No one will admit the Janjaweed are here. Yet everyone lives in fear of the men in white

The refugees of Sudan fled their villages to escape the Janjaweed. Now, they find their camps are guarded by the very Arab militia they fear so much. Kim Sengupta reports from Kass, Darfur
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In the morning, manning checkpoints with Sudanese soldiers, the Janjaweed in their flowing white robes were courtesy itself. In the afternoon, others in the militia, this time wearing the uniforms of the Local Defence Force, were again all smiles as we sipped cups of sweet tea. In between, I had been hearing of savagery committed by their comrades, or perhaps even them, from victims of rape.

Many of the women refugees at Kass had already been subjected to sexual violence when the Janjaweed raided their villages. Some are pregnant from the ordeal. Now, they are again the prey from the same gangs in what is meant to have been set up as a government-protected sanctuary.

Last month, Amnesty International published a report detailing how the Janjaweed was using rape as a weapon in the conflagration sweeping Darfur, which the United Nations has called the "world's worst humanitarian disaster". More than 30,000 have been killed, a million driven from their homes.

The Sudanese authorities, accused of supporting the murderous Arab militia in ethnic cleansing of African tribes, declared this was defamation, and a cynical attempt to create division between ethnic minorities. If some sexual attacks were made, they were the regrettable but inevitable consequence of war.

The women victims at Kass had already suffered that "consequence" once. But now, in a town with 600 government troops, and allied militia, they are being attacked as they leave the camps to collect firewood from the forest, and even while they are in their tents.

The authorities say 200 cases have been logged in the past few months. But these are just the ones recorded. Many victims do not report the attacks; most who do, say the police and the soldiers either shrug their shoulders, or accuse them of lying.

Kass, a two-hour drive north from Nyala, the capital of south Darfur has a mixed population of Arabs and Africans living in relative peace. To this has come the combustible addition of 42,000 African refugees driven from their homes by the Arab militia. Now the Janjaweed have been given an office in the Souk in the centre of town, and renamed the Local Defence Force. They say they are simply here to protect civilians against the African Rebel Sudan Liberation Army.

There are other Janjaweed camped in the lush, thick forest surrounding Kass. At first, the male members of the refugee families used to go in there to collect firewood, the only fuel these dispossessed can get. But after several were shot by the Janjaweed, women were sent out instead. They are not killed, but abducted and abused, sometimes for days, then released. Such is the level of hopelessness in their lives, the refugees seem to regard this as an acceptable risk. Yesterday, lines of them in their robes of bright crimson, yellow and green were crossing the wadi beyond the camp into the trees.

Rahima, 23, was gathering fuel two weeks ago with three other women when she was attacked. This was the second time. In March, at home in a village in the Kailake area she was kidnapped by Janjaweed, faces masked by keffiyahs, riding camels and horses, burning and killing. She is now five months pregnant. Her husband, Ahmid, left her when he found out. He was shot dead three weeks later in another raid.

Rahima spoke with her mother beside her, sitting in front of their tent. Her eyes stared into the distance and her voice was emotionless. "I had no choice but go to get the firewood," she said. "There's nobody else except my two remaining brothers. They couldn't go because they would have been killed. It is simple. And anyway, I had been to collect firewood since we arrived, and nothing had happened.

"We had to go two kilometres into the forest because people had been afraid of getting attacked had they gone too deep, and most of the firewood in the outer areas has gone.

"There were four men, Arabs, and they had guns. The other women ran away, but I couldn't. They let me go after almost four hours. That is what happened to me. I am alive, but I do not really know whether I want to be alive after all that has happened to me." The women who escaped ran back to the camp, and alerted the others.

A delegation went to the police, but, the refugees say, they refused to help. A young policeman at the camp yesterday said he knew nothing about this and he was not on duty on the day. But he was sure everything possible was being done. He also said some of the women made up stories about rape to get more food and supplies from the relief agencies.

In a little more than two and a half hours, four women described their abduction and abuse, the cruelty and the violence mirroring what had happened to Rahima. One was a girl of 15, who had been abused, and battered on the head by the butt of a rifle. Her temple was still badly swollen.

As we spoke, two pick-up trucks full of men in white robes, some with Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders, one with a ceremonial scimitar, drove into the outside perimeter of the camp. No, they laughed, they were not Janjaweed, what is a Janjaweed anyway? It means a variety of groups, they said.

One man said they were militia helping the army fight insurgents. They would be happy, they said, to explain more at their office in the souk.

