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.”)
Tensions continued to mount over the next several years, and, in late 2002, the governor of North Darfur arrested Hilal because he hoped that removing him from the region would dissipate ethnic hostilities. While Hilal was under house arrest, however, rebel forces in Darfur attacked a Sudanese air base, and Khartoum asked the Mahamid leader to become an ally--specifically, to recruit and coordinate local Arabs to serve in proxy militias for the government. “We accepted this invitation of the government to be armed by them, and, from that time on, we stood with the government," Hilal said.
At the height of the atrocities in Darfur, the Janjaweed that Hilal recruited systematically terrorized, raped, and killed non-Arab civilians. As the militias surrounded villages, the Sudanese air force would destroy homes, schools, and markets with crude bombs. As villagers tried to flee, the Janjaweed were there to complete the destruction.
As Hilal describes it, however, his goal has always been “for all the people who fight to come and sit together to find peace.” When I brought up a 2004 memo that he wrote for Janjaweed commanders and the government’s security and intelligence services, stating his objective to “change the demography of Darfur” and to “rid Darfur of all African tribes,” Hilal scoffed. “False,” he said, claiming that he had never written it. "Why would I want to take the Africans out when I myself am African?” With a laugh, he said that alleging differences between ethnic groups in Darfur is "out of date. No one … today will say ‘I am Arab' or 'I am African.’”
The Sudanese government first promised to disarm the Janjaweed in 2004. But, after meeting Hilal, I traveled to Darfur and saw a group of the militiamen on the outskirts of Kalma, one of the region's largest displaced persons camp. (United Nations staff told me that the Janjaweed are often there.) When the women in the camp leave to collect firewood or seek work in town, they know that they risk being attacked. I was told of one woman who, while walking away from the camp just a few weeks earlier, was approached by a man she described as Janjaweed. He had a young boy with him. The man grabbed the woman, tore off her clothes, beat her, and raped her. When he finished, he said to the boy, “Now it’s your turn with the black woman.”
After my return from Darfur, Hilal agreed to meet with me for a second time. It was late at night and pouring rain. My driver, fearful that Sudan’s ubiquitous national intelligence and security agents might see his car stationed outside Hilal’s house, insisted on parking some blocks away. By the time I got to the front gate, I had waded ankle-deep through Khartoum's muddy streets. (One of Hilal's armed guards rinsed the mud from my feet with a garden hose.)
Hilal stood to greet me, and we entered his lounge-room once again, where servants offered freshly squeezed orange juice. This time, however, he had an English-speaking relative accompany him--presumably a safety net to make sure my translator didn't misconstrue any of Sheikh Musa’s words.
Hilal seemed genuinely slighted that I had traveled to Darfur without him. “Next time you go, I will pay for you to go with me!” he said, with a characteristic sweep of his hand. It was the same invitation he had made to Samantha Power when she was writing a piece for The New Yorker some five years earlier. Now, as then, Hilal also refused to take responsibility for the violence and despair in Darfur. Regarding President Omar Al Bashir's indictment by the ICC earlier this year, he said simply, “I object.” Asked if he is concerned about being indicted himself, he replied dismissively, “I feel the same as Bashir: This court is not our concern.” Still, he flinched the first time I said ICC, even before my question was translated. And he stopped accentuating his words with the open and confident gestures of a man accustomed to respect, instead assuming the closed, cross-armed posture of a man under attack.
Hilal soon steered the conversation back to the rehearsed lines from our first meeting, about how he hopes, particularly in his bureaucratic role, to create dialogue among the people of Darfur. President Al Bashir's decision to appoint Hilal as a formal adviser was likely a signal to the proxy Arab militias that, as the ICC began indicting people suspected of crimes in Darfur, the government wouldn't hang them out to dry. But having the Janjaweed leader on its formal payroll is also sure to be problematic as Sudan seeks to normalize relations with the West.
Hilal, however, is undeterred by such concerns. He told me that the world needs to recognize the real victims of the Darfur conflict: the Arabs. As Hilal explains it, Arabs were forced to flee their villages long before any “zurga” (literally “black,” a derogatory term for non-Arabs). But, he added scathingly, “[W]e would never go to a [displaced persons] camp and be seen as beggars." To solve the crisis in Darfur, Arabs have to be in charge, he continued. "We have the majority in the field. We have the majority of the livestock. There can be no solution without us”. He sat back in his chair and lit a cigarette. “I am not the leader of the Janjaweed. I am the leader of all the Arab tribes in Darfur,” Hilal said, his relaxed confidence returning.
Putting out his half-finished cigarette, Hilal indicated to my translator that the interview was over. I pushed for one more question, and asked if he has any regrets about his conduct in Darfur. He paused to think. “I have an idea for a solution in Darfur, but I have not been able to implement it on the ground," he said, offering no details. “This is the one thing I am sorry for."
Rebecca Hamilton is the author of the forthcoming book The Promise of Engagement. She is an Open Society Fellow and a visiting fellow at the National Security Archives.