In late February 2004, Janjaweed militias and Sudanese government forces waged a three-day, coordinated assault on Tawila, a village in northern Darfur. Government aircrafts destroyed buildings, while the Janjaweed broke into a girls’ boarding school, forced the students to strip naked at gunpoint, and then gang-raped and abducted many of them. Video footage shows fly-covered corpses strewn among the village's smoldering ruins. And giving orders and distributing weapons during the siege, eyewitnesses say, was Sheikh Musa Hilal.
Hilal's name looms large on the list of perpetrators who’ve committed atrocities in Darfur since violence erupted there in 2003. At Khartoum's request, he organized the Janjaweed, predominantly Arab militias that have operated hand-in-glove with the Sudanese government to cleanse Darfur of its non-Arab population. Hilal, who is now almost 50 years old, is among those most responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of another 2.7 million. The U.S. government has sanctioned him, and the United Nations has issued a travel ban and asset freeze against him. In mid-2006, Hilal stopped giving English-language media interviews.
This past August, however, he agreed to meet with me--three years and two months since he had last spent time with a Western journalist. Sheikh Musa, as Hilal is known by his Mahamid clan, said that he wanted to correct the “misperceptions” the world has about him.
At his palatial villa in Khartoum, where paintings of Mecca and Medina adorn the walls, Hilal greeted me wearing a flowing white djellabya and a smile on his lightly freckled face. He escorted me and my translator across his porch, past a group of men sitting cross-legged on mats--Hilal’s relatives, who double as his bodyguards because he only trusts his tribe for security. As we settled into his lounge room, servants offered us chilled Coca-Cola and bottled water. Caramels with “Made in Poland” wrappers sat in small crystal bowls on the coffee tables.
Hilal was hospitable, even charming, as he discussed his career with me, insisting that he is anything but the cold-hearted criminal the world thinks he is. Since January 2008, he has worked as an adviser to the Ministry of Federal Affairs, so he spends his days in an air-conditioned office next to President Omar Al Bashir's Republican Palace on the edge of the Blue Nile. It's a far cry from the deserts of Darfur. But Hilal told me that he didn’t accept the offer of a bureaucracy position immediately. “I said to [the president], ‘I am the leader of my tribe. … I am a very rich man. I know there are some advisers who just sit here to get money, but I want to actually have a job--solving the problem of Darfur!’” he recounted, with a grandiose sweep of his arm. Hilal shifted his embroidered taqiyah, a skull cap, back from his forehead, revealing a receding hairline. “I said, ‘If all I do is sit here--well, I can sit with my tribe. Also, if you think I need this position to make me famous, I don’t. I am already known all over the world.’”
Hilal agreed to the new job when Al Bashir told him that he could be “useful” in Darfur. Leaning forward in his chair, to be sure he had my full attention, Hilal explained that "useful" is all he's ever wanted to be. "All my work," he said, "depends on struggling hard to make peace in Darfur."
Hilal became the leader of some 300,000 Mahamid, an Arab tribe in Darfur, in the late 1980s, as an influx of weapons was seeping into Sudan from Chad and Libya. This ignited Darfur’s troubles, Hilal said, because African tribes started demanding more government representation and support--and they suddenly had the means to fight for it. "They only cared about their own tribes--the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaleit. They started to attack the Arab tribes," Hilal said, pulling at his faint, graying goatee. "We Arab leaders told them that this way--fighting--was not a good solution.” (He didn't mention his involvement with the Libyan-supported "Arab Gathering," or Al Tajama al Arabi, an ethnically polarizing political movement described by Sudan expert Alex de Waal as “a vehicle for militarized Arab supremacism.”)
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