Refugees live and die without shelter in the land where aid agencies fear to tread

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The Independent Online

They were around 3ft long, laid out in a neat row; graves of babies in a patchy field. It was difficult to see how many there were; the rain had spread the mounds of red earth and scattered the wild flowers laid on top. The babies died from lack of food, lack of medicine and infected water. It happened at a place no more than three hours' drive from Nyala, the capital of south Darfur, but deemed too dangerous for the international agencies and the United Nations to venture.

They were around 3ft long, laid out in a neat row; graves of babies in a patchy field. It was difficult to see how many there were; the rain had spread the mounds of red earth and scattered the wild flowers laid on top. The babies died from lack of food, lack of medicine and infected water. It happened at a place no more than three hours' drive from Nyala, the capital of south Darfur, but deemed too dangerous for the international agencies and the United Nations to venture.

There are other children buried here, as well as some elderly people, but it is the very young who have been the most vulnerable, 22 dying in the past three weeks. That is a large number from about 500 refugees living in the open with just trees for cover from the sudden torrential rains.

There are not even the most rudimentary shelters of branches and leaves one sees among the dispossessed of Darfur. These people do not want to be seen, they are too frightened of being hunted down. Most have been burnt out of their villages by the Janjaweed Arab militia and government troops, or have abandoned them in fear of impending attacks.

Unlike other refugees they have yet to make the trek to the vast camps that have sprung up in the region because the roads are not considered safe. They have been attacked by the militia, on horses and camels. The last time they tried to make the journey three men were killed.

We chanced across this group just over a fortnight ago as they attempted to melt away into the bushes. In the short intervening period their conditions have sharply deteriorated. The adults are more gaunt and scared, the eyes of the children are large and bright in painfully thin faces. Some are no longer here, Selim, a boy of seven who was ill even then, but full of curiosity about the outside world, is one of those who has died.

Hamiba Ali Abdurrahaman lost her 19-month-old daughter Ayesha four days ago. "She could not keep anything down, she was getting thinner every day, and then she started getting sick. There was nothing we could do. At the end she even stopped crying, she just stayed silent and went away."

Fadma Yunis holds her 10-month-old son Rahim, in her arms. His skin is scaldingly hot, and his face very pale. "It has been like this for five days, and it is getting worse. We have given him some potions, but that has not helped. I am afraid we are losing him. Perhaps he could get his strength back with good food, but we have no food," she said.

In the past they would go for medicine to Mirair, the biggest village in the area, she said. "But we cannot do that. There will be more deaths if we go there. We will have to leave it to the will of Allah."

Mirair, surrounded by fertile farm land, is the trading centre for 12 other villages, with a busy souk. The village had a mixed African and Arab population of 6,000. Now the African half is missing.

Khalid Abdullah, the sheikh of one of the abandoned villages, said: "I know we cannot stay here. If we do, more and more of the weak ones will die. We heard there were a lot of foreigners in Nyala, and we thought we might get help, but we have waited, and it has not happened."

It is difficult to see where the help will come from. The Sudanese government could send soldiers or police to escort them into a camp, but these are the same people, the villagers insist, who worked with the Janjaweed in terrorising them.

Nor is it likely that the UN and international agencies will act with alacrity. A spokesman for the UN in Darfur said the number of internally displaced people had increased from a million to 1.2 million in a month. The murder of an Arab employee of the charity Care by an African crowd at a refugee camp, has led to a security clampdown, and expatriate workers retreating further into "safe environments".

A team of UN security advisers has arrived from New York. Its members drive around in their air-conditioned four-wheel drives mainly in and around Nyala town, seeing "threats" everywhere. The one thing they are not going to do is allow aid officials to go up a "dangerous" road to see for themselves how people are dying from hunger and neglect.

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