As the world's worst refugee crisis enters its sixth year in the war-torn region of Darfur, one of its principal perpetrators is making a stunning admission: In a television interview with a British news program, a leader of the dreaded janjaweed militia says the group's weapons-and orders-came directly from the Sudanese government.
The admission is stunning because the Khartoum-based Sudanese government has long denied that it backs the militia responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in the 5-year-old civil war with rebel groups. Since fighting began in 2003, some 300,000 people have died from war-related violence, starvation, and disease, and 3 million more have fled their homes in Sudan's western region of Darfur.
The janjaweed, which translates as "devils on horseback," have ransacked villages and towns across the region, killing residents, raping women, kidnapping children, burning homes, and destroying food supplies. Survivors fill overcrowded refugee camps along the western border with Chad.
The Sudanese government acknowledges its war with rebel groups in Darfur, but has insisted the janjaweed have acted on their own. Many in the international community have rejected that claim.
Mohammed Hamdan, a janjaweed commander, rejects that claim as well. Hamdan, who controls hundreds of janjaweed gunmen, recently showed a British television reporter his well-armed camp in Darfur. "All the hardware that we have -- where did we get it from?" said Hamdan. "Do you think we just magicked it out of the air? It belongs to the government."
The equipment included mortars, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy-duty vehicles mounted with machine guns. "The weapons, the cars, all you see, we got it from the government," said Hamdan.
Much of the artillery was made in China-the nation that most directly supports the Sudanese government in exchange for vast supplies of oil. China denies breaching a UN embargo that prohibits nations from supplying weapons to forces fighting in Darfur.
Hamdan said the weapons came with Sudanese government orders for carrying out missions against rebel groups in Darfur. Hamdan said he met with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir twice since 2006, and that government officials asked him to mobilize forces to put down rebel activity in Darfur. The commander produced a Sudanese army identification card with his picture and a hologram of the Sudanese armed forces insignia.
Hamdan and his forces broke their ties to the government, saying officials exploited them and used them as scapegoats for war crimes. He said his group had formed alliances with rebel groups they once fought. But recent negotiations with the government may lead Hamdan to return to fighting rebels on behalf of Sudanese forces.
Though Hamdan admits the government enlisted his forces against rebel groups, he denies committing atrocities against civilians, saying his gunmen only fought rebels. The African Union says otherwise: The alliance of African nations released a report citing Hamdan as one of three militia commanders responsible for an attack on the village of Adwah in 2004. During that attack, janjaweed soldiers beat and raped women, and killed more than 200 people.
As international attention on Sudan increases, more pressure may fall on Chinese officials to stop supplying the Sudanese government with money and weapons used to fight in Darfur.
Former UN Ambassador John Bolton told WORLD that pressuring China to withdraw support from Sudan may be one of the most effective ways to make progress in Darfur: "If you just had China abandon its support for the government in Khartoum, I think that alone could make a real difference."