Trapped in Darfur

This time last year, Suleiman Jamous was busy ensuring that hundreds of thousands of civilians in rebel-held areas of Darfur received the basic foodstuffs they needed to survive. As the humanitarian coordinator of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M), a rebel group fighting the Sudanese government, Jamous was in charge of working out the logistics of aid deliveries to far-flung villages all across Darfur. It was his job to try to alleviate the dire humanitarian consequences of the Sudanese government’s scorched-earth campaign in Darfur.

A tall, gaunt man with a trimmed grey beard, Jamous is one of the few elder statesmen in what is otherwise a very young, politically-inexperienced rebel movement. Fluent in English, and with a historical perspective and political acumen that are rare among the rebels, he was a valued contact for journalists and NGO representatives visiting the region. Slovenian human rights envoy Tomo Kriznar, who traveled through Darfur last year, said that Jamous “inspired me more then any other Darfurian.”

Jamous is now caught in a strange sort of indefinite detention. For the past six months he’s lived in a UN hospital in Kadugli — a town in Kordofan, western Sudan — where he’s both a guest of the United Nations and a hostage of the Sudanese government.

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A UN helicopter brought Jamous to the hospital last June, after UN officials helped extract him from another difficult situation. Darfur rebel leader Minni Minawi, who met with President Bush last summer, had detained Jamous in May after Jamous opposed the peace agreement that Minawi had signed. (Because the agreement contained little in the way of enforcement guarantees, most rebel commanders opposed it; it is now considered a dead letter.)

After negotiating Jamous’ release UN officials wanted to bring him to the UN hospital in the neighboring state of Kordofan. Jamous was more than a little reluctant to leave Darfur, but the officials assured him that he would stay at the hospital for only a few days, to rest and recover.

The UN’s plans went drastically wrong. When the government of Sudan discovered that the UN had transported Jamous in a UN helicopter, it retaliated by partially suspending the UN’s operations in Darfur for several days. The trip was a “flagrant violation” of Sudan’s sovereignty, a government spokesman declared.

So Jamous now finds that his brief stay in the hospital has stretched out for many months. The UN cannot move Jamous without the Sudanese government’s permission, and the government has no interest at all in granting that permission.

Though his air-conditioned hospital room does not look like a cell, it functions as one. “I must be very dangerous,” Jamous told me sardonically, “they keep an armed guard posted outside my room.”

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Jamous is not a military man, but he may indeed be dangerous. He has strong ideas about justice in a country whose political leadership ignores the concept, and he’s been politically active since his student days at Khartoum Polytechnic.

Although he once made a good living in Khartoum as a wholesale trader, he risked it all by opposing the government. “I was one of the authors of the Black Book,” he told me, a political manifesto that directly challenged the legitimacy of Sudan’s ruling elite.

The Black Book — al kitab al aswad in Arabic — shook the country’s political establishment when it was published anonymously in 2000. Calling itself “an exposé of the injustices visited on Sudan by successive governments since independence,” the document described, in meticulous detail, how the country’s northern Arab tribes had for decades monopolized political power and economic resources. Its passionate denunciation of ethnic favoritism and corruption was bolstered by comprehensive statistics. Using information gathered covertly by people with access to confidential government data, it revealed how Arabs from the northern region benefited from government largess while the inhabitants of other regions — notably Darfur — were systematically denied their proportionate share of power and wealth.

“The Black Book laid the theoretical groundwork for our struggle,” Jamous explained, pointing out that all of its authors were Darfurians. The SLM/A’s founding manifesto would later echo the pamphlet’s themes of justice and equality for all of Sudan’s citizens, stressing the need for the redistribution of resources to the country’s marginalized areas.

By the time the Black Book was released — with copies appearing mysteriously one day in Khartoum’s mosques, buses, railway stations and other public places, and even on the president’s desk — Jamous was in the custody of Sudan’s security services. Between 2000 and 2003, he was arrested and detained four times, spending most of that period in prison.

When Jamous was released for the fourth time, in October 2003, war had already broken out in Darfur. Evading the plainclothes security agents who were monitoring his movements, he slipped out of Khartoum and went straight to Darfur. He chose to join the SLM/A, he said, because he simply could not stand aside as the African population was erased from his native region.

“We have two options,” he explained, “either fight to survive, or grab our hands and sit until we are killed. So we are fighting for survival.”

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In Darfur, Jamous wore a Thuraya satellite phone around his neck, and it rang constantly. Representatives from the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and countless UN agencies called him around the clock to discuss timing and logistics. His days were spent traveling from one village to the next, ensuring that local populations did not starve.

Since Jamous was removed from the region the humanitarian situation has worsened considerably. Over the summer, 12 humanitarian workers were killed in Darfur, and the delivery of humanitarian aid slowed. In recent months, the access of humanitarian organizations to civilians in Darfur has sunk to its lowest level since 2004.

Jamous’s absence also left a gap in the rebel movement’s political leadership. Having participated in the sixth round of the Abuja negotiation process, he was, according to several international observers, key to the progress made during that round. Struggling against the rebel tendency to split on tribal and factional lines, he encouraged commanders to remain united.

Right now in Darfur, prospects for a negotiated political solution seem remote. But there are some two million people displaced inside and outside the region, and international observers fear that the situation is worsening. Everyone knows that the peace process will have to restart again soon.

Jamous, whose daughter and granddaughter live in the United States, would like to come here to represent the rebel movement and promote peace negotiations. With his rich field experience, sophisticated political understanding, and fluency in English, he is uniquely situated to make a difference. Jan Pronk, the former UN special representative for Sudan, says that because Jamous has the confidence of so many rebel commanders, he could “play an important role in establishing a more sustainable cease-fire and peace agreement, respected on the ground.”

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The Sudanese government is happy to have Jamous out of the action, and it is not clear what the United Nations is doing to get him released. But as the months drag on, his situation at the UN hospital in Kadugli is becoming increasingly untenable.

On September 19, Jamous learned from a retired Sudanese official that the government of Sudan is considering trying to capture him. In mid-November, another informed source told Jamous that the government had asked the Egyptians, which have troops in Kadugli, to arrest him and hand him over.

On December 2, Jamous was examined by Egyptian doctors in the hospital in Kadugli because of pain in his abdomen. The doctors believe that there is something abnormal in his digestive system, but they do not have the necessary equipment in Kadugli to conduct the tests that he needs.

It will take strong outside pressure to get Jamous released, so that he can receive the necessary medical tests and seek asylum abroad. His first preference is to relocate to the United States, but he is willing to go anywhere that is safe.

When asked what his first priorities would be if he left Kadugli for the United States, Jamous was silent for a moment, considering the possibilities. “I’d like to spend time with my family — my daughter, and my granddaughter who I’ve never seen,” he finally said. “But I have a lot of work to do.”

RECOMMENDED ACTION: please send appeals as quickly as possible:

· condemning the prolonged confinement of Suleiman Jamous in the UN hospital in Kadugli, Kordofan;

· calling on the United States to negotiate with the Sudanese government to allow Suleiman Jamous to leave Sudan for medical treatment and to seek asylum.

Appeals should be sent to:

Andrew Natsios, US Special Envoy to Sudan,
c/o Assistant, Marlene Garcia:
Fax: 202-647-0912 (c/o Marlene Garcia)

JEN MARLOWE is a Seattle-based activist, author and filmmaker. Together with Aisha Bain and Adam Shapiro, she is the author of Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival (Nation Books, 2006). The three visited Darfur in 2004, shooting footage that they made into a 2005 documentary film, Darfur Diaries: Message From Home.