NYALA, 2 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - Seventy-year-old Shartay Suliman is the only Sultan left of the eight who once ruled the current stronghold of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) in the remote mountains of Jebel Marra in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
Left alone when the other Sultans aligned themselves with the Sudanese government, he struggles to protect his besieged Fur ethnic group. He has paid dearly for his loyalty, however, and has had five of his brothers killed.
"As a community leader, I'm staying with my people in the liberated areas of Darfur," Suliman said in the town of Fienna. His devotion to his people has earned him the title, "father of the movement".
"We don't feel secure here. We can't feel secure when cultivating the land and we can't guarantee that our children going to school will return in the evening," he added.
Most people in Fienna - in the northwest corner of South Darfur State - are internally displaced and live with relatives. They fled into the mountains to escape the notorious "Janjawid" - the government allied militia accused of terrorising the region's non-Arab communities such as the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa.
"The killing, rape and forced relocation are ongoing," Suliman added. "Three days ago [24 July], a number of huts were burned. It happened again yesterday."
While political leaders have expressed hope that the recently signed Declaration of Principles between the Sudanese government and the two main rebel groups in Darfur, the SLM/A and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), will lead to sustainable peace in the region, rebel commanders in the field paint a grim picture.
"The pressure on us has been mounting. We are being pushed deeper and deeper into the mountains," Salagh Adam, an SLA military commander, said.
"What we need most urgently is food," he emphasised. "We are trying to protect our people from being killed by the Janjawid, but we are failing to protect them from dying of lack of food."
Abdutalip Abdallah Mohamed, an SLM/A community leader from the settlement of Kidimir, 18 km from Fienna, said his people had suffered from "marginalisation, cultural repression and slaughter" since 1956.
"Since we were children, we have been patient. We have just been complaining, but the answer was zero while the killing and rape continued," he said.
He said since 2000, they had taken up their weapons to protect their people.
"We welcome peace. We can't say no to peace, but we want our rights," Suliman said.
He called for equal rights in education and health services, compensation for people's suffering, and the fair distribution of power and wealth.
"I've been in government since independence , but the situation with the government has never been as bad," Suliman observed.
The commander of the African Union (AU) force in Darfur, Maj Gen Festus Okonkwo, said the security situation in the region had been "calm, but volatile and unpredictable" in July. He said the parties still needed to demonstrate their willingness to enforce the Declaration of Principles on the ground.
SLM/A community leader Mohamed felt, however, that the presence of the AU protection force was not enough to bring security to the region.
"Villages are still being burnt," he said. "The AU should be supported to expand its work. If it doesn't get stronger, it will just delay the deployment of a real peacekeeping mission."
Military commander Adam agreed, and called for an increase in the AU's mandate in Darfur from protection to peacemaking. Otherwise, he added, they risked just being "tourists in Darfur".
"The situation is getting worse and worse. Most NGOs cannot attend to the needs of Jebel Marra. Children can't go to school and [so they] lose their education; people suffer from diseases but are too far into the mountains to reach the hospital in Fienna," Mohamed lamented.
He added: "We really need the support of the entire world. Without their support, we are all without hope and the situation will collapse."
Asked about local reconciliation efforts with the Janjawid, Suliman noted that here had been meetings in the past where the parties had agreed on a number of procedures.
However, as the Janjawid continued to violate their agreement, the SLM/A had ceased all contact with them.
"Some diseases require prevention or immunisation," Adam noted. "This disease - the Janjawid - needs surgical operation."
Adam stressed that, as a commander, he had full respect for the humanitarian agencies and the ceasefire agreement signed in N'djamena, Chad in April 2004, but he would protect his people when they were attacked.
"The Janjawid is still a serious threat to the women in this area," a representative of a local women's association who declined to be named, said.
"We haven't received any food for the last 4 months and are running out," she added. "We need international support and can you please make it soon?"
Malik Elbadawi, a health officer for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in southern and eastern Jebel Marra and focal person for the SLA-held areas of Jebel Marra, confirmed that the food situation was deteriorating.
"They have exhausted all their food stocks from last year's harvest," he said. "In two months' time, the first limited, early harvest will come in. What they will do over the next months, that's the question."
He said the health situation had greatly improved since UNICEF first gained access to the region in September 2004.
Some 43,000 of the estimated 60,000 young children in the area had been vaccinated against polio by July 2005. Five hundred health workers had been trained and 10 health facilities had been opened in the area.
Nevertheless, much more was needed to meet the needs of the estimated 300,000 people in the area, in particular in terms of food, access to water, sanitation, and maternal care.
"All of us are eager to have peace and stability across Darfur," Suliman Mohamed Jamos, humanitarian coordinator and senior leader within the SLM/A, said in Musbat, a remote SLM/A stronghold in the northwest of North Darfur State.
"We don't intend to wage a war," he added. "The continuation of war does not benefit the people who live here."
He warned, however, that there would be no peace as long as the Janjawid continued fighting on the ground.
"All [Janjawid] victims are civilians, they don't kill a single SLA-fighter," he said. "They don't shoot at the elephant - they shoot at his shadow."
Jamos said for peace to come to the region, the Janjawid had to be disarmed, and power and resources had to be shared with all the people from Darfur.
"The CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought the separate north-south conflict to an end] would be a good model for wealth and power sharing in Darfur too," he noted, but said it was "hard to shake hands with the government when their other hand is working underneath the table, supporting the Janjawid".
Another precondition for peace was that the crimes and other negative impacts of the conflict be assessed and addressed.
"We support the International Criminal Court in bringing people to justice," he said. "If we have peace, I have no objection to stand trial before an international criminal tribunal."
"We took up arms because we were marginalised and about to be smashed out of our area. But the effect of war is very hard on our people and we will put our arms down when a just peace comes," he declared.
The conflict pits the Sudanese government and allied militias like the Janjawid, against the rebel SLM/A and the JEM, who say they are fighting the marginalisation of their region by Khartoum.
Since the conflict erupted in February 2003, the Janjawid has been accused of specifically targeting "African ethnic communities" in a scorched earth campaign that has left more than a third of the population dead or displaced.
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