December 2, 2005

Darfur women fighters negotiate for first time

By Opheera McDoom

ABUJA (Reuters) - Darfuri rebel commander Mariam Abdallah
saw her husband murdered in front of her and took to arms
dealing to look after the 15 children in her care before
joining a revolt to fight the government she says is racist.

Abdallah, nicknamed "mother of the army," was one of the
first women to fight in Darfur's main rebel group, the Sudan
Liberation Army (SLA). Now, she is in the Nigerian capital
Abuja where three female commanders are for the first time
participating in African Union-sponsored peace talks.

"We were about to take up arms to revolt against the men to
gain our place at the talks," the 55-year-old woman told
Reuters in an interview.

"Women have suffered so much in this war -- we want this
peace so we can go back to being mothers and wives rather than
fighters."

She said a recent rebel congress in Darfur finally gave the
215 women SLA fighters a voice in the movement.

Abdallah, from the non-Arab Fur tribe, said her life
changed when President Omar Hassan al-Bashir took power in a
military coup in 1989. Security forces came early one morning
and killed her husband, a religious leader, after he refused to
give government-approved speeches during prayers.

"I heard my son screaming 'Daddy, Daddy' and ran out to
find my husband murdered on the floor, blood pouring out from
his head which they had split open with a machete," she said,
tears streaming down her face. She fell silent and her eyes
darkened as the memories came flooding back.

"I felt my whole life had died with him -- I had 15
children in my care and no way to look after them," she finally
stuttered.

Abdallah then tried many jobs like selling tea, but
authorities kept chasing her off the streets. Finally through a
relative high up in the army, she arranged a meeting with
Bashir himself.

"He cried when he listened to me and offered to educate my
children," she said. "But his hands were dirty with the blood
of my husband so I told him I didn't want anything from him."

GUN RUNNING

She then took to buying guns from the armed forces and
selling them onto cattle herders to feed her children. But she
always felt the Arab-dominated government was racist.

"They wanted to remove the blacks from the lands of
Darfur," she said. There were no schools or hospitals there.
They armed looters who terrorized the roads, she added.

In 2001, she joined a group of Darfuris who were mobilizing
in Khartoum and left with 12 men to join a military training
camp in the central, mountainous Darfur region of Jabel Marra.

"I could only train for 45 days because I was too fat to do
any more," she said laughing. "But I have fought in 17
battles," she said proudly.

Abdallah showed scars from when she was beaten almost to
death when captured by government troops in late 2002. After
more than a year of treatment, she still could not hold a
weapon.

"But I would sing and recite poetry to the fighters during
battle," she said.

Abdallah wears a black hat which she says embodies the
sadness of war, wrapped in beads to represent the hope of
peace. While war continues, she tucks a red towel into the brim
of the hat to symbolize the blood she is prepared to shed.

"The most important thing is they disarm the Janjaweed so
we can go home," she said, referring to proxy militias armed by
the government to fight the rebels.

The United States has called the violence in Darfur
genocide and holds the Janjaweed and government responsible.

Khartoum denies the charge, but with tens of thousands
killed and more than 2 million forced to flee their homes, the
International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes.

Abdallah is a delegate at informal talks in Abuja on
security arrangements. When asked about peace, she burst into
song in a high-pitched voice.

"We have lost our husbands, sons and homes and live under
the trees with only the sky as shelter," she sang. "We need
this peace so we can become women again."