HAMIDIYA CAMP, Sudan — The sheik was in a panic.
The agitated youth in this West Darfur refugee camp, young men and adolescents who traditionally would have deferred to his authority, had gotten wind of his presence at a ceremony also attended by an official with the Sudanese government, their longtime antagonists.
Terrified that the youths would accuse him of treason, the sheik begged United Nations officials to rush to his aid and vouch that he had not even broached the topic of compromise involving his people’s cause.
The youths are known collectively as the “shabab,” the Arabic word for young men. And they have become a vehemently pro-rebel political force in the camps for the 2.7 million people displaced by years of war between the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and rebels in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Increasingly angry and outspoken about their uncertain fate, the generation that came of age in the camps is challenging the traditional sheiks, upending the age-old authority structure of their tribal society and complicating efforts to achieve peace.
“They are much more extreme than the sheiks,” said the United Nations official who related the episode of the frightened sheik, speaking anonymously to avoid jeopardizing his own acceptance among the shabab. “And they are hotheaded.”
Eleven tribal sheiks around Zalingei — where Hamadiya is one of five refugee camps housing 120,000 people — have been killed since the beginning of 2007. One sheik was found with a nail hammered into his forehead. Another was shot at point-blank range. The cases remain unsolved, but some suspicion falls on the shabab.
“The sheiks and the traditional leaders have been influenced by the government, so the young people don’t believe that the sheiks are still loyal to both the cause and the people of Darfur,” said Abdallah Adam Khater, a Khartoum-based publisher and political writer from Darfur. The word influenced is a local euphemism for bribed.
In the short run, the emergence of the shabab makes any peace negotiations even more tangled, as rebel leaders will have to keep one eye focused on their most combustible constituents, who are opposed to any compromise with the government. In Kalma camp in South Darfur last year, the Fur ethnic group rose to evict all members of the Zaghawa clan to punish their leaders for signing the first Darfur peace agreement with the government. The protests, led by the shabab, helped drive more than 10,000 people from the camp. They also resulted in the killing of several shabab activists. Although shabab is the name used to describe the young Darfurians, they are not connected with the Shabab insurgent group in Somalia.
In the long run, outsiders also worry that a cohesive militant group will organize across Darfur’s many camps, just as they emerged in the Palestinian territories and among Afghan refugees.
The shabab, strident in their politics, watch warily for any sign of compromise with the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is being sought by an international prosecutor on charges of genocide and war crimes against the people of Darfur. Humanitarian officials suspect there are jails that the shabab help run in the camps, and that they mete out punishment like whippings to transgressors.
At Zalingei, United Nations officials have learned to give traditional sheiks 24 hours’ notice before any gathering outside the camps so that the sheiks can seek approval from elected shabab representatives.
The Zalingei police chief, a member of the Fur clan that dominates the camp, actually has relatives inside. But when he attends a wedding or other family gathering he has to drive his own car because the sight of his official vehicle might spark a riot, the United Nations official said.
During a recent tour of Hamidiya camp by top United Nations officials, Shafiq Abdullah, 33, a shabab leader, lambasted a Sudanese reporter from Khartoum as a government stooge and became so vehement that the United Nations deployed security forces around them.
Mr. Abdullah reeled off four prerequisites before the shabab in any camp would agree to negotiations between Darfur rebels and the government: disarming the government militias; prosecuting those responsible for war crimes, starting with Mr. Bashir; expelling anyone who settled on land stolen from the displaced farmers; and carrying out all United Nations Security Council resolutions on Darfur.
“We organize protest marches against anyone who says we should negotiate with the government for the sake of Darfur,” Mr. Abdullah said in an interview. “I speak out for the sake of our case, even if I have to die.” Sheiks can no longer guarantee that they can win over men like Mr. Abdullah.
“The traditional structure of authority is beginning to break down,” said a Western diplomat in Khartoum, the capital, with wide experience in the camps. “The rebel leaders can no longer control the population through the sheiks.”
With about 80,000 residents, Kalma is among the largest and most volatile of the camps. When a group of high-ranking United Nations officials were inspecting a water pumping station there in late November, Mohamed Ahmed Ismael, a gangly 20-year-old, waded in among them.
“We are not free in Kalma!” Mr. Ismael shouted, pronouncing his words syllable by syllable in English learned in the camp school and gesticulating like the lawyer he aspires to become. “Look at our sheiks; they are not free! The security can come into Kalma at any time!”
Education in the camps, which often stops at the eighth grade, has to a degree expanded the horizons of men like Mr. Ismael. English was not taught in their now-razed villages, for instance. But their heightened awareness has also stoked their outrage about the wrongs committed against them and about their lack of opportunity.
“You cannot call them a unified group with one political ideology, but they are all angry,” said Mr. Khater, the writer. “That is the factor unifying them.”
Leaving the shabab feeling isolated, without hope for the future, would be dangerous, he added, since the youth may “support any kind of violent acts.”
The expense of maintaining the camps is phenomenal. Of the $7 billion in donations the United Nations is seeking for emergency relief worldwide in 2009, $1 billion is for Darfur.
Kalma, though a squalid shantytown built mostly of straw and mud brick and standard United Nations-issue plastic sheeting, exudes a certain air of permanence. An extended market dominates the main drag. Shiny metal storage tanks that supply much of the camp’s water sit on solid concrete bases. The camp stretches about 10 miles, along railroad tracks and has some 10 mosques and 8 cemeteries. Residents say they fear leaving its confines lest they fall prey to the janjaweed — a word they now use to describe any enemy, not just the government-allied militias that have wreaked so much havoc in Darfur.
The civilians who fled to Kalma when it opened in early 2004 are about to start their sixth year here. The shabab complain that life is monotonous, the hutches that they live in miserable and the camp battered constantly by a hot, dusty wind.
“Before, our desires were simple when it came to education, to culture — all we really thought about was farming,” said Adam Haroun Ahmed, 20, who arrived in the camp at 15. “The colonization, the oppression, all the brutal things done to us by the janjaweed caused us to change our views.”
When asked to describe his old village, his school friends jostling around him shouted down the idea. “It is something in the past, almost imaginary,” one yelled. Another chimed in, “It is so far from our reality that we don’t want to be there.”
In an effort to help manage the young men’s anger, some shabab, including Mr. Ismael, have been employed as community police volunteers by the United Nations peacekeeping force, to help fight camp crime.
The camps have become de facto no-go zones for the Sudanese government, which it finds galling and which prompts regular announcements that it will clear them out — in contravention of all humanitarian standards. The government paints the camps as havens for rebels and criminal gangs who steal cars and cultivate marijuana.
Government forces tried a weapons raid in Kalma last August, deploying scores of troops in some 60 vehicles. The camp’s word-of-mouth early warning system, something the shabab helped mobilize, soon had thousands of residents pouring into the streets to block their entrance.
The troops opened fire in the ensuing melee, killing 33 residents and wounding at least 70, according to the United Nations. The government troops retreated, but vowed to try again.
The Darfur camps present a challenge for the government, not least because they form a collar around several major cities. Ali Mahmoud, the governor of South Darfur and the man United Nations officials believe ordered the raid, professed himself unconcerned that young, highly politicized camp residents might resettle in Nyala or other cities.
“I don’t think it is going to be a problem in the future,” he said. “Some people return to where they lived before and some don’t return, maybe 20-25 percent don’t return. We can absorb all of them into the city.”Others are less sanguine. “The government has created a powder keg that it doesn’t know how to defuse,” said a Western diplomat in Khartoum with wide experience in the camps.
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