Suleiman Jamous in Limbo

A few days after helicopter gun ships attacked the village of Amarai in North Darfur recently, a faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) put out a statement alleging that the attack had killed 26 civilians, including four pregnant women. Within an hour or so, I received a telephone call from the humanitarian coordinator of the SLA, Suleiman Jamous. The correct death toll, he said, was three.

“I do not think we have to convince the world that there are abuses in Darfur,” Jamous said. “We have to keep ourselves honest, or we will lose our credibility.”

I have been a harsh critic of the SLA, whose leaders have cared for little except their own positions and who have encouraged, in the case of one, and ignored, in the case of another, gross abuses committed by their underlings. But the SLA has some impressive figures and it is arguable that Suleiman Jamous is the most impressive of them all.

Last month Suleiman Jamous marked the first anniversary of an imprisonment so ambiguous that those responsible for it – the Sudan government and the United Nations Mission in Sudan – can both claim that his lack of liberty is not their fault. The truth is that both are to blame – not only for the psychological suffering inflicted on an elderly man who is denied all human contact except with those who are holding him, but also for the shrinking of humanitarian space caused by his absence from the field.

The facts are these:

In September 2005, Jamous attended the sixth round of the Darfur peace talks in Abuja and threw his weight behind a negotiated settlement to the conflict. On his return to Darfur, the rebel leader Minni Minawi, who was at the time opposed to a negotiated settlement of the war, had him arrested in the village of Bir Maza. Seventeen villagers who dared to ask why their relief deliverer had been detained were told by Minawi’s chief of staff: “I can shoot Jamous and sodomise any of you.” The 17, aged between 35 and 60, were stripped naked, put in the sun and beaten. Shots were fired into the air around them. Three were driven around Bir Maza naked on open trucks.

UN officials succeeded in negotiating Jamous’s release from Minawi after a little more than a month and flew him to a UN military hospital outside Darfur, in the Kordofan region east of Darfur. It was, they said, for his own safety and would be for four days only. But the UN did not obtain Khartoum’s permission to transport Jamous and Khartoum responded by briefly disrupting relief operations.

A year later, the 62-year-old Jamous remains in the UN hospital in the town of Kadugli with an unarmed guard inside his room and an armed guard outside. He has access to a telephone and is treated well. But he sleeps badly and is unable to get medical treatment that UN doctors have certified they cannot provide in Kadugli: specifically, a biopsy for an abdominal complaint that began during his third period of detention by the Sudan government in 2003.

Until recently, UN officials told Jamous he was not at liberty to leave the hospital, adding that it was for his own good. The African Union, which has peacekeepers in Darfur, was negotiating his release with the government official in charge of the Darfur file, Majzoub al-Khalifa. A few days ago, however, there was a development: a relatively junior UN official told Jamous that he can walk out any time he wants.

“I was told I am free to go out if I wish,” Jamous told me last week, “but they are not responsible for what will happen to me outside their fence. I asked if this is a kind of turning over” to the government. “Walking from here to Darfur is not possible” – even if he got past the army car and motorcycle that seem to be permanently stationed only a few hundred yards away from the hospital.

In the three years that he served as humanitarian coordinator of the SLA, Jamous facilitated the delivery of relief swiftly, smoothly and honestly, enabling tens of thousands of civilians to stay in their villages and not to trek to the camps for the displaced that are so insecure and overcrowded today that they are themselves a source of conflict. He helped scores of journalists get in and out of Darfur, safely, and facilitated numerous international missions including the UN commission of inquiry.

The head of one the largest humanitarian agencies operating in Darfur says Jamous was a “very important” colleague – not only “because he arranged for access but also because he understands humanitarian principles and human rights and was an interlocutor on a number of issues including releasing child soldiers.” An NGO worker with whom he worked closely says:
“You could contact him in the morning and be delivering aid the same day, anywhere in the rebel areas of North Darfur.”

He never carried a gun or wore a uniform.

In the three years that I have known Jamous, he has never given me a piece of information that has proved to be wrong. He has been frank about rebel abuses when they have occurred and in the last two years has worked tirelessly to mend the divisions that bedevil the SLA, Darfur’s largest rebel group but now so fragmented that the name is virtually meaningless.

Jamous added clarity of purpose and a sense of principle to a rebel leadership that was consumed by a brutal power grab. He is one of the very few individuals to emerge from the Darfur crisis with moral integrity. All serious analysts concur that solutions to Darfur must come from Darfurians, with the international community in a supporting role. The enforced silence of Suleiman Jamous means that a just and lasting settlement to the crisis is that much more remote.

Click here to sign a petition to free Suleiman Jamous.

JULIE FLINT is a freelance journalist based in London and Beirut. She is the co-author of Darfur: a Short History of a Long War.

This column originally ran in The Guardian.