Caves and trees provide the only respite for Darfur's hidden refugees

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The Independent Online

In a seemingly deserted and destroyed village in Darfur, Bahid Ali Hamed, 91, steps out of the shadows and salutes. An Englishman, he explains, once told him always to salute when he saw foreigners and he is determined to observe protocol, even when barefoot and wearing a ragged, frayed tunic.

In a seemingly deserted and destroyed village in Darfur, Bahid Ali Hamed, 91, steps out of the shadows and salutes. An Englishman, he explains, once told him always to salute when he saw foreigners and he is determined to observe protocol, even when barefoot and wearing a ragged, frayed tunic.

As he speaks, three or four women, who looked as if they were also born before the British annexed Darfur in 1916, appear and sit behind him, like actors walking onto an set.

"The troops came and the janjaweed came so all the people ran away," Mr Hamed says. "All my relatives ran away. I was looking for them and could not find them so I stayed behind a tree for six days then some of my family found me and we went by a river, but we were always hungry."

These people are the hidden crisis inside Darfur - civilians who fled their homes after janjaweed attacks destroyed their villages but did not make it to one of the camps run by international aid agencies.

Either too weak or unwilling to travel, they have been hiding in forests and caves deep inside mountains, foraging for food. Many of the most vulnerable are the elderly, who have been left behind by families who fled to the camps.

Jan Pronk, the UN's special envoy to Sudan, is expected to address the Security Council today about the situation in Sudan, before the UN decides whether to impose sanctions on the country.

Whatever they decide, aid agencies want to ensure civilians in Darfur can restart their lives as quickly as possible. They estimate there are about one million people who have been displaced and are unable to reach camps where they can get food and water.

The violence of the past year has destroyed crops and livestock, and even people whose villages have not been attacked face severe food shortages. At least 440 people are estimated to be dying of starvation each day in Darfur. The UN's World Food Programme has begun air-dropping food to the worst hit areas, but the process is expensive and can be slow.

Driven by hunger and a faint hope that peace may come to the region, some people are beginning to move back to their villages but here, they face another set of problems. The janjaweed has destroyed most of the houses, stolen animals and smashed their grain stores.

"All our animals are lost," said Mura Gani Ibrahim. "I used to have 50 camels, 300 sheep and 20 donkeys. My family have eaten mati (grain) for one year in the mountains. We had a lot of suffering - pains in our stomach and vomiting, but maybe we are used to it."

As Mr Ibrahim speaks, his six-year-old son Anwar shyly peeps over a wall. His father calls him over to show us how his curly black hair is slowly turning grey.

"When he heard the sound of the Antonov, he got very afraid and became ill," he said, gently stroking the boy's head. "Now he is not growing properly."

One aid worker said: "We know there must be thousands of people hiding inside Darfur but we have no idea how to find them all. We must at least ensure that when they come back to their homes, there are seeds for them to plant, and some food to tide them over."

Meanwhile Mr Hamed is determined never to leave his village again. "We are eating only watermelon seeds but I spent all my life in this village. I don't want to move to other places. If they want to kill me, they must kill me in my house."

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