Home | News    Monday 16 August 2004

Violence and death steal childhood in Sudan

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By MARC LACEY, The New York Times

NYALA, Sudan, Aug 15, 2004 — Many childhoods have come to a screeching halt in western Sudan during the recent bout of fighting. Some youngsters have been killed. Others, like a baby-faced teenager named Mubarak, have been forced to grow up fast.

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A child suffering from diarrhea

The children of Darfur have seen awful things: burning, looting, rape and death. They have been the targets of violence as well. Aid workers say that sex has been forced on girls as young as 8. Other children have been shot or otherwise brutalized, and many have gone without adequate nutrition for months.

"A child is supposed to be growing up protected from the world," said Francis M. Deng, the United Nations representative on internally displaced persons. "They should be playing and learning. If your life is interrupted so fundamentally, you are denied the basics needed to grow up healthy."

Take the case of Mubarak, who had been a typical 15-year-old in this part of the world, which meant he worked the fields with his father during the planting and harvesting seasons but ran off with his friends whenever he could.

Too poor to afford a real, inflatable ball, he and his pals improvised, tying old clothes together with twine to form a rounded clump. Barefoot and energetic, they would kick their ball back and forth in the sand for hours.

His friends are gone now, as are his relatives. Some were killed and others were lost in the mass of more than a million people driven from their villages in Darfur, a region of western Sudan where the government has tried to crush a rebel movement by allowing Arab militias to attack local villagers.

Playing is the furthest thing from his mind these days, says Mubarak, who looks young but speaks of things that make him seem far more like a man than a boy.

Mubarak’s village, Kudum, a tiny place with 200 families in southern Darfur, was overrun last August by members of these militias, called Janjaweed. Mubarak recalls the chaos as the men, on horses and camels and shooting in the air, moved in fast, and he and his family and the other villagers ran for their lives. Behind him, he says, he remembers fire.

Mubarak’s father and mother and his four siblings took refuge in a wooded area nearby. But when his father left to scout out their escape route, the Janjaweed reappeared.

Mubarak watched as the militiamen told his mother to take off her clothes. Aid workers who have heard, and vouched for, Mubarak’s story said they believed that the men raped her.

But all Mubarak says is that they told his mother to remove her clothes. He also says that he saw them shoot his little sister, who was 6. When the men left, the family dug a hole and buried her, the boy says.

Mubarak’s voice grows quiet when he speaks of these things. But they are only the beginning of his story.

His father returned, and both parents took Mubarak to a nearby Koranic school for safety.

Young men and boys have been targets of the militias, who suspect them of being part of the armed groups in Darfur that have been fighting the government in Khartoum. Mubarak was especially vulnerable because he is from the Fur tribe, which has backed the rebels.

But some time after Mubarak arrived, the school was raided by rebels. He refers to them by their nickname, Tora Bora, which they earned by hiding in Darfur’s mountain ranges as the Taliban have done in the mountains of Afghanistan.

The rebels rounded up dozens of boys, Mubarak said - himself included - and marched them into the countryside. The armed men asked the boys if any of them wanted to go, and eight of them raised their hands. Mubarak said the rebels told them they could run away. He said he still recalled the loud bangs when the men shot two of the escaping boys. The remaining boys became rebels.

"I had to join them," Mubarak said. "I was afraid I would be killed, too."

The new recruits were given guns and trained to use them.

They were given plenty of food and water. But being a rebel was dangerous, Mubarak said. Government aircraft would shoot down on them. Terrified that they would die, Mubarak and another boy used one such attack to escape, he said.

The two boys walked so far that they lost all sense of direction. They had no water, and the sun beat on them. After days of moving, they heard camels and horses nearby. Mubarak’s friend ran. Mubarak said he was too weak to get away.

He was captured by a group of Janjaweed. They tied him up and forced him to march with them.

They were abusive, he said, and though he is a Muslim like them, they told him that if they saw him praying, they would kill him, he said. They said dismissively that no member of the Tora Bora could truly know Islam.

The militiamen debated whether to kill Mubarak. But one of them argued that he ought to be turned over to the authorities. Finally, in Kaliek, a southern town, the Janjaweed took Mubarak to a police station and presented him to the authorities, who put him in jail.

Darfur’s conflict is complicated, involving rebels, militias and government forces. In a matter of months, Mubarak had found himself in the grips of just about every faction.

"He might be the most lucky boy in Darfur," said Hashim Zakaria, executive director of the Sudanese Popular Committee for Relief and Rehabilitation, and an advocate for the needs of the region’s children. What he meant was that, despite all this, Mubarak was still alive.

Later, Ahmed Angabo Ahmed, a local politician who was loyal to the government, visited the jail and saw young Mubarak sitting on the floor. After hearing his story, Mr. Ahmed won Mubarak’s release and took him to nearby Kas.

When foreign visitors went to Kas, Mubarak would be brought forward to tell his account. Mr. Ahmed would ask him to be especially detailed in recounting how the rebels had mistreated him.

Eventually, aid workers heard of Mubarak and urged Mr. Ahmed to release him. Now Mubarak lives here with Mr. Zakaria, who is trying to help him track down his family.

Mubarak figured his parents might have made their way to a camp to the west, called Bindizi, his father’s hometown. Then again, maybe they went farther west to Chad, as so many other displaced villagers have done. Mubarak has banished the thought that anybody else from his family has died, he says.

Mubarak is one of hundreds of children who have lost track their families in the fighting. But even those whose parents are close at hand continue to suffer.

"I was struck by the large number of children at the camps," said Dr. Deng, who visited Darfur recently.

"Every time we moved," he said, "there were children running after the car. When we stopped they surrounded us. You know these children are taking the brunt of what has been a horrifying experience."

For children’s advocates, the biggest fear is that all the hate around Darfur will be passed from one generation to the next, and that the children will pick up weapons one day and carry on the fighting.

"Imagine a child seeing his father or mother killed or seeing his village burned," Mr. Zakaria said.

"That image is not going to go away easily," he said. "Unless we do something, they will grow and these things will grow with them. The events of Darfur will never stop."

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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