Frank Johnson - Photojournalist
Frank Johnson - Photojournalist
By: Frank Johnson

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Saturday, 10-Jul-2004 00:00 Email | Share | Bookmark
Nightmare in Sudan

As the world focuses elsewhere, a systematic slaughter unfolds in the African nation.

AL-FASHER, SUDAN -- They shot him in his house. They blew her apart with a bomb. They cut him to pieces with swords. They dragged her into the desert and raped her. As the world's attention was turned to crises in the Middle East, a slaughter has raged for 17 months in Sudan's Darfur region. Arab gunmen on horses and camels, backed by bombers and helicopter gunships, have razed hundreds of black African villages, killed tens of thousands of people and driven more than a million from their homes.

"They say they don't want to see black skin on this land again," said Issa Bushara, whose brother and cousin were gunned down in front of their horrified families during an attack by the Janjaweed militia.

Now, with many more likely to die of hunger and disease in camps in Sudan and neighbouring Chad, international pressure is mounting on President Omar el-Bashir's government to end the carnage.

U.S. and UN officials, haunted by memories of inaction in Rwanda a decade ago, have made a series of highly publicized visits to the region. African leaders also have called on Sudan to act.

Even so, word of more raids continues to filter through -- with the starving, exhausted and terrorized families that trickle every day across the 600-kilometre border into Chad.

At the Kounoungo refugee camp, 80 kilometres from the Sudanese border, Zenaba Ismail sits on a dirt floor. In her arms, she cradles her sister's sleeping infant.

Janjaweed fighters burst into their home early one morning and shot the child's pregnant mother in the stomach. The shooting induced labour and she died while giving birth.

"He cries all the time, but I have no milk to give him," said the tall woman with traditional scars etched on her cheeks. "Every time I look at this child, I see my sister and I can't stop the tears."

More victims of the raids are dying from hunger, thirst and disease than in the killings, UN officials say. They have described the region as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"We are late in Darfur. We have to admit that," UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said during a visit last week.

He blamed government obstruction, the remoteness of the area, a failure to get adequate funding and preoccupation with the Iraq war, which made the world slow to respond to the unfolding disaster.

If humanitarian workers can't reach the estimated two million in desperate need, the death toll could surge to 350,000 by the end of the year -- a conservative estimate, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The crisis developed from long-standing tensions between nomadic Arab herders and their farming neighbours. It became violent after two black African rebel groups took up arms in February 2003 over what they consider unfair treatment by the government in faraway Khartoum in their struggle over political influence and resources in Darfur.

The rebel groups and the refugees accuse the Sudanese government of arming the mostly Arab Janjaweed, a name that means "horsemen" in the local dialect. They point to systematic and co-ordinated attacks backed by Antonov airplanes, helicopter gunships and pickup trucks.

The government denies any complicity in the militia raids and says the warring sides are clashing over the region's scarce water and usable land.

Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ibrahim Hamid Mahmoud conceded some abuses may have taken place in Darfur, but insisted there was no systematic, well-organized violence.

"The major problem for humanitarian activities is the rebels," he said.

Satellite photos acquired by USAID in June show that 56,000 mud-brick houses with grass roofs have been torched in 400 Darfur villages. The Janjaweed also burn down trees, steal food and cattle and blow up wells and irrigation canals in a scorched-earth policy that human rights groups describe as "ethnic cleansing."

With few villages left, survivors escape the militias by hiding in nearby hills, foraging for food in the trees and sneaking back at night to use the few functioning wells.

But even this last refuge is being overrun.

Tous-a Abdel-Hadi's family survived a raid on their village only to lose three men when Janjaweed fighters overran their camp in the West Darfur hills.

"My son tried to hide in a cave, but they found him there and shot him," the aging woman said, wiping away tears of grief and relief moments after crossing a dried-up riverbed into Chad. "I wish he was with me now."

In another attack, Janjaweed caught three teenage girls, raped them and broke their legs, Abdel-Hadi's family said. Unable to travel, the girls stayed behind in the hills while their extended families made the long and dangerous trek to the border.



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