Focus: Land in the grip of death

The US Congress calls it genocide. The government of Sudan denies it is happening. Hilary Andersson, whose reports brought the hidden suffering in the camps of Darfur to our screens, fears the world has woken up too late
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The Independent Online

In the evenings, long before the sun goes down, darkness begins to move in on Darfur. Ominous black clouds gather slowly and a thick dirty yellow band forms on the horizon: the dusts of the Sahara. Then the heavens open. Darfur's rains have come.

In the evenings, long before the sun goes down, darkness begins to move in on Darfur. Ominous black clouds gather slowly and a thick dirty yellow band forms on the horizon: the dusts of the Sahara. Then the heavens open. Darfur's rains have come.

In the camps the displaced people scatter, their rags dragging in the mud. Braced against ferocious winds and sheets of rain, they cower in makeshift shelters. The twigs holding their almost useless walls together shake. The rain pours through the torn plastic bags that serve as roofs. More than a million mothers and children scattered across Darfur's camps spend most nights like this. There is little chance of sleep.

The soft dawn light illuminates a hell on earth. Children pick their way through filth. Plastic bags lie scattered. The rain flushes through the camps, which are carpeted with raw sewage. The sewage flows into the drinking water. Then the people become ill. In a tented hospital in El Geneina in West Darfur, a town where an estimated 60,000 displaced people have gathered, a mother, Kaltuma Katir, sits on the edge of her bed. Her small boy, Ali, is next to her. Ali, eight months old, is breathing disturbingly heavily with his eyes shut. He has a severe respiratory infection exacerbated by rain and cold, according to a doctor. Other children near him are so thin that you can see their hearts beating through their skin. Malnourished children are prone to infections and diseases, and are often too weak to recover from them at all.

Ali and his mother have lived through experiences unimaginable in their horror. It began last December when Sudan's Arab militias, the Janjaweed, came to their village and took all their clothes, blankets and mattresses. The militias left but returned to the village a second time and took all the food. Then they came back a third time to finish the job.

"They killed five people from my family," Kaltuma says, "including my husband, my father and my grandfather." She saw them shot as they tried to run away. Kaltuma grabbed Ali, who was two weeks old, and her other children and fled, but the Janjaweed caught them.

"One man wanted to kill us all, but another man said 'No, let them go'. So they let us go," says Kaltuma. "That same night we went back to the village, dug a hole and put our men in it. Other holes had 15 or 20 people in them."

Driving around Darfur, the villages are eerily empty. There are no bodies to be seen. But villagers in the camps tell of fields of unburied bodies lying in the open in areas too dangerous to visit.

Sudan's government is accused of backing the Janjaweed militias as part of its fight against black Sudanese rebels who began an uprising in Darfur last year. The rebels claim Darfur has been neglected by the central government. It denies backing the Arab militias, and says reports of massacres, atrocities and ethnic cleansing are exaggerated.

"Never, never, never. No massacres," says Abdul-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, Minister of the Interior and the man tasked by Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir, with resolving the crisis. "There was a war against the rebels, definitely, but there have been no massive massacres - and no one can prove there have been."

The government also says the food situation in the camps is under control. The Interior Minister insists there is enough to feed the people of Darfur for the next 10 months: "I don't think the people are facing starvation in these camps. We have here in Sudan 1,117 tonnes of food now in the hands of the government."

The World Food Programme (WFP), however, says the food the government is referring to is merely on the market, and has not been earmarked for the displaced people. On top of this, WFP adds, only a third of the money needed for food to resolve the crisis in Darfur has so far been pledged by donors.

As things stand, according to the WFP, food will run out entirely in October. There is enough food in the agency's hands to feed, in theory, more than a million people until the end of September. The reality is that even that food is not reaching the camps in time, and many people are starving.

Whilst Darfur's civilians wait for the next WFP food distribution, entire families of 10 or 12 are surviving on the tiny amount of food given out to families with malnourished under-fives.

The food aid is not flowing to the camps fast enough partly because of the rain, but also because of other logistical frustrations and ongoing insecurity in Darfur. Smaller aid organisations add to this the accusation that the WFP reacted to the crisis too late and inefficiently.

Fresh graves are dug almost every day in Murnei camp in West Darfur. Forty people there are dying a week of malnutrition and disease, according to Médecins Sans Frontières - adults as well as children. The fear is that it will get worse. The World Health Organisation has warned of the possibility of hundreds of thousands of deaths if there are outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, dysentery and malaria. The rain and poor sanitation in the camps make this highly probable. Even if there are no epidemics the prospects are grim. With every day that goes by, the malnourished people in the camps get weaker and weaker, worn down by the prolonged lack of proper food. "Within about four weeks we could see a doubling of the mortality rate and then it will continue steeply unless we can respond quickly to mitigate it by improving the basic survival rations," says Greg Elder, head of mission for Médecins sans Frontières France. MSF is currently changing the focus of its operations away from picking out the weakest and feeding them, to spreading the little food it has across a broader range of people in the camps. It is a strategy reserved for the worst emergencies, focused purely on saving as many lives as possible in the coming weeks.

The world has woken up too late to Darfur's crisis. All the signs are that systematic, large-scale killings have been going there for most of the year, but there has been no international investigation. The real crisis may be far larger than anyone realises. Huge swaths of Darfur are totally inaccessible to the outside world because the militias are still roaming through them. With so little attention focused on this remote corner of the earth, while atrocities against civilians have been taking place, is little wonder that this has turned into a monstrous humanitarian crisis.

Hilary Andersson is Africa Correspondent for the BBC

To make credit card donations to the Disaster Emergency Committee fund supporting 11 charities in the Sudan call 0870-6060 900 or go to


What is happening?

A million people face starvation and disease after fleeing from their homes in the western region of Darfur in Sudan. The UN describes it as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Aid agencies say 350 people will die every day unless something is done for the refugees.

Who is responsible?

Janjaweed militiamen attack on horses or camels, looting and torching towns and villages, raping women and girls and killing anyone in their way. The Sudanese government is accused of supporting this ethnic cleansing of black Africans from Darfur in favour of the Arab population.

How has the outside world reacted?

By ignoring the problem for more than a year. But now both Britain and America are talking about sending in troops. The Sudanese government says it will pull out its army from the region if foreign forces arrive, making it "another Iraq". Meanwhile charities are working together as the Disasters Emergency Committee. The British public donated £5m in the 36 hours after harrowingtelevision reports about aid efforts were broadcast here last week.

What can be done?

The UN Security Council is considering imposing sanctions on the government of Sudan unless it arrests the leaders of the militia and stops the attacks. Pressure is also growing for a multinational UN force to protect displaced people and aid workers. Without intervention Sudan could suffer a disaster on the massive scale of the genocide in Rwanda.