Armed groups from Sudan’s western region of Darfur – and other parts of the country – signed a peace deal in October with the transitional government, which took power following the revolution that ousted long-serving ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
But after trekking to a rebel base in the far-flung Jebel Marra mountains in early March, The New Humanitarian found the conflict is far from over: The region’s most powerful insurgent group is still recruiting and training fighters, and its leaders are rejecting the deal and denouncing the government that co-signed it.
“We are very clear,” said Abdelgadir Abdelrahman Ibrahim, the military commander of the main faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, known as the SLA-AW. “This agreement does not meet the needs of our people.”
Arriving alongside a group of new recruits during a three-day round trip to the SLA-AW’s base at Torontonga – a village of stone houses tucked within sun-dried hills – The New Humanitarian became one of only a handful of international media outlets to access the remote rebel-held region in the past decade.
Rebels offered rare insights into the mindset of the insurgent group as it navigates Sudan’s political transition with deep distrust, but also a snapshot of the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing hundreds of thousands of mountain residents, who have endured some of the worst atrocities committed in the Darfur conflict.
Many residents still bore the scars of government airstrikes, gas attacks, and scorched-earth village raids by Khartoum-armed Arab militias deployed in the early 2000s to fight largely non-Arab rebel groups including the SLA-AW, which is led by Abdul Wahid al-Nur and is supported mostly by the Fur community.
Though a ceasefire with the government is now in place, violence has continued in the mountains, with thousands fleeing attacks by Arab militias as well as clashes between rival SLA-AW factions in recent weeks alone. Residents say the December withdrawal of an UN-African Union peacekeeping mission has made a fragile situation worse.
Even in relatively peaceful parts of Jebel Marra, humanitarian needs are high following an aid blockade enforced by al-Bashir’s regime during past military operations. Aid organisations are now increasing their support to mountain communities, but some residents told The New Humanitarian they have not received assistance in more than a decade.
“In 2003 and 2004 [aid groups] used to visit us frequently,” said 65-year-old Yahia Khamis, the chief of Faluja, a conflict-affected village in eastern Jebel Marra. “But now there are none.”
‘If there is a war we are ready’
The Sudan Liberation Army emerged in 2001 as a mix of Darfur’s main non-Arab groups – the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit. They were united in their opposition to Khartoum’s neglectful elites, but personal rivalries and competing visions soon caused splits.
While some factions of the group – and other rebel outfits – lost ground over the years, the SLA-AW stayed ensconced in the hills of Jebel Marra – the ancestral homeland of the Fur, the largest ethnic group in Darfur.
Despite internal tensions over Abdul Wahid’s leadership – he lives abroad and has refused to be part of peace talks since 2006 – the rebels retain significant support in the mountains, and among Darfur’s more than 1.5 million remaining displaced people.
Young recruits – like the eight men who escorted The New Humanitarian – are still making their way to training camps in the fortress-like mountain range, referred to by the rebels as their “liberated areas”.
The recruits are drawn to the SLA-AW because so little has changed in Darfur, said Yousif Mohammed Ahmed, a 35-year-old who grew up in a displacement camp and now promotes the group’s political vision in Zalingei, one of the main towns in the region.
Ahmed said past peace efforts have failed to reduce attacks by Arab militias in the region, or create employment opportunities for youth. “People talk about peace, but there is no peace on the ground,” he said. “There are daily attacks on civilians.”
Armed groups that signed the new peace deal say Sudan’s current leaders are different from the last crop and more likely to see through the agreement, which promises compensation for victims of past conflicts and accountability for perpetrators of crimes.
But that view isn’t shared by the rebel commander in Torontonga, who has little trust in the current power-sharing government, which includes several military generals linked to al-Bashir’s regime.
Speaking from his spartan office, Ibrahim, known by his nickname Gaddura, described General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – chairman of the transitional sovereign council, the body that runs Sudan – as an “assistant of al-Bashir” in reference to al-Burhan’s involvement in military operations in Darfur in the early 2000s.
Other rebel leaders sitting beside Gaddura singled out the sovereign council’s vice president, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – better known by his nickname Hemedti – who led the “Janjaweed” Arab militias responsible for much of the devastation here.
“People who committed crimes have graduated to the top,” said Gaddura, speaking in the local Fur language during an hour-long interview. “We won’t negotiate with those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against our people.”
Distrust in the new administration has bred a bunker mentality among the rebels. One senior SLA-AW official blamed a series of recent attacks near Jebel Marra on “militias of the transitional government”, but did not provide details or evidence that such a thing exists.
Gaddura, meanwhile, made a string of provocative and seemingly xenophobic comments about rebel movements that signed the new peace agreement. He also claimed – without providing evidence – that they had begun preparations to fight the SLA-AW.
