Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 5 June 2004

Sudan’s neglected nightmare

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A campaign of atrocities is creating millions of refugees in the western part of this war-ravaged nation, and the world doesn’t seem to care

By STEPHANIE NOLEN, The Globe and Mail

QALMA REFUGEE CAMP, DARFUR, SUDAN, June 05, 2004 — When she smelled the smoke, she knew. It was just past 8 in the morning, one day in early February, and Qulthom Suleiman Sabeel was picking through millet, sorting out the bits of sand and stone. From the edge of the village, she suddenly heard yelling, and the anxious calls of frightened cattle. And then she smelled smoke. And she knew it was the janjaweed, the raiders who had torched villages to the east and west of hers a few days earlier.

Her first thought was how far she could run — she was six months pregnant. Her next thought was her seven children: She could see three or four around her small house, but where were the others? Then she thought of her husband, Mohammed Ahmed. He was off with the cows.

Ms. Sabeel found all seven children, and in a tide of villagers, they began to run out of Doka, their village in western Sudan. They passed the bodies of the cows that were the village wealth, all of them shot, some still kicking feebly. She saw the bodies of men and women who had been shot in the head too — 45 people were killed in Doka that morning. And she passed the raiders.

She believes there were about 300 of them, men on horses and camels, machine guns in their laps. They wore the green camouflage uniforms of the Sudanese army, and white scarves wrapped around their faces so that only their eyes were visible. The raiders sat silent, while flames engulfed the cane buildings of Doka, and its citizens ran away.

"They have no reason to do this," Ms. Sabeel says, with an anger that fades to resignation even as she speaks. "But this is how it is. Those who have force kill those who are weak."

Ms. Sabeel, who is 30, took refuge with her children in Tabaldiat, a village two days’ walk away, where they had relatives. She waited there for word of her husband. And she gave birth there, to a boy, 27 days ago. She has not yet given him a name. She says she will not name the baby until she knows if his father is alive.

Ten days ago, the janjaweed came again, this time to Tabaldiat. Now, Ms. Sabeel had eight children to gather as she fled. The buildings were on fire and at least 53 people were shot. Ms. Sabeel, her children and 900 residents of Tabaldiat walked for four days to reach Qalma, a grim camp for internal refugees set up by the government outside the provincial capital of Nyala.

About 20,000 people live here now; there are three water pipes and 10 pit latrines. Refugees who have been here for months have used bits of grass to build themselves crude shelters from the sun. The newcomers have nothing.

Ms. Sabeel paces, jostling gently with a large crowd of new arrivals for the slim shade of an acacia tree. The nameless baby is naked, limp and silent in her arms. "I have no milk to feed him," she says. "And I have no money to buy anything. Nothing."

Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) opened an emergency therapeutic feeding centre in Qalma two weeks ago, and it was inundated with 244 babies in the first few days. Most were children who had been in the camp for several months; they had reached the point of death from starvation while supposedly in the care of the Sudanese government and the United Nations. Ms. Sabeel wonders if they might help her baby, but she is dazed and exhausted and not sure where to go.

It is difficult to overstate the size of the crisis in western Sudan. Between one million and two million people are now displaced and homeless in the vast, ferociously hot, sandy plains of Darfur. They have no shelter, little water and less food. The international community has mounted only the slimmest of responses. And in a day or two, when the rainy season begins, any further response will be next to impossible.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, used the term "ethnic cleansing" when he spoke about Darfur on a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. He likened the two conflicts, saying the reports of atrocities in Sudan left him "with a deep sense of foreboding."

The International Crisis Group warned last month that 350,000 people are at imminent risk of death from starvation or disease. These people are still at risk as they flee their homes, or scavenge for food, even in the crude refugee camps that have sprung up on the edges of the towns. Raids by militias on horses and camels continue almost daily. Women are gang-raped and horsewhipped; men are forced to their knees and shot through the head. Here in Qalma, there is a two-year-old who is covered in blisters because he was thrown on a cooking fire after his mother was killed.

