From teacher to terrorist, the story of one Sudanese fighter

Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) fighters take a break near Jebel Kwo village in the rebel-held territory of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan May 2, 2012. (Reuters)

We meet him at the border. It feels as if we have been driving for hours. Bush roads. Trees, scrub, baobabs, sand, dust and more dust. Bumps. The vehicles are more often off the road than on it. Now and then we drive past women carrying heavy loads on their heads, loads topped off with delicate twigs and leaves that they’ll use later to get a fire going. One hour down the line, we have to turn off our cell phones to avoid being traced. We drive on, back and forth through the scrub, for a long time.

And then he’s there. A 60 year-old man known to the Khartoum government and the international community as a rebel – a “terrorist.” He used to be a teacher. He studied law in London. He’s a father and grandfather. A rock of a man – solid and with a winning smile. From a simple hut in the Blue Nile region, close to the border with neighbouring South Sudan, he leads the Sudanese rebel movement. When I tell him I couldn’t work for any other organization than Norwegian People’s Aid, he grins, saying “you never know, suddenly everything changes and you end up somewhere you never thought possible. I know all about that,” he says, “I wound up as a terrorist.”

He tells us about Blue Nile, the area at the southern edge of Sudan. Severe and barren on the one hand, fecund and generous on the other. Huge mineral deposits. Fertile areas. He had his best years there, he says. The ten years in his life which were peaceful. Happy. When he was a teacher and thought the future was full of promise. With his family. With his kids. At the school, passing on knowledge, sound values and pride. It was then the war came to Blue Nile. The great civil war. The world’s worst, longest civil war between the government in Khartoum and groups of blacks in the south fighting for freedom and human rights. They struggled against oppression from the Arabic-speaking, Muslim system, opposed the confiscation of their land, reacted to their minerals and other resources being stolen away without being given a penny. They thought Sudan should be for everyone. The war, however, went on and on.

Making history with his story

Malik took to arms in 1984. For his people and for equality in Sudan. For a democratic Sudan where everyone would have equal rights. Equal rights and value, irrespective of which religion, language or group one identified with. This was what he was fighting for, and in the end, after over twenty years, he was finally able to lay down his weapons. For, in 2005, with Norwegian, British, American and regional assistance, they managed to secure a peace agreement. Hope returned.

In 2011, South Sudan voted for independence. South Kordofan and Blue Nile, however, remained on the Sudanese side of the border. People here, in accordance with the peace agreement, were to be consulted and given greater influence. It was not the first time that people in the outermost districts of Sudan were to be disappointed by the central government in Khartoum. This occurred even though Norway, the U.S. and the UK were guarantors of the peace agreement. Popular consultation began in Blue Nile but was never completed. People wanted greater autonomy. Khartoum countered by demanding that former rebels deliver up their arms. The central government was then asked to respect its part in the agreement, but with no luck. And then the war broke out again. Malik was elected governor in 2010. Even after the war had broken out to engulf his friends in the neighbouring Nuba Mountains, he continued pursuing the diplomatic line. He managed to negotiate a new peace agreement with provisions to reform the constitution but President Bashir did not respect this agreement either. Finally, he was removed as governor and the war broke out again. We forced Malik into war, admitted key Khartoum politicians later.

A new war was the last thing that Malik wanted. More than anything else, he wanted to give time to his children, his family, the school, his post of governor and the reconstruction of the country. But now this former teacher, grandfather and student of law has again become a “terrorist.” And no “ordinary terrorist” either. He leads both the united liberation movement in the north – the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) – and the now illegal SPLM-N political party as well as being a general in the SPLA-N liberation army. He is a leader with a military CV to make many a young officers jealous. He has led many an action campaigns during the civil war and won battles for the larger towns. And now he’s a leader “underground.” A leader with unwavering support from his own, not primarily for his military victories but for his principles and values, his willingness to sacrifice himself and his commitment to reconciliation. And this in a situation where 200,000 people have fled the country and far more are internally displaced.

So Malik Agar is maintaining the fight for his people. “You cannot build a country on the basis of ethnicity”, he says. “We are Sudanese before we are Arabs or Muslims. ”

As an 8 year-old schoolboy, he had been declared a Muslim by the authorities and given a new Arabic name: Malik.

He was punished, moreover, if he ever forgot it. Now he laughs when telling us that his original name, Nganyofa, means “Trouble.” He looks around, grinning, as he recalls the “news” from Khartoum that they have bombed and destroyed SRF headquarters. “And what kind of headquarters would that be”, he asks. “As long as the fight goes on, we can set up our headquarters anywhere. All you need is a hut, a tiny bit of equipment and some dedicated men. And you’ll always find dedicated men as long as Khartoum continues its attacks and war crimes”, he says. “They can bomb us by all means,” he says, “because that’s apparently allowed in war, but why must they bomb our families, our children and our fields so that we shall be starved out?”

The raids

Most bombing raids occur over villages, fields and marketplaces of no clear military importance. Many old and weak adults and children never make it to the refugee camps on the other side of the border. They die of thirst, hunger and exhaustion on the way. Humanitarian organisations are denied access. He has no choice, he says. He has to fight. If they lay down their arms now, with no protection and no agreement, the assaults and exploitation will simply continue.

The negotiation of a new peace agreement is the preferred objective. An agreement delivering greater autonomy to Blue Nile and control over their own resources and development. In agreement with Khartoum. Preferably, he’d like to find a solution. Preferably, he’d like the international community and the so-called guarantors of the peace agreement to help organise talks. Because talking’s got to be good, doesn’t it? Bringing about reconciliation? “Isn’t that what you are concerned about,” he asks.

We leave after a couple of hours. Think “that’s how things can turn out and that you never know.” Wonder what will happen to him and the people of Blue Nile. Think about a rock of a man who’d prefer to have been a teacher. Sudan’s Mandela. Sudan’s John Garang. Here’s to hoping that the guarantors of the peace agreement will make a better effort at pushing Khartoum to come to the table. Because “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

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Liv Tørres is the general-secretary of Norwegian People’s Aid.

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