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Darfur's Forgotten Rebel—A Commentary by Ronan Farrow ’09

The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on June 21, 2007.

Darfur's Forgotten Rebel
By Ronan Farrow ’09

In a bare hospital room to the east of Darfur, Suleiman Jamous is living out a nightmare. He is permitted no contact with the outside world. An armed guard is posted outside his door. Were he to attempt to leave, the Sudanese government's intelligence service -- notorious for its use of torture and indefinite imprisonment -- would arrest him. Next week, he will have been incarcerated for a full year.

His crimes: extending the reach of life-saving humanitarian measures to tens of thousands of displaced people, attempting to unify volatile rebel groups, and courageously fighting against human-rights abuses. Suleiman Jamous has been described as the Nelson Mandela of Sudan, and he is one of the few heroes to emerge from the brutal conflict that has ravaged Darfur for the past four years.

Mr. Jamous, humanitarian coordinator for Darfur's largest rebel group, has been instrumental in providing aid workers with safe access to areas behind rebel lines. He is widely viewed as a key leader of the rebel opposition to Khartoum's ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur. An elderly statesman who has never picked up a gun, Mr. Jamous commands universal respect among the otherwise fractious rebel leaders who control most of rural Darfur.

Because of this, the government of Sudan has aggressively sought to suppress Mr. Jamous. He has been arrested and imprisoned repeatedly, culminating in his current detainment. Although he is now being held at a United Nations hospital, the U.N.'s hands are tied. The last time they attempted to move him, the Khartoum regime retaliated by suspending U.N. humanitarian operations in Sudan.

Mr. Jamous's absence has been felt acutely. In the 11 months since he was neutralized, humanitarian access has dwindled to its lowest level ever. More than one million Darfuris are now out of reach of aid workers. "There is no doubt that Suleiman Jamous was very important to humanitarian agencies," said the head of a prominent relief organization, who asked that he not be named. He described Mr. Jamous as a champion of "humanitarian principles and human rights," crediting him with securing desperately needed access for aid workers and negotiating the release of numerous child soldiers. "There is no doubt that not having him in Darfur has made access negotiations less certain and more complicated."

Faltering efforts to create unity and peace between rebel movements have also been undermined. Many commanders believe that such efforts will fail without Mr. Jamous's leadership. If Darfur's divided rebels fall into infighting, embattled humanitarians and defenseless civilians will be caught in the crossfire.

Despite his crucial humanitarian and peacemaking role -- and despite the fact that the government of Sudan agreed to release all prisoners of war under 2005's Darfur Peace Agreement -- Mr. Jamous remains detained. The U.N., the U.S. and the African Union appear to have abandoned Suleiman Jamous. Even the humanitarian groups whose work he facilitated have fallen silent, in well-founded fear of retaliation from the government of Sudan should they advocate for his release.

And time may be running out. For several months, Mr. Jamous has been suffering from severe abdominal pains. Doctors who examined him in December 2006 reported that he needs a stomach biopsy that cannot be performed where he is being held. Khartoum is well aware of both the urgency of his condition and the fact that freeing him could substantially improve the delivery of relief to Darfuri civilians. Still, his release is being denied.

If they are committed to achieving peace in Darfur, the powerful nations of the world and the U.N. itself must bring pressure to bear on Khartoum regarding Suleiman Jamous. The U.S. should charge its Special Envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, with negotiating for Mr. Jamous's release. And people the world over should raise their voices in opposition to his unjust detention.

Speaking on behalf of his fellow South African political prisoners, Nelson Mandela once said: "Despite the thickness of the prison walls, all of us . . . could hear your voices demanding our release very clearly. We drew inspiration from this. We thank you that you refused to forget us." Today, Suleiman Jamous is desperately in need of voices of support. Let us not allow him to be forgotten.

Mr. Farrow, currently a student at Yale Law School, traveled to Darfur as a UNICEF spokesperson in 2004 and 2006.