“We are expecting the transitional government may attack us at any moment,” the commander said, adding: “If there is a war, we are ready.”
Needy villages and new attacks
As peace prospects dwindle in Jebel Marra, aid groups say the long-unaddressed humanitarian crisis here needs more attention.
Compared to other villages in the mountains, Torontonga has at least some basic services: a school, a health clinic with a few supplies, and a market stocked with vegetables and flatbread. Sky News Arabia was even playing on television in a generator-powered room next to Gaddura’s office.
Elsewhere though, logistical challenges and past constraints on the movement of aid workers have left countless villages with “almost zero access to health services, functioning schools, and any other service”, said Antony Spalton, the head of UNICEF’s office in Darfur.
While aid groups have traditionally focused their activities on the dozens of sprawling displacement camps dotted across urban areas in Darfur, “more now needs to go to places that have no services at all”, Spalton said.
In recent months, aid groups including UNICEF have stepped up assessments and relief work in the mountains – reaching some villages for the first time in over a decade – but “there is masses to do”, Spalton added.
Though rain is reliable in Jebel Marra and residents can cultivate crops unavailable in the dry plains beneath, the UNICEF official said a lack of health services – and access to health education – means rates of malnutrition are high.
Travelling to villages, Spalton said he was also “shocked” by the number of people suffering from spina bifida, a spinal birth defect that could be significantly reduced if pregnant women had access to basic supplements.
Assistance is also needed for the thousands of Jebel Marra residents who continue to flee violence in the mountains – much of it caused by dissident SLA-AW commanders opposed to Abdul Wahid’s and Gaddura’s controversial leadership.
The recent fighting has centred on eastern Jebel Marra, where displaced people described to The New Humanitarian scenes reminiscent of Darfur’s past: village burnings, killings, and rebels sexually abusing women.
The chief of Faluja, Yahia Khamis, said a teacher and a community leader were among scores killed when an SLA-AW splinter group led by a commander called Zanoun Abdulshafi attacked his village alongside Arab militias in late February.
Khamis described Faluja residents as “simple people'' with no involvement in internal rebel conflicts. “I will support the person who brings me my rights,” the village chief said from a displacement camp in Nyala, a town south of Jebel Marra. “I just want security.”
Days after fleeing their homes, Khamis and hundreds of other Jebel Marra residents were reliant on support given to them by existing members of the camp, which was set up in 2004 and is known as Otash.
Two cramped community centres with barely enough space to sit, let alone sleep, were accommodating the new arrivals. A few paltry bowls of millet – a local staple – were all that was sustaining them.
“Sometimes aid groups take two or three months to come,” said Mohamed Ali Bahar, an Otash resident coordinating efforts to help the arrivals. “These people cannot wait.”
What next for ‘Mr. No’?
Much of what happens next in Jebel Marra will depend on the polarising figure of Abdul Wahid – viewed as a visionary by his supporters and as an unstable contrarian by his detractors, some of whom have dubbed him “Mr. No”.
Some Sudanese analysts told The New Humanitarian the rebel leader enjoys life as an opposition figure too much to be part of the peace process. Others said he is good at diagnosing Darfur’s problems, but not necessarily at fixing them.
“He won’t sign today, or tomorrow, or in 10 years to come,” said Ahmed Tugod, chief negotiator of the Justice and Equality Movement, a major Darfuri rebel group that signed the peace deal.
Pressure on the SLA-AW to join the process, however, is increasing from within its own ranks, and from some displaced communities in camps that make up the core of its support base.
In recent months, Abdul Wahid has met with Sudan’s civilian prime minister, as well as officials from South Sudan – where the October deal was signed – raising hopes he may yet be tempted to add his name.
Any decision will be affected by how the peace process evolves on the ground, said Musa Bahar El Dein, an academic from the Center for Peace and Development Studies at the University of Zalingei, where Abdul Wahid was born in the 1960s.
“If the government implements the agreement, he will lose supporters,” said El Dein. “If it goes badly, it will increase his supporters.”
For the moment, peace seems far away in places like Torontonga, where the sound of rebels chanting war slogans at a military training centre floated through the hills one morning in March.
And it seems even further away in the displacement camps where Jebel Marra residents are fleeing to once again – some having not even heard that a peace agreement was signed.
“Nobody came to tell us anything,” said 22-year-old Zamzam Momen, split from her children after a militia group attacked her village in February. “This news is something unbelievable.”
Video shows SLA-AW rebels escorting reporters from The New Humanitarian through the remote Jebel Marra mountain range (Philip Kleinfeld/TNH).