MISTEREI, Sudan - They wear uniforms without insignia, travel a rolling countryside of char- red and emptied villages on camels, horses or pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, and call themselves “the Quick and the Horrible.”
International monitors and non-Arab African farmers who accuse them of raping, killing and burning call them something else: Janjaweed.
Fighters in this stronghold — visited by journalists Tuesday for the first time since the conflict in Darfur began — belong to the government-allied Arab militia that international monitors blame for the worst atrocities of the 20-month-old war.
The Darfur war has killed more than 50,000 people and driven 1.4 million from their homes. Almost all of the displaced are non-Arab Africans, targets of what the United States says is a genocidal campaign by Khartoum’s Arab-dominated government.
Sudan is accused of coordinating military aerial bombing runs with ground raids by the Arab militia in the attacks on Darfur’s non-Arab villages, although all sides say mass attacks on civilians have eased under international scrutiny.
The Sudanese government describes its allies in Darfur as militias hastily organized to defend against rebels. The fighters known as Janjaweed, Khartoum says, are renegades and bandits, and the government has no ties to those men.
But the international community and the victims of the violence say the fighters in Misterei are the Janjaweed.
The fighters in Misterei said Tuesday that they have close ties to the government — in coordination, sympathies and the monthly salaries of about $20 that each collects.
“The government called on us to defend our land, and the tribes responded,” said fighter Ina Saleh, a member of the Arab Rizigat tribe, wearing a uniform with no marks or name tag. “We responded, like the other tribes.”
Misterei, in northern Darfur, 16 miles west of the town of Kabkabiyeh, is identified by foreign governments and international rights groups as the birthplace of the Janjaweed.
In February last year, Sudan’s government sent out a plea for fighters to help combat two non-Arab rebel groups that had taken up arms in western Darfur, the international community says, in accounts backed up by the fighters.
Arab tribal leader Musa Hilal, who lived in Misterei, answered the plea, rallying men of several Arab tribes and training and arming them, they say.
In all, about 2,000 tribal fighters responded to the government call, most from Mr. Hilal’s tribe, said Omer el Amin, a lawyer in Kabkabiyeh representing Mr. Hilal and other men now accused of being Janjaweed.
In Misterei, they called themselves the Border Intelligence Division and answered to Mr. Hilal, Mr. el Amin said.
The group also calls itself the Second Reconnaissance Brigade, or the Quick and the Horrible, say officers of the African Union (AU), a 53-nation bloc whose monitors are inspecting compliance with a repeatedly violated cease-fire.
None of the fighters identifies himself as Janjaweed. The term is used by the international community for some of the Arab militia fighters, including Mr. Hilal’s, but is seen here as an insult, reserved for bandits before the conflict in Darfur began.
With heavy international attention on accusations of genocide committed by the Janjaweed, Mr. Hilal is in seclusion in the capital, under close watch by Sudanese officials, those in contact with him say.
The Border Intelligence Division, once spread out along Darfur’s border with Chad, has pulled much of its strength back to Misterei. Government forces are firmly in control here, and the men purportedly recruited by Mr. Hilal are safe from any rebel attack and outside scrutiny, other than from the AU monitors.
On Tuesday, men identifying themselves as members of the Border Intelligence Division lolled in the shade of an open-sided shelter at the group’s headquarters, while their leaders met with the cease-fire monitors.
A few of the fighters interviewed under scrutiny of their field commanders and Sudanese military officers variously said they were part of civil patrols, known as mujahideen (holy warriors), or part of the regular military.
The men and their officers said they were supplied and paid by the central government, but some, such as fighter Muhammad Hamdan, could not identify their commanders in the military.
Mr. Hamdan contradicted himself repeatedly about when he joined his unit; he and Mr. Saleh initially gave dates preceding Darfur’s conflict.
Both eventually said, however, that they took up arms in response to a government call to fight last year, when Darfur’s rebel groups rose.
“The government called us to defend,” said Mr. Hamdan, a member of the Arab Mahmeed tribe.
As he spoke, men identifying themselves as members of the division strolled the town’s weekly market, where camels for sale crowded together.
Their local leader, Sgt. Abdul Waheed Saeed, stood among the stalls, answering journalists’ questions about whether he and his men feared international prosecution as Janjaweed suspects.
“If I’m given to the court, I’ll be given with all the government,” Mr. Saeed said. “Because we are all doing this together.”
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