These are forgotten people — poor and overlooked to begin with, they have been victims of a particularly savage war that has played out for more than a year across their vast land, almost unremarked beyond its borders. Thirty thousand people are believed to have died so far. The government of Sudan tightly controls access to the area. Foreign journalists need authorization and a government escort to travel to Darfur; once there, they need a series of security clearances to travel anywhere within the region.

It was only when refugees began to flee over the border into Chad, late last year, that there was any international recognition of the crisis. The Sudanese government has worked equally diligently to limit the response of international aid organizations — the other people who might have sounded the alarm — denying visas and travel permits to staff, keeping thousands of tonnes of relief supplies tied up in customs warehouses.

In truth, though, there is little international appetite to talk about this war. Six million Sudanese live in this region, an area roughly the size of France, but it has little strategic importance. The story in Sudan, of late, is peace — talks that went on for almost two years to end the world’s longest-running war, between the Islamist government in Khartoum and Christian rebels in the south, finally reached a deal 10 days ago. The international community pushed these talks hard, and was poised for celebration when a deal came.

Mr. Annan was not the first to do it: Darfur has begun to be mentioned — at the UN and by frustrated aid organizations — in the same breath as Rwanda. But no one wants to hear about a new conflict in Sudan. And nothing as straightforward as a genocide is occurring here.

The government says it is a rebellion, pure and simple, by militias and robbers masquerading as a political movement. Khartoum says the Sudan Liberation Movement emerged in early 2003 and began an armed insurrection, which was joined a few months later by the loosely allied Justice and Equality Movement.

"The most important thing to know is that these rebel groups were originally tribal militias, not a political rebellion. That came later," the deputy foreign minister, El Tigani Salih Fedeil, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "They attacked and endangered security, and so people organized self-defence groups and even militias. . . . How else could the government respond to the situation?"

The rebels — an articulate and media-savvy group, although they fight out of barren, sandy wastes — do not dispute that they began an armed attack. But they insist they did so in response to raiding by the janjaweed, Arab militias backed by the government, after the army and police did nothing to protect the villages that were pillaged.

The rebels are officially hunted men in Khartoum, but when a foreign journalist makes it to the capital, they find a way to pass on their messages. Three officers used a series of intermediaries to arrange a clandestine meeting with The Globe.

"We took up arms to [stop] the atrocities against the poorest people in villages, to stop the killing of people," one of them says.

The attacks on black "African" tribes by Arab raiders have gone on since the 1960s, they explain, but got much worse in the late 1990s. In their view, the primary cause of this war is marginalization — that the west of the country, and in particular its African population, has been shut out of economic development and opportunities for decades by the centralized and authoritarian regime in Khartoum.

"There is also the equal distribution of wealth, and of power," the rebel officer says. "There is also a cultural dimension to this. Our cultures have not been given the opportunity to play a role in the building of Sudan."

The distinction between Arab and African is largely impenetrable to outsiders, but of paramount importance to people from Darfur. People from the two groups have very similar physical appearances; both speak Arabic and are Muslim. The two groups have historically co-existed, even intermarried.

To put the difference simply, the Africans are farmers, while the Arab tribes are nomadic herders. When the Arab tribes move their herds twice each year in search of water, between dry season and rainy, the animals wreak havoc in the farmers’ fields. And in this largely unpoliced area, with a brisk trade in light weapons, small disputes frequently turned into large tribal clashes. Darfur means "place of the Fur," and it is the Fur tribe, as well as the Zaghawa and Masaalit, who have been targeted by the Arab janjaweed and make up the rebel groups.

The rebels say the Islamist government wants to drive them off their fertile land and award it to the Arab tribes, whose situation has deteriorated in recent years because of desertification and increased pressure on limited water sources. They call it ethnic cleansing: The rebels claim the janjaweed are carrying out government orders to exterminate the Africans.

And the refugees think so too. Mohammed Adam Abubakr, 36, hobbles around Qalma leaning on a bamboo pole. His right leg is grotesquely bent in two places, where he was shot by the janjaweed in Qabaqata in February. One of his brothers died that morning, but another escaped and took him to hospital in Nyala. Mr. Abubakr carries around the slip of paper from the hospital bearing his diagnosis — "bullet in lower tibia, bullet in femur" — but he has no money for the surgery to remove the bullets and reset the bones.

