The small village of Haskanita in Eastern Darfur has been lucky. Most villages in Darfur have been destroyed and the residents killed by the militias known as janjaweed, but Haskanita is still standing. On Friday thousands of Darfuris descended on Haskanita in preparation for a conference of the largest Darfuri rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army.

The tiny village of Haskanita has been overrun by thousands of Darfuris from throughout the land. They are here for a conference to decide the leadership of the popular rebel Sudan Liberation Army. Recent infighting has caused splits within the movement, and the SLA presidency is to be decided here, this week.

Delegations of women, students and far-flung refugees are present. The women's delegations meet and sing songs. They praise Darfur and the Sudan Liberation Army.

To the government in Khartoum, the Sudan Liberation Army is a dangerous organization, controlling large territories in Darfur. International aid agencies have repeatedly accused the SLA of raiding convoys and stealing aid supplies.

But to the people of Haskanita they are heroes, protecting villagers from government-backed Arab militias known as janjaweed.

Abdullah Salih owns a small shop in Haskanita. He remembers the last time the janjaweed came to the village, several months ago.

"The government planes came and strafed the village," he says. "Then the janjaweed came and destroyed everything in the marketplace." He says they destroyed his shop. "They looted it and hammered it to the ground." He was taken to prison in El Fasher. The people here were scattered about for three months. "That kind of life is unbearable," he says.

Salih says the Sudan Liberation Army protects the villagers and, critically, keeps them informed.

Hyder is only 10 years old. He has come to the village with his father to attend the conference. Hayder already knows what he wants to be when he grows up.

"I want to be president of the SLA," he says.

Some of the rebels appear to be just boys, but they brandish rifles like the men.

In early October a rumor spread through the town that the janjaweed were coming. The women ran with their babies into the bush surrounding the town. Older children who were in school fled on their own, and they wandered in the heat for hours. When they returned many of them had to be treated for shock and dehydration. The janjaweed did not come that day, but the women say they and their children are still very afraid.

Haskanita will be crowded with thousands of extra people tonight. But the residents do not seem to mind. People are crowded into the school, lying outside of shops, packed into the shade under trees, but they are all Darfuris. The people of Haskanita know they are lucky to still have a village. After the violence, most of their visitors have been left with nothing.