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Sudan rebels tell war stories over sheep feast

By Jane Ferguson for CNN
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Darfur rebels struggle on
  • Rebels in Sudan's Darfur region laugh and joke as they explain why they became fighters
  • They blame Sudan government even as they hold ceasefire while peace talks take place
  • One rebel said: After the peace is signed I will continue my studies
  • As peace process takes place the rebels remain constantly armed

Darfur, Sudan (CNN) -- Laughter and the smells of cooking around a campfire are offset by military fatigues and automatic weapons as rebels try to relax during a ceasefire in one of Africa's bitter conflicts. The men remember why they took up arms against the Sudanese government while keeping their ambitions of a peaceful future in check.

One man jokes: "We will kill President Omar Al Bashir." Wood smoke drifts along with the laughter around the morning fire. By the time the sun is setting, hundreds of armed rebels have formed a guard of honor as we drive across North Darfur's desert to meet them.

In reality, these men say they are actually banking on peace. They are the Liberation and Justice Movement -- a recently-formed alliance of 18 rebel groups in Sudan's Darfur region. While their leaders thrash out terms of an agreement with Sudan's government, headed up by President Al Bashir in talks hosted in Doha, the rebels wait, and hope.

"The ceasefire is actually a very tough and hungry time for the fighters", said General Ali Mukhtar - the irony not lost on him. "When the conflict is going on we capture from the government material that we need like food and fuel. But during the ceasefire there is no food for the soldiers."

They do however make an effort for guests. Within a couple of hours of our arrival someone is sent to fetch a sheep, which is expertly slaughtered and roasted over a fire. Darfurian hospitality means we eat even before the general.

Just a few dozen meters away between the trees, our car is parked in Chad, as we eat our lamb in Sudan's Western region of Darfur. Despite the closeness, smuggling across supplies of food and gas is not an easy task. A cat and mouse game with Chadian border patrols and the odd Sudanese military vehicle mean it can take all day.

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If he (President Omar Al Bashir) gives the people their rights it is better but if he refuses then we will have to continue with war
--Rebel General Banda
  • Sudan
  • Darfur
  • Human Rights Policy

Still, many volunteer for the smuggling job. Their families largely survive in refugee camps across the border and this is a rare occasion of being so close to them that it's an opportunity too good to miss.

Around half a dozen rebels change into civilian clothes and hitch a ride to spend a precious hour with their loved-ones.

It has been seven years since Al Bashir's Khartoum government ordered attacks on Darfur's villages. Using Sudanese military planes and hired local militia called Janjaweed, an estimated 300,000 people died and up to three million fled to refugee camps.

Many men stayed, grouping together in armed rebel groups, in an attempt to push back government forces. The government denies supporting the Janjaweed and maintains the death toll is less than 20,000.

"Before the war in Darfur, they were not soldiers," said General Ali. "They were ordinary people, but when the government attacked their villages, they killed the people. They were forced to be soldiers to defend their people and their land."

Moving deeper into Darfur, hundreds of rebels met us with their stories of life before the war -- and the horrific moments that led to their being drawn into it.

Hassan Habit is 27 years old. When his village was attacked the Janjaweed killed his father, he said, and mutilated his body. Up to 50 of his fellow villagers joined the rebels after that. "After the peace is signed I will continue my studies, but now we are waiting for the peace to come and for security in Darfur," said Habit. "After that I will return to my studies. Not now."

Osman Ali Shaibo said he joined the rebels after an attack on his village so terrifying everyone fled. "When the government attacked my village we all left -- even the village chief," said Shaibo. "He was 90 years old and walked all the way to a refugee camp in Chad. Three years later he died."

The attacks came after the Khartoum government lost patience with Darfur's campaigning against economic neglect. Sudan is largely controlled by an Arab tribal elite and their allies. African tribes in Darfur have for years complained of political marginalization. As a result, huge swathes of the eastern region remain without proper roads and infrastructure.

A tiny village in rebel-held territory boasts a Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) clinic. The local doctor said he treats between 800 and 900 patients a month, but the clinic is no more than a small room with one grubby bed.

"We became rebels not because of money -- we don't want money," said Abdallah Ibrahim Al Bahar. "We became rebels because we need schools, and good roads and better hospitals. Yesterday we drove 100 kilometers which took three to four hours. Why? Because we have no roads."

Despite the peace process, the rebels remained constantly armed. Even when sitting around a camp fire drinking tea, AK-47s remain slung over shoulders.

Their most prized weapons are anti-tank missiles and launchers. With Sudan's government buying tanks from China and Russia, they say, these are crucial.

The launchers are bolted down on Land Cruiser trucks, also captured from the government. They cut the roofs off and cover the vehicles in mud which dries hard in the desert sun for camouflage. For now, the vehicles' radios play Celine Dion tunes to keep spirits high and break the boredom.

Their main leader, General Banda, is waiting to hear news from Doha. A massively tall figure, he towers over the other rebels in his military fatigues and traditional head dress. Although a quiet figure, he is not viewed by everyone as a peaceful man.

Before leading the LJM he was a military commander of another large Darfurian rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The International Criminal Court has charged him with three counts of war crimes for an attack which killed U.N. peacekeepers in 2007. He eventually left JEM and now is critical of the group. His lawyer says Banda was not involved in the attack.

Should the peace agreement be signed this month, then the Darfurian rebels will be signing with President Al Bashir, their once sworn enemy. General Banda is cautious.

"As other people do not trust Omar Bashir I also do not trust him," he said. "We want to try. If he gives the people their rights it is better but if he refuses then we will have to continue with war."