Life and death in Darfur

Separated from her family and her home destroyed, Halima is just one of the thousands of elderly victims of the nightmare that has ravaged Sudan. She talks to Kate Holt and Sarah Hughes
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The Independent Online

Halima is in her sixties. She was born in the village of Hajr Shalick, east of El Geneina in West Darfur, and has lived in the Kerenic Camp, a settlement for internally displaced people near El Geneina, for the past year

Halima is in her sixties. She was born in the village of Hajr Shalick, east of El Geneina in West Darfur, and has lived in the Kerenic Camp, a settlement for internally displaced people near El Geneina, for the past year

" I came to this camp nearly a year ago with my grandson Ismail, who is only five years old, and my daughter Fatima, his mother. We walked all the way, carrying my grandson in our arms. We had nothing. The Arab militias had stolen everything we owned. We had 12 cows, 50 goats and sheep, four donkeys - they took them all.

My husband is staying in El Geneina town, not in the camp. He is blind. He went for an operation on his eyes but there is no improvement. My husband and I were both born in the village Hajr Shalick. When we were young, our life there was good. We had a house, beds, blankets, and land for growing food. Our hoshe [walled compound] had three houses in it, a shelter for cooking and a rakuba shed for sitting and talking, drinking tea and welcoming visitors when they came to our house. On the land we grew sorghum, groundnuts, watermelon and vegetables.

Every Friday, my husband and I would go to the market in Habila to sell our meat and buy the food that we didn't grow. Once a month, we would also walk to El Geneina to buy other things such as salt, clothes and sugar. Our village was a small one, about 30 households, but it was a close community. We helped each other when we could. Now I hear that there is no one left there. Some people have gone to Chad, some are here in the camp, and some are living in El Geneina town, like my husband.

My husband has taken a third wife in El Geneina. I was his second wife, but he had divorced the first nearly four years before. She had only had three daughters and one son. I was luckier - I had three daughters and three sons. I used to have two other sons but they died young. One had a stomach problem during a food shortage, the other died of meningitis. I had never been to a hospital, though, or seen a doctor until I arrived at this camp. When I was young, I was healthy and gave birth to all of my children in my home.

Of course, there were problems in life. The first wife and I never got on. We lived in separate hoshes because we couldn't agree. Our husband wasn't providing for us equally with things such as clothes, so relations between us weren't good.

One of my daughters married and moved to Northern Sudan with her husband three years ago, to escape the war and to find safety. I have not had news of her since. Another one is in Chad with her husband and child - she had two children but one died on the way. They left this camp five months ago to go to Chad because they didn't get a food card here and were hungry - they had no choice. My third daughter is Fatima. Her husband was shot and killed near our village - she came with me here but has now remarried to someone in El Geneina and she couldn't take her son Ismail, so now he is my responsibility. She needed someone to look after her in order to survive. I understand that.

One of my sons went to Khartoum nine years ago to study, and another is in Sennar in Northern Sudan, also studying. The one in Khartoum managed to call me the other day, to the phone in the souk in El Geneina. He had heard of the problems in Darfur and was worried for me. It was the first time I have spoken to him since he left. My youngest son is a teacher in the market town of Habila - things have been dangerous there and we have had no news of him, so, inshallah, he is safe.

Life has always been hard for us, but it has never been this bad. I remember when the famine came, over 20 years ago, and my little boy died. There was no food here - things were very hot and very dry. The United Nations sent us food to El Geneina and we were told it was a present from President Ronald Reagan, so we called the grain Reagan and the bread Reagan Bread. We had to come to El Geneina to collect the food by foot - we would walk here every two weeks to take home the sorghum for our families. We had cultivated our crops, but after they had germinated the rains didn't come and all the crops failed and there was famine. Many, many people died in our area - it was a very bad year.

Before that time, life in Darfur had been peaceful and good. Sometimes there were problems between the tribes, but things seem different now. From the time of the bandits until now, things seem to have got much worse.

