For the first time in Syria's nine-month-old uprising, there are witnesses to President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown, which according to the United Nations has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Arab League observers arrived in the country on Dec. 26, and traveled to the city of Homs -- the epicenter of the revolt, where the daily death toll regularly runs into the dozens, according to activist groups -- on Dec. 27. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against Assad upon the observers' arrival, while activists said Syrian tanks withdrew from the streets only hours before the Arab League team entered the city.
"I am going to Homs," insisted Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League observer mission, telling reporters that so far the Assad regime had been "very cooperative."
But Dabi may be the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian
mission the world has ever seen. He is a staunch loyalist of Sudan's President
Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted
by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity
for his government's policies in Darfur. And Dabi's own record in the restive Sudanese region, where
he stands accused of presiding over the creation of the feared Arab militias
known as the "janjaweed," is enough to make any human rights activist blanch.
Dabi's involvement in Darfur began in 1999, four years before the region would explode in the violence that Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled as "genocide." Darfur was descending into war between the Arab and Masalit communities -- the same fault line that would widen into a bloodier interethnic war in a few years' time. As the situation escalated out of control, Bashir sent Dabi to Darfur to restore order.
According to Julie Flint and Alex De Waal's Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Dabi arrived in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on Feb. 9, 1999, with two helicopter gunships and 120 soldiers. He would stay until the end of June. During this time, he would make an enemy of the Masalit governor of West Sudan. Flint and De Waal write:
Governor Ibrahim Yahya describes the period as ‘the beginning of the organization of the Janjawiid', with [Arab] militia leaders like Hamid Dawai and Shineibat receiving money from the government for the first time. ‘The army would search and disarm villages, and two days later the Janjawiid would go in. They would attack and loot from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., only ten minutes away from the army. By this process all of Dar Masalit was burned.'
Yahya's account was supported five years later by a commander of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel organization movement in the region. "[T]hings changed in 1999," he told Flint and De Waal. "The PDF [Popular Defense Forces, a government militia] ended and the Janjawiid came; the Janjawiid occupied all PDF places."
Dabi provided a different perspective on his time in Darfur, but it's not clear that he disagrees on the particulars of how he quelled the violence. He told Flint and De Waal that he provided resources to resolve the tribes' grievances, and employed a firm hand to force the leaders to reconcile -- "threatening them with live ammunition when they dragged their feet," in the authors' words. "I was very proud of the time I spent in Geneina," Dabi said.