"They belong to the government, the ones who did this — they wore the uniforms of the government," he says. "They want to steal things and they want to kill us. They want the black people out because they want to take our land to live on." He describes the mangos and bananas, okra and onions he grew in the village.

"It’s because they don’t want black people — they want Sudan to be for Arab people. They will get the herders to come and take our land."

The refugees and the rebels are not alone in their allegation that the conflict is ethnically motivated. A report by a UN Human Rights Commission investigative team, which travelled to Sudan last month, said that "the attacks appear to have been largely ethnically based, with the groups targeted being essentially the following tribes reportedly of African origin: Zaghawas, Masaalit and Furs."

Now, as the African tribes are marooned in the camps with little food and no sanitation services, they will almost certainly begin to die in the tens of thousands in the weeks ahead, and the charge of genocide will become that much more difficult to deny.

The regime in Khartoum, which seized power in a coup in 1989, has an abysmal human-rights record. For example, it sanctioned raids by Arab slave traders into villages in the south during the 21-year war. And the Arab-dominated Islamist government has a blatant chauvinism for its Arab citizens.

Still, it seems more likely that this ethnic cleansing is inadvertent rather than planned, the result of incompetence, paranoia and a reluctance to extend itself in the aid of poor black farmers.

Dr. Fedeil, the deputy foreign minister, insisted that the government was doing everything possible to respond to the humanitarian crisis, but could do little to end it. "This conflict was started by the rebels, not by the government, and it is not the responsibility of the government."

"The government is in a dilemma," said Gasim Badri, president of Al-Afhad University in Khartoum. "In the beginning, they did not intend genocide, ethnic cleansing, war, whatever you call it — but their policy led to it."

On the other side, it is likely that the SLM took note of the peace talks under way between the government and the rebels in the south; after 21 years of insurrection, the southern rebels had at last succeeded in winning the promise of wealth-and power-sharing, and an eventual referendum on independence. It became apparent last year that Khartoum had been convinced it must make deals — and the rebels in the west saw the time as ripe to get in on it.

The rebels who met with The Globe deny that there is any connection — but if the Africans have been targeted in raids for years now, why did the rebels wait until last year to take up arms? "We waited until the right time came," one officer says cryptically.

By all accounts, when the rebels did launch their assault, they were surprisingly successful. No one is sure where they get their weapons (those who spoke to The Globe insist they had only hardware collected from government troops they defeated). In secondhand accounts of their engagements with the army, they are described as fast and fearless, racing out of the sand in new Land Cruisers and firing automatic weapons.

When the SLM chalked up a series of early successes against the government, Khartoum was unnerved, and fought back savagely. The air force bombed the villages where rebels were said to be sheltering (or might have thought of sheltering), and in the process thousands of civilians have been injured or killed.

The government also wanted to go after the rebels on land, but there was a problem: As much as 80 per cent of the Sudanese army is said to be made up of Fur, traditionally a legendary warrior tribe, and those soldiers had little appetite for a fight against their own tribesmen. So the government looked for hired help: It enlisted the Arab tribes in the region, who are historically on bad terms with the black tribes.

And thus came the janjaweed. The name is as strange and unnerving as the fighters; it is not an Arabic word, though some say it comes from Arabic — jinn for demon and jawad for horse. Some people say the second J-sound is to imitate the G3 American rifle, a favourite of the raiders. In any case, the government armed them well (fighters interviewed by UN investigators confirmed that they were recruited and paid by the government). They were sent out to punish the rebels and any who might support them, and possibly to do a little politically useful land distribution in the process.

And the janjaweed embraced the job. Across Darfur, they have laid waste to the African lands. The villages are burned, to just a dark carbon shadow of what were once houses and schools and small family compounds.

Men and boys are rounded up and shot. But the raiders do not waste bullets on the women. "Rape was often multiple, carried out by more than one man, and it was associated with additional severe violence including beating with guns, and whipping," the UN investigation found. "Rape often appears to have taken place while victims were restrained, often at gunpoint, and at times in front of family members." Sometimes the livestock is killed, and sometimes it is stolen. Village wells are poisoned with the bodies of dead children. The UN report declared it "a reign of terror."