The instability started 10 years ago. There were reports that armed bandits were taking people's camels and horses, and also reports of cattle being stolen when they were being led to take water in the wadi [dried river beds with streams]. At around the same time, we also heard that people had started to be killed by government people with stars on their shoulders - they were shooting people with Kalashnikovs in our area. Some people in our village began to talk about moving to Chad or northern Sudan. Some of them did, but we decided to stay. We still had our land and our animals and our crops, and it seemed better to wait.

Then things got much worse - this was about five years ago, and that was when our family took the decision to move to Chad until the situation improved. What decided it for us was the aeroplanes. They had started to bomb our village from the sky. We ran to the bush and came back to our village to find our house being burnt by government men with stars on their shoulders. That was when the Janjaweed tribe first came. They came on horseback and on camels, with guns, to help the government men burn down the houses.

A lot of my relatives were killed then - it's when Fatima's husband was killed. She was pregnant with my grandson, so he never saw Ismail. Another daughter lost her first husband, too - he was on the road home from market in Habila one evening, and was shot in the head. We have never understood why the government does these things to us - we are poor and innocent.

After my sons-in-law were killed, we went to Chad to be safe. We took nothing with us - only our children. All our cattle had been stolen, our furniture burnt, our clothes and utensils stolen. We crossed the border into Chad and made a shelter for ourselves from things we found in the bush, and stayed there until we heard that it was safe to come back. There was nobody in Chad to help us - we looked after ourselves. Many people left here then, too - we all stayed just over the border for about three months, and then walked back to what was left of our homes.

Before we had left, my husband and sons had dug a big hole near our house and buried what we had managed to harvest - sacks of millet and groundnuts. We managed to sell this in the market and make enough money to buy six cows - these bred to make 12. We also managed to buy seven goats that breed quickly, and so our life slowly started to get better again.

Things started to get really bad, however, about a year ago. The sheake [chief] of our village went to the well with his cattle to let them drink and was shot by the Arabs. Another woman and I had to go with a stretcher to collect his body - there were no older men left in the village to do it and, as the oldest women in the village, we had the respect that this task required. We found him beside the well, his stomach and intestines mixed with the sand. His cows had all been stolen and he'd been shot twice in the back. When I saw his blood, I knew that things were going to get a lot worse.

Soon after, some people wearing military uniforms came with guns and started shooting early in the morning - just after the first prayers. There were so many of them, it was like a military parade. They all stood around our village. We ran into the bush when we heard the first shots, and then we saw the Janjaweed arriving on their camels with their guns and a black plane flying over us in the sky. We hid under some bushes, with nowhere to run to, hearing the noise and the firing of the guns.

We stayed there some time, and when all was quiet again we went back to our house. It was blackened and burnt and everything had been stolen. There was nothing left - no clothes, or pots or blankets. My national certificate and identification document had been burnt. We walked away then and haven't been back. I still don't understand why they attacked us then. We had nothing of value to steal. Our crops had only just been planted, they weren't ripe and we had nothing to give them.

There were terrible stories of what they did to other families there. Many young girls were taken and some were abused. This had happened before, but this time I hear that it was worse - some have never come back and their families fear that they have been killed also.

What do I think about life in the camp? It is not easy but some things about it are good. There is a school here for Ismail, which is free, and a clinic if I am sick, which is also free. When we arrived I was given a card so I could get plastic sheeting, two blankets, one jerry can for water, and four pieces of washing soap - that is all. The white people also gave us some food. They dropped it from the sky and we got some sorghum, oil and lentils. It is not enough, but we aren't starving.

Maybe one day I will return there, but I am not willing to go unless the government changes. When we first arrived at the camp, we were told to go straight back to our village - we refused because we had only just escaped from the danger there. Now I feel that wherever I am directed, I will have to go.

Sometimes I see my husband in El Geneina town, but now he is with his third wife and is very sick, so we will never go back to our home together. My only concerns are for Ismail. There is nobody else to look after him, so we will stay here for now.

I have never heard of a situation like that in Darfur happening in another country before. I don't understand why people want to do such bad things to us. Now I am an old woman it is hard for me to think about the future and going back to rebuild things again. We are very poor people with nothing. I don't know why this has happened, or what we did to make these troubles come. All I really know is that the solutions to these problems don't lie with us."

HelpAge International has been operational in Sudan since 1984, and welcomes donations: www.helpage.org

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