World view - Lindsey Hilsum reports on noisy diplomacy in Darfur

In Darfur, both sides play the diplomatic game. The rebels' best suit is the suffering of their peop

The kneeling camel with the lolling green tongue was complaining loudly, its grassy mouth gaping open as it lunged alarmingly at passers-by. The short man in fatigues with a Kalashnikov, heaving bags on to its unwilling back, looked like a soldier, but we were in Kabkabiya, in northern Darfur, where all is not as it seems.

Military observers - Milobs - from the African Union, who took us to the market, say that a month ago it was full of armed men in white robes and turbans. They were Janjaweed, militiamen on horseback and camelback who have terrorised the people of Darfur. Now the armed men in the market are uniformed, but the Milobs suspect that many are the same people - the Janjaweed haven't been disarmed or disbanded, as the Sudanese government says, but merged into the army and police.

The rebels who took up arms against the government in 2003 haven't gone away, either. On ceasefire since April, they no longer mount major attacks, but gradually try to expand the territory they control. South of the town of al-Fasher in late August, skirmishing culminated in air raids on villages as the government tried to flush out rebel units.

The role of the rebels in provoking the ethnic cleansing in Darfur provides a complex moral dilemma that has largely been overlooked. Like the Kosovar Albanians and the Tutsis of Rwanda, the non-Arab people of Darfur faced routine discrimination. In Sudan, power is monopolised by an Arab elite. Armed rebellion may well be the only way to force change - 21 years of war in southern Sudan are finally leading to a power-sharing agreement. Yet the Sudan Liberation Army leaders must have known - like the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front before them - that war would hurt most of the people they claimed to champion.

In the cruel tradition of guerrilla struggles,

the government would take it out on those they believed were sheltering the rebels - in this case, the non-Arabs of Darfur, mostly settled farmers. The government had willing accomplices in the Arab nomads, who coveted the land the non-Arabs were farming, made more scarce and fragile by desertification and drought. These were the Janjaweed.

Both rebels and government are playing the diplomatic game. The rebels' best suit is the suffering of those on whose behalf they fight. On 28 August, they briefly walked out of peace talks in the Nigerian capital to draw attention to government bombing of villages (no mention of their own ceasefire violations). They want more international intervention because that limits government power and gives them leverage. The government, by contrast, wants to limit international involvement, and it has read the international community's hand - not difficult after the Americans played the trump card so ineptly in Iraq. It is saying, in effect: "Your room for manoeuvre is reduced by the mess you made in Iraq." The Sudanese foreign minister puts it thus: if peacekeeping troops are sent in, "the tribes will revolt against them. Then we will end up with a situation which is similar to Iraq."

And yet, international pressure has forced some change in Darfur. The government has reluctantly allowed in relief aid, some of which, the UN reports, is reaching the Darfuris who have fled. The metamorphosis of the Janjaweed into soldiers and policemen makes them easier to monitor. "If they're in uniform, we can deal with the commander if there's a problem," said Commander Appiah-Mensah, the Ghanaian naval officer who heads the African Union's military observer team in Kabkabiya. As an unarmed observer, there is little he can do to stop the daily rapes of displaced women at the police post, but he chronicles everything. The authorities know they are being watched.

The Janjaweed are certainly aware that they need to do a better public relations job. In al-Fasher, I met a dozen sheikhs from Arab tribes associated with the militia. We sat on chairs in a straw-built house with a sand floor, eating oily groundnut paste with bread and sweet vermicelli. On the central table perched an incongruous set of yellow and maroon woollen chickens, like tea cosies. The sheikhs wanted to tell me that all this talk of Janjaweed was lies.

They drove me to Masri, six hours away, reputed to have a large Janjaweed camp. They had melted into the desert, leaving no trace. The Janjaweed may be as difficult to find as weapons of mass destruction, not because they were never there, but because they are no longer visible. For the moment, their work is done - we flew over mile after mile of deserted villages. All diplomacy can do now is try to turn the ceasefire into a real peace agreement and find some way of giving displaced people the confidence to return home. They, of course, are not confused by the disappearance of the Janjaweed, knowing that the moment the world stops looking, they'll be back.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The happiness industry