Darfur Notebook: Death in the Desert

First-Person Account of One of World's Worst Humanitarian Crises

News Analysis
By JONATHAN KARL

May 2, 2005 —

When I heard Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick would be traveling to Sudan's Darfur region, I jumped at the opportunity to go with him. Darfur is the scene of one of the greatest man-made humanitarian crises of our time and in recent months it has become increasingly difficult for reporters to visit. Last September, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said genocide is being committed in Darfur, a term reserved for only the most horrific mass crimes ever committed, and ever since the government has made it even more difficult than usual for American journalists to get into the region.

Zoellick traveled with a small contingent of press: five print reporters and three of us from ABC: Producer Richard Coolidge, photographer Wayne Boyd and me. Our first stop was Khartoum, Sudan's historic capital, located where the White Nile joins the Blue Nile to form the Nile River.

At Sudan's presidential palace -- a coldly majestic building haunted with the ghosts of Sudan's bloody past and present -- Zoellick met with Vice President Ali Osman Taha, considered by many to be the most powerful man in Sudan. After the meeting, Taha took Zoellick on a tour of the palace, showing him the spot where the most famous event ever to happen in the palace took place: the killing and beheading of British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon.

Gordon waged a heroic fight to end slavery in Sudan as the colonial governor in the 1870s. A decade later, British Prime Minister William Gladstone sent Gordon back to Sudan to deal with an Islamic rebellion led by an ally of the slave traders who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, Arabic for the "expected one." The Mahdi's holy warriors overwhelmed the British and their Egyptian allies, slaughtering Gordon in the palace. Although the precise circumstances of Gordon's death are disputed, Taha showed Zoellick the version depicted in the movie classic "Khartoum," starring Charlton Heston and Lawrence Olivier. In the Hollywood version, Gordon stood, unarmed, atop a stone staircase as one of the Mahdi's holy warriors thrust a spear into his heart. Gordon's head was then put atop a stake and paraded around Khartoum, a gruesome symbol of the defeat of British imperialism on the Nile and a lasting lesson to Westerners who try to control events in Sudan.

A Foreign Policy Challenge

Zoellick managed to get out of Sudan with his head intact, but Sudan poses one of the most perplexing challenges to President Bush's inaugural vow to fight tyranny in the world. For the past two years, Sudan's western Darfur region has been the scene of an orchestrated campaign of rape, killings and pillage. There are wildly varying estimates of how many have been killed, ranging from 70,000 to more than 300,000. There have been so many villages torched and plundered that virtually everyone in Darfur seems to now be living in refugee camps. About 2.6 million people live in all of Darfur, an arid region the size of Texas. Today more than 2 million of them live in refugee camps, one of the largest-scale humanitarian crises in modern times.

These camps are expanding slums, grim cities that have emerged in a region only recently made up of tiny villages. In the best-equipped camps, survivors have sufficient food and safe water, but, for the most part, they are afraid to return to their destroyed villages. After his meetings in Khartoum, Zoellick flew to the El Fasher airport in Darfur and visited a camp of nearly 100,000 refugees called Abu Shouk. Everyone we spoke to told a similar story of bombs falling from military aircraft and "Janjaweed" attacking the ground. Janjaweed -- literally devil on a horse -- are what the villagers call the tribal militiamen who attack on horseback.

We maximized our limited time in Sudan by breaking away from Zoellick and his entourage to talk to the people. In Khartoum, that meant seeking out the accused killers. The person I especially wanted to talk to was Sheik Musa Hillal. Hillal is the chief of one of the largest Arab tribes in Darfur. His is a nomadic tribe of camel and cattle herders. But he is considered by many to be the most notorious of the Janjaweed leaders.

"Musa Hillal is the principle and foremost commander of the Janjaweed forces in western Sudan, in Darfur, who probably has more blood on his hands as a commander of those forces than any other," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group.

Hillal is fairly media savvy for an accused war criminal. In the past he's done several interviews. Last year, in fact, he did his first interview with an American news outlet when he sat down with ABC News' David Wright. But on March 31, the U.N. Security Council voted to seek war crimes prosecutions for Sudan through the International Criminal Court. Since then, Hillal had taken a much lower profile. As I asked people about getting an interview with him, I was told by several people who know him that it wouldn't happen.

'I Am Not a War Criminal'

But then I ran into a Sudanese journalist who said he could help me. I met him at a press conference Zoellick held at the Hilton Khartoum and, as I did with others, I asked if he knew how I could get in touch with Hillal.

"I have his cell phone number," he said. "I'll give it to you if you leave me out of it."

The press conference was about to start, but I dialed the number. I had never called an accused war criminal on his cell phone before, but I had to try. Sure enough, he answered. I told him who I was and asked if I could meet with him to discuss the situation in Darfur.

In perfect English he answered: "Musa Hillal doesn't speak English," and hung up.

With the press conference now ready to start any second, I found another local journalist who agreed to call him back on my behalf to request the interview in Arabic. The security guards were now yelling at my translator to hang up because Zoellick was about to walk in, but he kept talking, talking and talking. When he finally hung up, he turned to me and said, "he says 'no way,' but I still think I can convince him to do it." It wasn't until after 9 o'clock at night that I heard back. Hillal had agreed to do the interview.

Richard, Wayne and I piled into a tiny Toyota taxi cab (every car in Sudan seems to be a Toyota) and took the 25-minute ride to our appointed meeting place.

Surprisingly, we found him at a meeting with leaders of one of the non-Arab Fur tribe -- one of the tribes he is accused of terrorizing. One of the Fur tribe leaders told us Hillal had come to seek reconciliation and forgiveness.

He agreed to an interview as "chief of the chiefs" of the Fur tribe sat beside him. Hillal repeatedly told me, "I am not a war criminal."

"Are you part of the problem?" I asked him.

"I am part of Darfur," he said, "and everyone who is part of Darfur is part of the problem."

But Hillal denies committing any of the crimes he's blamed for.

"You have been named by many as a war criminal," I said.

"If I am a war criminal, all the other tribal chiefs, they have the power to put me on trial and question me. I will accept their judgment, even if it means being shot."

But even through the denials, he offered a familiar defense. He was only following orders. He said all he had ever done was help the government deal with a rebellion.

"And a lot of innocent people got killed, didn't they?" I said.

"When you have a war," he said coolly, "normally innocent people are affected."

Hillal insisted reports of widespread destruction in Darfur are a "media fabrication." The Fur tribal leader told us the violence has forced the vast majority of his tribe from their homes and into refugee camps.

"That doesn't sound like a media fabrication," I said to him.

"It's reality," he said.

Hillal is widely expected to be indicted soon by the International Criminal Court. Indictment is one thing, but don't expect Hillal to be arrested anytime soon --- the place we met him was a police officers' club.