The size of the territory, the ready availability of weapons and the historical animosities meant the government soon lost control of their militias. And when 160,000 people staggered over the border into Chad, without so much as a change of clothes, telling stories of rape and pillage, the problem became more difficult to ignore.

"I honestly believe that now [the government] has the desire to stop this, but I think it’s beyond them," Mobina Jaffer, the senator who is Canada’s special envoy to the peace process in Sudan and who visited Darfur in mid-May, said after extensive talks with the government in Khartoum. "They recognize that the situation got out of hand in Darfur and they lost credibility in Darfur."

So this war has gone on, in this infernally hot, dusty land. Small groups of rebels make guerrilla raids on government installations, operating from hiding places within villages. Government MiG planes swooped down on those villages, and cargo planes dropped crude bombs full of shrapnel; the militias on camels raged in, setting the thatch roofs alight and sitting in wait to pick off the terrified inhabitants when they run out.

The government and the Darfur rebels agreed to a ceasefire on April 8, after the refugees in Chad made it impossible to ignore the crisis. Since then, the aerial raids have dropped off, but the janjaweed raids go on. Every day, hundreds more exhausted, hungry people stumble into the camps, carrying nothing but their children.

And they aren’t going anywhere. The annual rains will come this week, or next — fierce storms that will instantly rob the refugees of whatever shelter they have cobbled together, and make the roads impassable for aid trucks for as much as four months. With the advent of the rains, the farmers will have missed the planting season — they can put no crops in the ground now, and so they will have nothing to harvest, and nothing to eat in the coming year. So even were there peace in Darfur tomorrow, they could not go home for almost a year; they must stay in the camps where the UN doles out grain and soybeans.

"It’s going to be a long period — at least 12 to 18 months — that agencies have to operate in emergency mode," says the head of one international response team. Like everyone working on the ground in Darfur these days, he is adamant that he not be quoted by name — relations between the government and aid workers are so poor that while the NGOs privately rage at the bureaucracy and duplicity that prevent them from responding, they are afraid to speak on the record.

The government angrily rejects the idea that anything resembling ethnic cleansing is under way in Darfur. It insists that people are free to go back to their land, and in some cases has gone so far as to "encourage" them to do so — by dismantling camps and forcibly removing people.

"If this is ethnic cleansing, explain the movement of people — why do people go [into towns] where the government is?" Dr. Fedeil, the deputy foreign minister, asked with rhetorical indignity. "It’s illogical. There is no ethnic cleansing, no genocide, that has nothing to do with the situation in Darfur. . . . This is war, and these are victims of war."

But Khartoum has consistently blocked any large-scale humanitarian response. Aid agencies can’t get their staff in, can’t get their supplies out of warehouses. The number of expatriate personnel on the ground in Darfur is minute — perhaps 100 people — although this is without question the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today.

Even as agencies lurch into the process of distributing food, there are fears about large quantities of supplies ending up in the hands of the janjaweed, because there is so little international presence to monitor the distribution. "I’m afraid the janjaweed will walk away with a large part of it — they don’t even have to raise their guns any more, just the sight of them is enough," a relief worker says.

The situation in Kas is typical: The town is 150 kilometres to the west of Nyala, and its population has been tripled with an estimated 40,000 refugees, who have occupied the schools and built little lean-tos in the open areas. Four thousand people have made their home in the compound beneath five huge water towers — the tanks have been empty for months. They came from the village of Qorolei, four days’ walk farther west. They fled after a raid in which at least a dozen people died.

The janjaweed surrounded the village for three days, says Abu Zeid Adam, 46, who was the village headman in Qorolei. On the fourth, they knew they would die anyway if they could not get to the valley where they fetched water, and so they all walked out, together. The janjaweed let them pass, and so they kept going, all the way to Kas.

But they found little to comfort them. There are no aid agencies here. They have no cover, no buckets, no blankets, no pots, no latrines. They have never had a visit from a mobile health clinic; in the slim shade of the water tanks lie dozens of children too weak to move, their dehydration so advanced they can no longer keep down even water. The refugees said the only food they have received is sacks of old, dry sorghum, which they boil and turn into bread. Asked when they last had food, the children reply, listlessly, "two days" or "three days" or "four days."

