Sunday, September 10, 2006
Darfur Trembles as Peacekeepers’ Exit Looms
By LYDIA POLGREEN
Published: September 10, 2006
A year ago it was a collection of straw huts, hastily thrown together in the aftermath of battle, hard by the razor-wire edge of a small African Union peacekeeper base.
Today it is a tangle of sewage-choked lanes snaking among thousands of squalid shacks, an endless sprawl that dwarfs the base at its heart. Pounding rainstorms gather fetid pools that swarm with mosquitoes and flies spreading death in their filthy wake. All but one of the aid groups working here have pulled out.
Many who live here say the camp is named for the Rwandan soldiers based here as monitors of a tattered cease-fire. But the camp’s sheiks say the name has a darker meaning, one that reveals their deepest fears.
“What happened in Rwanda, it will happen here,” said Sheik Abdullah Muhammad Ali, who fled here from a nearby village seeking the safety that he hoped the presence of about 200 African Union peacekeepers would bring. But the Sudanese government has asked the African Union to quit Darfur rather than hand over its mission to the United Nations. “If these soldiers leave,” Sheik Ali said, “we will all be slaughtered.”
Tawila and the sprawling, makeshift camp of displaced people at its edge sit astride a deadly fault line in Darfur. This small but strategic town has been the front line of some of the deadliest battles in a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and sent 2.5 million fleeing.
It is a place where a grim struggle between the government and its Arab allies, and non-Arab rebel factions, has given way to a fractured struggle that pits non-Arab tribes against one another, fanning centuries-old rivalries and setting the scene for a bloodbath of score-settling vengeance should the African Union soldiers withdraw, as demanded, at the end of this month.
Tawila is an apocalyptic postcard from the next and perhaps the grimmest chapter in Darfur’s agony, a preview of the coming cataclysm in the conflict the United Nations has called the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis.
Thousands of people in this squalid camp fear that their annihilation will be the final chapter in this brutal battle over land, identity, resources and power, which the Bush administration and many others have called genocide.
“We beg the international community, somebody, come and save us,” Sheik Ali said. “We have no means to protect ourselves. The only thing we can do is run and hide in the mountains and caves. We will all die.”
The portents of violence have become so ominous, and Sudan’s stonewalling of international intervention so complete, that Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, warned last week that the Sudanese government would be “held collectively and individually responsible for what happens to the population in Darfur.”
Death is no stranger here. Malaria and diarrhea course through the camp, picking off children first, then the old. There are no doctors or nurses or medicine. There is no clean water. There are no toilets or latrines. And yet the conflict, unchecked even by the presence of the African peacekeeping force, drives more people from their homes into the camp each day.
Mariam Ibrahim Omar buried her son Ismail in a graveyard near here Wednesday. She was not sure what had killed him, only that he burned with fever, heaved and vomited. She took him to a clinic run by the aid organization Relief International in town, carrying him on her back swaddled in rags, only to find its doors locked and its doctors and nurses long gone. The lone aid organization still operating here is the United Nations World Food Program, usually the last to go in even the direst situation.
“We bought medicines in the market but none of them helped him,” Ms. Omar said, her face swathed in black. “He died yesterday and we buried him.”
Ismail was 21 months old. They buried him in a growing graveyard on a small rise above the camp. Two bricks stood atop his grave, indicating where his tiny head lay, pointed toward Mecca, as Islamic custom demands.
Next to his fresh coverlet of earth, men in white robes dug a new pit, deep and wide, to hold the camp’s latest casualty. No one was sure how old Halima Batwal was — some said 80, others 90. They dug the loose sand with shovels until they hit hard-packed earth, and then switched to pickaxes to carve a narrow trench for her slender, wasted body.
The rituals of a Muslim burial are simple, easily satisfied even by the destitute — the body must be washed, then wrapped in unbleached cloth. The men gently placed her in the trench, then stacked bricks atop the body, a makeshift crypt in a makeshift graveyard.
Ms. Batwal was from Tina, a village just a few miles away, but she had to flee when rival rebel factions clashed there this spring. Her relatives said she would have preferred to be buried nearer to home, as tradition demands. But it was too dangerous to carry her body there.
“She will have to stay here,” said Adam Ali, a distant relative who teaches mathematics to children at the camp. “We have no choice.”
Whether the living will remain here, too, is an open question.
A United Nations Security Council resolution authorized a force of more than 22,000 troops and police officers to take over peacekeeping duties from the African Union. But Sudan has refused to allow the new force to deploy, and it says the African Union must leave by the end of this month, when its mandate ends, if it cannot work on its own.
If the African Union troops leave, the residents of the camp say, they, too, will flee. But there are few places for them to hide — in the mountains or hundreds of miles west, across the border with Chad.
For the moment the peacekeepers are still here, the contingent of 200 Rwandan troops led by a Ghanaian lieutenant colonel named Wisdom Bleboo. But there is little they can do to help the people living in the Rwanda camp.
“People are dying here,” Colonel Bleboo said. “Children are dying. They come to us thinking that we can help them, but we have no means to help them.”
Similarly helpless is the sole Red Cross worker still permanently based here, a slender 29-year-old with a faint goatee named Issa Ahmed Muhammad Sraj. His job is to help families separated by the war to stay in touch.
