Sudan: 'We don't want food. All we want is to go back home'

The two million displaced people of the Darfur region of Sudan are prisoners of fear. Hounded from their homes by pro-government militia, they live in camps, too afraid to return to their farms and villages. Dermot Malone hears their tragic stories
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The Independent Online

It was early morning and we were cooking when we heard the guns. There were Janjaweed [Arab militia] from one side, government army from the other and Antonov helicopters above; our assets were loaded on to lorries belonging to the army." Hawa Hussein hurls out her story sitting on a carpet rolled out under the open sky. The carpet is currently home for Hawa and her family, who fled their village in Kabkabijah, in the Darfur region of Sudan on 6 July last year. Hawa lost two sons in the attack: one was shot, the other she believes escaped to Chad.

It was early morning and we were cooking when we heard the guns. There were Janjaweed [Arab militia] from one side, government army from the other and Antonov helicopters above; our assets were loaded on to lorries belonging to the army." Hawa Hussein hurls out her story sitting on a carpet rolled out under the open sky. The carpet is currently home for Hawa and her family, who fled their village in Kabkabijah, in the Darfur region of Sudan on 6 July last year. Hawa lost two sons in the attack: one was shot, the other she believes escaped to Chad.

She spent seven months on the run with her husband and three daughters, experiencing three more Janjaweed attacks in villages and towns where they briefly settled. The family now lives in a camp for the "internally displaced" in north Darfur with a smattering of fellow villagers and 10,000 others, all of whom possess similar stories and little else.

The crisis in Darfur is a man-made one. There has been sporadic fighting in the region for centuries between the Arab nomads and the majority African farmers, both Muslim. In February 2003, two rebel groups - the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement, drawn mainly from the Fur, Mazaleet and Zaghawa African tribes - seized major towns in Darfur, claiming marginalisation of their people by the government in Khartoum.

The government responded by bombing African villages and arming the Janjaweed, giving them carte blanche to rape, loot and burn African villages throughout Darfur.

"We'd experienced intermittent Janjaweed attacks targeting our animals before," says Yousif Ali, Hawa's husband and the village chief, "but when the airplanes joined them, that was the end of our previous life."

Hawa is uncertain how many people were killed when her village was destroyed. While homes burnt, soldiers removed the zinc roof from the school and drove it off in a government lorry. Her family fled north to a place called Abuliha. The Janjaweed chased on horseback. Hawa lost her seven-year-old daughter for 24 hours (she was hiding beneath a bush).

An elderly woman, Latifa Omer, widowed the day of the attack, begins counting the dead on her fingers, each one a name. Hawa continues: "The Janjaweed mainly want animals; the government wants the assets. The helicopter landed many times and they loaded it with goats." She speaks of Antonovs tracking their movements through the bush with a telescope and bombarding those who escaped the Janjaweed. And she tells how she came face to face with one soldier as she fled who told her: "We're going to clean all these villages of you."

Latifa, meanwhile, is still reciting the names of the dead and by the time Hawa has finished describing the destruction of the village, Latifa has reached 50 and stopped counting. Yousif quietly adds that a further 16 teenaged girls are still missing. The original population of the village was 400.

An estimated 30,000 people have been killed in the present bout of fighting and two million - one-sixth of the population of Darfur, an area the size of France - have fled their villages. Conditions from one camp to the next vary hugely - from the orderly Abu-Shouk in El Fasher with neat rows of tarpaulin-covered dome houses, a clinic and hand pumps, to Kailek in the south of Darfur, with its nightly Janjaweed rape rampages. For most of the residents, even a sheet stretched around four wooden stakes and scant access to water is preferable to living in villages that remain vulnerable to combined Janjaweed /government attacks.

It is principally security that the displaced are seeking. There is no sanitation in the camp where many from Hawa's village have settled, no food distribution and no protection from the imminent rains, but Hawa says that since arriving in the camp, she has slept soundly every night till sunrise.