As they left, I discovered that the group of refugees around me had melted away. After a while they reemerged. The father of the 15-year-old girl said he wanted to move the family out of the camp, away from the forest, to one of the schools in the centre the refugees have taken over.

Twenty-five thousand refugees are occupying 11 schools in Kass which has led to complaints from local people, mainly Arabs, about the damage to their children's education. The Sudanese authorities have now decreed that the buildings must be vacated, and the people in them would be moved to a purpose-built camp, at the edge of the dangerous forest.

But the schools do not guarantee safety. Halima, the 21-year-old wife of Adem, a sheikh from a village in Karoli, was lying in her tent at Kass Technical College when a man came in with a gun and raped her. As he was fleeing, a crowd including her husband tried to catch him. "But he just fired a few shots and everyone backed off," said Halima sitting in a classroom. "He would have killed, I know that. That is why I couldn't do anything.

"I feel very sad about what has happened. But the only good thing is that I have a four-month-old baby, so I don't think I will get pregnant. All our lives have been destroyed. These men with guns feel they can do anything, and no one stops them. This is very very wrong."

Adem burst in to the conversation angrily. "I am a sheikh, I am a leader of my people, but I could not even protect my wife. I feel angry, and I feel ashamed. Where were the people who were supposed to protect our community?

"There are two policemen based here, but they did nothing. That is because they are all the same, they are all Janjaweed. We cannot depend on this government to save us, they do not even treat us like humans. They humiliate us."

There were other women here who had been raped, one who was in the camp next to the forest, and the other who was attacked as she was leaving the school to go to the market. Again, some had already suffered sexual abuse when they were driven from their villages.

One young man, waving his fists in the air, shouted: "We know where the Janjaweed are. They are right here, in the souk. We must go and confront them. They must pay."

There were murmurs of support, but the senior sheikh, 65-year-old Moussa Abdullah Mowlh, shook his head. "This is just talk, foolish talk," he said. "There is nothing we can do. Have you seen the rifles they have? We have not even got a shotgun. We will be killed."

It was the big market day of the week at the souk, with people thronging in from outlying villages. But what had been pointed out as the Janjaweed office, Commander Athir Akhmed Adem repeatedly stressed, was not the Janjaweed office at all. On a plastic chair in a room with slivers of light coming through cracks on the wall, and a floor of churned mud, Commander Adem was surrounded by his officers, and NCOs.

The commander, a tiny man in a red beret, with a Glock automatic pistol looking outsize in his belt, said: "You see, all the men here are either regular army or members of the Local Defence Force. We are here to protect the public, and that includes the refugees, from rebels and bandits. I have tried to help the refugees. I provided 40 pick-up trucks to escort them to Kass."

So why do the local people, Africans and Arabs, refer to the building as the Janjaweed office? And what about the accusations of rapes and robberies the militia have committed?

A young man in a blue and black uniform lent forward jabbing the air with a sheathed knife in his hand. "There are no Janjaweed here," he said. "We are all volunteers. We are the militia, and we fight rebels. They are being supported by foreign powers who are spreading falseness."

Commander Adem ordered him to keep quiet, and continued. "There are people who used to be Janjaweed who are here," he said. "But they have reformed, they have become Taibin. I am very strict about this. Not just anyone can join us. They have to swear on the Koran that they are good Muslims, they must promise to stop killing and looting, and they must promise to pray every day. Then, I welcome them and give them one of these."

The commander held out a string of leather amulets in one hand, while waving at holes in his left sleeve. "These things are a kind of hijab. They protect you; they have holy words in them. Anyone who wears them cannot be touched by a bullet. You see these holes, bullets went through them but spared my arm. So how can anyone who wears this do anything evil?

"If I see anyone committing something like rape I shall shoot him myself. If there are Janjaweed who still have not reformed then we must fight them. But a lot have changed." The young soldier in blue once again leant forward. "Some people say they are proud to be considered a member of Janjaweed," he added.

Back at the technical college, some of the classrooms have been reopened. Habib Yaqub was one of the first students to return. He is from an Arab family, and said he and his parents have close African friends.

His companion, Suleiman, also an Arab, said: "There is a kind of madness which has got into people. We did not have any problems in this town. But there are people who have arrived and just want to loot and kill. That Janjaweed office is a bad place, they plan things there.

"I want to stay here, because this is my home. But what about the future? I cannot see anything improving. Nothing will change for the better."