In a dusty black nylon briefcase he carries forms that camp residents fill out to send to relatives elsewhere in Sudan, simple messages of greetings — news of weddings, births and deaths. He is originally from Tawila, but like most of its residents, he had to abandon his home and move into the camp.
He has nothing else to offer but his forms, yet residents of the camp come to him anyway with their endless problems — sick children, stolen goats, leaky huts and empty food bowls.
“I have nothing to help them, so I just explain to them, ‘I am living here in the camp just like you, suffering together,’ ” Mr. Sraj said. “I sympathize with them and listen to them. I report back to headquarters what is happening here, but no one comes.” The local Red Cross headquarters is in El Fasher, the state capital.
Aid organizations have always found Tawila a difficult place to operate in. Nestled in the foothills of the rich and fertile farmland of the Jebel Marra mountains and home to a mix of Arabs and non-Arabs, herders and farmers, it sits along a crucial livestock migration route and next to the main east-west road in Darfur, stretching from Chad to the main north-south road leading to Khartoum, the capital. Tawila is a strategic prize all sides in this increasingly complicated conflict have tried to win.
On Feb. 27, 2004, hundreds of Arab tribesmen in military uniforms attacked Tawila, led by Musa Hilal, the leader of the Arab militia known as the janjaweed.
Mr. Sraj was in his house when the assault began, but at the first crack of gunfire he fled with his family to a nearby valley, where they hid for three days.
When they returned to survey the damage, much of the town was leveled, including his house. Their furniture and livestock had been stolen, their store of grain burned. Dozens of people had been killed, and many women and girls had been raped. The attack on Tawila and its surrounding villages was to become one of the most notorious of the Darfur conflict.
Mr. Sraj fled to El Fasher, where he and his family lived in the vast Abu Shouk camp. The rebels regained control of Tawila from the Arab militias, and last year its residents started to return, planting their fields and resuming their lives.
A cease-fire agreement seemed to bring some modicum of tranquillity. Mr. Sraj came back, this time as a worker for the Red Cross.
This spring the troubles started again, this time between the non-Arab tribes that had previously been the champions of the people of this area, mostly Fur villagers who lived as farmers and Zaghawa herdsmen and traders.
The Sudanese Liberation Army, the main rebel group fighting the government for greater autonomy in Darfur, split in two along tribal lines. The two sides fought for control of this crucial territory in advance of a peace agreement with the government that one of the factions, the Zaghawa-led group, signed in May.
The peace agreement has only made things worse here. The Fur-led faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army did not sign, and violence between the factions increased. The Rwanda camp, estimated in May to have had 9,000 residents, now holds perhaps double that number.
As the battle between the factions has intensified, ethnic lines in the camp have hardened. The Fur majority is suspicious of Zaghawas, who it claims have joined with the government to oppress the Fur.
Most of the displaced people at Argo, another camp just outside Tawila, have fled to the Rwanda camp to be closer to the African Union soldiers.
Those who remain at Argo are the most destitute. Under a thorn tree in the center of the camp sit a few old men, so poor that they lack the most basic furniture for any Darfurian household — a woven plastic mat on which to sit, eat and pray. They sat on empty wheat sacks, their foreheads sprinkled with dust and gravel from praying on the naked earth.
As the men talked, a dozen women on donkeys laden with water jugs, cooking pots, sacks of grain and children approached. One woman, Leimoun Ali Ahmed, said she had fled her village, Kalma, after bandits attacked to steal her livestock. She loaded her four children on two donkeys and was headed for the Rwanda camp.
“We don’t have anything so we hope they will help us there,” Ms. Ahmed said, referring to international aid organizations. She had heard that food, health care and clean water were available in the Rwanda camp.
But she will find little food and none of the rest. Relief International and Save the Children pulled out after attacks on their workers and vehicles. Relief International had offered health services, but its midwives, nurses, vaccinators and nutrition counselors have been evacuated to El Fasher. A dozen aid workers have been killed since May, all of them Sudanese, so aid organizations have had to curtail their activities in many areas. A World Health Organization car traveling with the World Food Program was hijacked Thursday by rebel gunmen.
That has left hundreds of thousands of people across Darfur without food, shelter, medicine and clean water. Disease and hunger are rampant.
“It is painful to think of those I left behind,” said Halima Muhammad Ahmed, a midwife who had been working for Relief International in Tawila and who is now in El Fasher, waiting to return to the expectant mothers she left. Like so many of the aid workers in Darfur, she, too, is a victim — her village, Umo, was attacked by janjaweed in March 2004.
“We only think of going back,” Ms. Ahmed said. “We are helpless here.”
At the Rwanda camp, babies arrive, midwife or no. In a straw hut at the edge of the camp, Hasima Abakar sat with her month-old baby, a boy she named Hamid. The birth had been hard, and she lost a lot of blood. But she was more worried about Hamid — pus oozed from his navel. Radiant with fever, he squirmed and turned away from her breast.
“I don’t know my future,” she said, her face blank as she gazed down at Hamid. “Only God knows.”
Category: Darfur, Sudan and News.