Many of the displaced have survived a year in the camps with little help, collecting firewood to sell in local markets, weaving baskets and hiring themselves out as daily labour to earn money. They know how to survive but crave the security that will allow them to begin restoring their former lives. "If you are not secure, you can't eat," states Hussein Mohammed, a displaced young man from Kabkabijah. "If we are seeking food, we have food in the home village. We ask khawaja [white people] not to bring us food but to bring us security. The government in Khartoum are the reason we are here. They are not going to solve our problems."

The people of Darfur don't expect a lot from their government. The road from El Fasher to Nyala has been half-finished, bordered with piles of gravel, for three decades. A woman from Korma tells me that whenever government representatives came to her area, they said they had nothing to give and told the people to ask the foreigners for help instead. It is more a withdrawal of support for the Janjaweed than an active interest in the region that many internally displaced people (IDPs) hope for from Khartoum.

"We just ask for the bombarding to end and the government to stop backing the Janjaweed," says Abdulaziz Yahi, who defiantly remains with his family in his benighted village in Korko, north Darfur, and has begun preparing his fields to plant millet when the rains begin. "Leave the Janjaweed for us. We can deal with the Janjaweed."

This curbed expectation is shared by Hawa's husband. "We were marginalised before," he says. "We received nothing from the government but we don't want anything. We built the school in our village through our own efforts. We have no roads, no health centre, but we just want to live our lives. We've lived without government support since we were children and we've lived all right. But now we've been moved from our lands."

Others want more: compensation for the destruction of their villages and the disarmament of the Janjaweed militia. Beyond that, they want to see the government invest in the region. Hussein Mohammed, a farmer frustrated by sedentary life in an IDP camp, complains: "We live in a hopeless situation: dusty, insecure, marginalised. We pay tax on our farms, tax on our livestock, tax on our houses. And now we can find almost nothing to eat, barely even a place to sit. I won't be paying this government any more." His camp neighbour Salha Noureldin agrees, adding: "The government should consider us as citizens. They think we all belong to the SLA."

Khartoum's Foreign Minister, Mustafa Ismail, has stated that pro-government militias in Darfur will not be disarmed as long as weapons remain in the hands of rebel forces. At the same time, the government encourages IDPs to return to their villages, either verbally or through refusing to register new arrivals at the camps as eligible for humanitarian aid. The IDPs are up against a wall, with little choice but to remain displaced, whether receiving aid or not. "We don't believe the government when they tell us to go back," says Abdou Karim, who like Hawa is from Kabkabijah. "They'll attack again. We've been deceived many times." Those humanitarian agencies that have been able to reach Darfur are meeting the immediate needs of hundreds of thousands of Africans who have been chased from their villages. They may well avert the scale of disaster recently forecast by the American aid agency, USaid: 35,000 deaths in the next few months, as diseases flourish through the impending rainy season. Yet with both Janjaweed raids and government bombardments continuing, and water sources and seeds - the foundations of the people's agricultural livelihood - destroyed and looted, few dare go back to their villages.

"In the home area, we have animals, land, wells, fruits ..." says Omer Ismael, an elder from Hawa's village. "We've lost a lot. At home, everyone has his own job, his own work. We have nothing to do here. We're just waiting."

In Khartoum, 500 miles east, IDPs who fled the conflict in the south during Sudan's 26-year civil war, are still waiting. Wary of the most recent peace deal, brokered last month between the government in Khartoum and the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), southerners are hesitant to return. Their camps bear little resemblance to the chaos of Darfur's worst. In Khartoum, IDPs now live in houses made from permanent materials, built in the architectural style of their home region; there are clinics and water pumps and the children, mostly, go to school. Though few of the displaced southerners wish to remain in Khartoum, there has been no mass exodus home because the IDPs know that schools, wells and clinics have been destroyed through much of southern Sudan and suspect that home may yet be insecure. Without security, without a political solution to Darfur's problems, the region's two million displaced will be unable to return home and Darfur's camps will also start to look less temporary.

"I'm a farmer. I can't get a job here," says a restless Musa Abdulaziz, standing at a distance from the cardboard chaos of the camp where he stays in El Fasher. "I want to return home to look after my animals and begin planting. This is lost time for me."

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