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Darfur village keeps violence at bay with its own militia

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Oct 3, 2006 (GUSA JAMAT, Darfur) — One corner of Sudan’s violent Darfur region is green and peaceful in this post-rainy season thanks to a powerful village militia that has kept the fighting around it at bay for more than a year.

At the center of a coalition of neutral villages that unites more than 10,000 people, the village of Gusa Jamat’s homegrown militia kicked out Darfur rebels more than two years ago and made sure the government forces they are fighting did not come back in their place.

"I don’t know about the rest of Darfur, but here the war is definitely over," said Sheik Nasser Abd el-Rahman Shaieb, Gusa Jamat’s village headman. "We’ve got enough guns and trained men to make sure of that," Shaieb said earlier this week.

More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in this troubled area in western Sudan since 2003 when rebels from ethnic African tribes rose against the Arab-led Sudanese government. In response, the government in Khartoum unleashed the janjaweed, a militia of Arab nomads accused of the worst atrocities of the war.

A peace agreement signed in May between the main rebel group and Khartoum has only deepened the crisis. Various splinter factions are fighting for territory, and since late August, the government has waged an offensive against rebels in the northern part of Darfur.

Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and the United Nations says access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance is verging on an all time low.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a passionate plea to the international community to persuade the Sudanese government to open Darfur to U.N. peacekeepers.

"The international community does have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable," Rice said at a news conference in Cairo, Egypt. "What is going on in Darfur now cannot be tolerated."

But some civilians are distancing themselves from politics. Villagers and even many refugees — long the staunchest backers of the rebellion — now tell all warring parties they just want the fighting to stop.

"We’re tired of the fighting," said Shaieb. Every man here has a gun and they can be at the ready if alerted by the warning network with surrounding villages, he added.

Gusa Jamat is about 60 miles southeast of El Fasher, the regional capital of North Darfur state. The government has mobilized some 8,000 fighters in El Fasher, a move the U.N. says violates the cease-fire. Though Khartoum pledged to disarm the janjaweed, many El Fasher residents say they recognize some of the dreaded fighters among the newly arrived troops.

Residents say hundreds of soldiers have been killed, injured or captured by rebel forces, which have also sustained losses since the government began the offensive Aug. 28.

To the south of Gusa Jamat, rebel factions clashed earlier this week near the refugee camp of Gereida. The African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur says at least 11 people were killed, but aid groups say many more may have died.

AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni said looting continues, there have been reports of gang rapes and roundups of all young men in the area by the rebels.

But in Gusa Jamat, there were no guns, rebel fighters or soldiers in sight.

Located on a plateau, the village and a handful of others nearby receive a generous share of annual rains. For a few weeks each year, Darfur’s sand dunes, rocks and barren steppes are transformed into rolling green hills where large herds of relatively plump cattle wander.

Village leader Shaieb would not say how many armed men he has, but said some Arabs from cattle-raising tribes were among his followers.

"The last real fighting we had was over a year ago," he said proudly.

Marginally wealthier and at peace, these villages seem to have retained the traditional leadership that is collapsing throughout much of Darfur. Draped in white cotton robes, the sheik and the umdas, or lesser local leaders, sat in the shade on a hot afternoon discussing with aid workers who delivered medicine how to operate their health center. Darfur is increasingly dependent on humanitarian organizations but Gusa Jamat manages its own field clinic.

"It’s great to see villages take action on their own, and just come to us for support," said Abbas Terab, of the U.N. Children’s Fund, who delivered more than 440 pounds of medicine to Gusa Jamat and other villages that day.

The village has no doctor, but local health officer Muhatir Suleiman said they had mainly asked for drugs to treat malaria and diarrhea.

"Humans and animals drink from the same water holes here, it’s not good," he said.

(AP/ST)

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