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Can songs of peace bring harmony to strife-torn Darfur?

Khadija's singing used to stir Janjaweed militias to kill. Now she hopes to inspire them to lay down their guns

Khadija Jacob used to be a Janjaweed singer. When the men in her village got on their horses and picked up their AK47s, Khadija and a dozen or so other women would sing for them. "Once we started singing, the killing would not stop," she said. Sometimes she would not even wait for the militia leader to give her the command. "When I saw the horses I would just start singing. It was exciting."

Khadija was a hakama, a war singer considered an integral part of the bloody militia. Commanders would summon them to the front to rally the troops. Sometimes Khadija performed for up to 2,000 men. "I felt the men were very brave and I was very proud to be with them."

Times, and tunes, change. The hakamas gathered under a neem tree in El Daein, a small town in south-eastern Darfur, now sing for peace. Some began to feel uneasy the longer the fighting went on. For Khadija, it was a small child she saw every day whose father had died in a battle that forced a rethink. "I felt responsible for it," she said.

The lyrics they sang mixed Arab nationalism and lurid tales of alleged atrocities committed by African tribes. Janjaweed commanders would pay a local poet to write them. The hakamas would then be paid handsomely for their performance – sometimes up to £500 each if it was an important battle.

"You cannot underestimate the importance of the hakamas," said Gaddal, a Sudanese poet who refused to write war songs."They sing 'you are our protectors, you must save us'. The men cannot refuse to fight if the women tell them to."

He now hopes the militias will listen when the hakamas sing for peace. "It will make a big, big difference," he said.

Singing for peace has its downsides, though. Fatima Ahmed, a formidable-looking woman dressed in pink, was the leader of Khadija's hakama group."If it is a war, someone can find money. If it is peace, there is nothing," she said waving her hand in dismissal.

Finding someone to pay the hakamas to sing for peace has become a mission for a Sudanese musician called Abazar, a man whose songs are regularly banned by the government. He composed his latest songs, "Salaam Darfur" (Peace for Darfur) and "New Sudan", on the small balcony of his Khartoum apartment. But he only managed to get government clearance to use them after agreeing to stop performing two other songs.

"Stand Up" urged people to use their rights before the government took them away. "Enough" was considered a touch too revolutionary for the government's liking (sample lyric: "We will light the darkness out of our bleeding").

The new songs are part of the ambitious Rainbow project to bring together musicians from across Sudan. The government has long tried to divide Sudan along ethnic lines, provoking conflicts across the country. Abazar's Rainbow is just one small effort to unite Sudan's diverse population. On "Salaam Darfur" Abazar employs Khadija and her hakama group to sing backing vocals.

But they are not the only backing singers. African tribes have their own version of the hakamas, known as shaikhas. Six of them have joined the hakamas. Relations between the two groups are not great. Under the neem tree in El Daein, the dozen backing singers eye each other warily.

Abazar's plan is to take the singers to villages and displacement camps throughout Darfur, to record the new songs and get them aired on Sudanese radio stations. But radio stations refuse to play his music, and established producers will not record it. "They are all afraid of this type of music," he says. "But it is not new. Ray Charles, Bob Marley – they are our teachers."

Abazar worries that not all the hakamas have their heart in the project. "Some of them don't believe in it." If he cannot find money to compensate them he fears some will return to their former paymasters. Darfur's conflict has raged for more than five years. Peacemakers have come and gone; peacekeepers have proved ineffective. But peace-singing, Abazar reckons, is worth a try.