"We left our homes because a civilian cannot live in the middle of a war," Mr. Adam says. "But we have come here to suffer."

The agencies themselves are quick to admit they were slow to respond and did not anticipate the scale of the crisis or the logistical challenges it would present. The World Food Program doesn’t have enough food stockpiled; Unicef doesn’t have the equipment it needs to dig wells; nobody has the plastic sheeting that is all that will stand between about 1.5 million people and torrential rains.

But Khartoum’s intransigence makes it hard to believe there is not a deliberate government policy of "let them starve." Some of the staff in Darfur now were in Sudan in 1999, when the west and the south were hit with a meningitis outbreak. "We had the exact same situation, we couldn’t get permits, couldn’t get supplies," one man recalls. "And then the government began to think Khartoum was threatened [by the epidemic] and suddenly everything was open. They can make it happen when they want to. You look at what they’re doing here and you have to ask yourself why they would behave like this."

The humanitarian efforts are at this point a race against time. Thousands of metres of plastic sheeting have to be distributed if the refugees are to have any kind of shelter from the rains. Without it — and even with it — Médecins sans frontières is braced for mass outbreaks of cholera and malaria. All those skeletal children, even the ones who still have the energy to chase improvised soccer balls around Qalma, will be at risk for respiratory infections and other ailments that the handful of medics cannot get the drugs to treat.

The larger issue, however, is security. Even under the ceasefire struck in April, civilians are still being attacked, and the janjaweed appear to be operating with impunity. It is not clear at this point whether the government could rein them in, even if it wanted to.

"We want all the displaced and the refugees to return to their homeland. We want the farmers to return to their areas. We want you to cultivate your farms, and we will provide security and safety for those people," President Omar el-Bashir told a crowd in Nyala when he came on a one-day trip to cut ribbons and admire dancers two weeks ago. "The federal government, the army, the police, the security, the popular defence forces will all be at the service of Darfur people."

It was the next day that Qulthom Sabeel and her eight children were driven from Tabaldiat.

In April, Kofi Annan called on the world to be ready to intervene in Sudan if humanitarian efforts were hindered, saying the international community "must be prepared to take swift and appropriate action . . . which may include military action." Two months later, a group of NGOs still have thousands of kilograms of emergency food rations locked in government warehouses in Port Sudan.

The United Nations has asked the Sudanese government to "accelerate its efforts to control armed militias, provide security and protection for displaced people, and to facilitate access for humanitarian agencies." There are no plans to send an observer mission to supervise this.

The UN Security Council has shied away from a "Section 6" resolution that might have seen an international military intervention in Darfur. Under the terms of the April ceasefire between the government and the rebels, the African Union was meant to send observers to Darfur — 12 of them, for a region the size of France — but two months later, the government is still negotiating the details of that mission.

With a peace deal finally sealed in the south, the international brokers of those talks may slowly turn their attention to Darfur.

"The U.S. attitude has been, ’Please, God, don’t let this [deal with the south] derail,’ " a European diplomat says. "But I think the Sudanese government is beginning to realize that Darfur is going to divert money and attention that would have come [from abroad] because of the deal with the south . . . and that they’re going to have to start talking [to the whole country] about federalism and power-sharing."

None of that, of course, is much help to Ms. Sabeel and her unnamed son. Five of her older children have started school in the rough cane classrooms Unicef workers are hastily constructing in the camp. And the family has been registered for a WFP food ration.

But they have no clothes, no blankets, not a bucket or a plate. And there is no word of her husband, Mohammed Ahmed.

"There is nothing to go home to," she said. "I have nothing left."

The Globe and Mail’s Africa bureau chief, STEPHANIE NOLEN, is the only Canadian journalist to visit the remote reaches of western Sudan during the current crisis, waiting out endless bureaucratic obstruction in Khartoum until finally venturing into the blistering heat of the deserts of Darfur and the misery of the refugee camps to bring back this report. Ms. Nolen has reported for The Globe and Mail around the world (including during the Iraq war) and is nominated for a National Newspaper Award at today’s ceremonies in Vancouver for her reporting last year on Stephen Lewis’s struggle to ease the African AIDS crisis.



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