four days wounded and alone in the desert. Two dozen, including Karim, are now being treated in a hospital in the Chadian town of Bahai, a short drive from the battle site.

On the cot beside Karim lies Jebril al-Amin Mohamed, a fighter in the Sudan Liberation Army, which is a faction of the Darfur rebel alliance calling itself the National Redemption Front. Mohamed took part in the Oct. 7 battle, and was also wounded. “Now we’re soldiers in a hospital together,” he says of his roommate. “If he joins us in the SLA, we’ll stay friends. Otherwise, I’ll have to fight him again.”

The Sudanese army, along with its allies in Arab janjaweed militias, has been accused of terrorizing the black civilian population of Darfur, in a campaign that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than two million into refugee camps. But Karim, himself a member of a black Sudanese tribe who was living in the capital, Khartoum, says he knew none of this when his unit was sent to Darfur earlier this year. In fact, he says he was not even told he was being sent to Darfur when his unit was deployed. “I got here

and found out that the situation was awful. The villages were mostly burned and empty. The people were gone,” he says. “The government never told us the truth. I had to learn that from local people. I was so sad. I wished I had never put on the uniform of [Sudanese President] Omar al-Bashir.” Karim’s comments must be taken with a grain of salt. He and his fellow soldiers are, after all, in the care of a hospital located in what is essentially a rear operating base for the Darfur rebels. Nevertheless, the wounded Sudanese soldiers provide a rare glimpse into the makeup of an army engaged in one of the world’s most deadly conflicts. Sudanese soldiers inside Sudan almost never speak with journalists, and their leaders in the government do everything they can to obscure the truth about what is happening in Darfur.

However, Karim and his comrades hardly come across as fire-breathing militants. They are professional soldiers who say they have a duty to follow orders. But most are also sick of a war in which the army has suffered several defeats at the hands of the Darfur rebels in the past months. Many say they had no idea why they were sent to Darfur. Some say they were told they were to disarm the janjaweed. One man claims he was told he would be deployed as a peacekeeper in Somalia. “If we knew the truth, we would have hidden ourselves and run. We didn’t want to fight the Darfur people,” another injured fighter, Mustafa Daoud, says.

Significantly, almost all are members of black tribes from outside Darfur—a fact that disturbed some of the soldiers when they learned about the ethnic dynamic of the war in Darfur. “They wanted those of us who are Africans to fight each other. They wanted to empty Darfur of black people,” Karim says. Adds Ali Saeed: “There is a saying in Sudan: if you want to hit a slave, it is best to hit him with another slave.”

‘WAR IS POLITICAL,’ SAYS ONE. ‘HERE WE’RE ALL THE SAME.’

The soldiers gave different answers when asked if their unit had ever worked with janjaweed militias. A few said no. But it later emerged that a column of local Arabs on horseback had joined their unit for several weeks. They did not fight together, but the Arabs guided the Sudanese soldiers through Darfur’s unfamiliar territory. The Arabs were later evacuated by plane, leaving the soldiers alone and with little ammunition at Kariari, where they were later attacked. The survivors point to this event as more proof of the anti-black bias in the Sudanese army’s leadership.

The immediate future of these men is unclear. They say they receive little food or medicine. Several wear bandages that are soaked red with blood. The Red Cross has visited and registered the patients, and most say they want to return to Sudan as soon as they recover. They say that some of their comrades have already been repatriated. “I was a student. I want to complete university,” Saeed says. Karim says he wants to live as a civilian, and says he prays for the safety of Darfur. Others simply miss their families.

In the meantime, the wounded soldiers are happy to suffer and wait in the company of their former enemies. “War is political,” an injured fighter named Mohamed says. “Here in the hospital we’re all the same.” M