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As world focuses elsewhere, a slaughter unfolds in Sudan

Sunday, July 11, 2004

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 and driven more than 1 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 neighboring Chad, international pressure is mounting on President Omar el-Bashir's government to end the carnage. U.S. and U.N. officials, haunted by memories of inaction in Rwanda a decade ago, have made a series of highly publicized visits to the region. This week, African leaders also 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 370-mile border into Chad.

At the Kounoungo refugee camp, 50 miles from the Sudan 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 labor, 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 now from hunger, thirst and disease than in the killings, U.N. officials say. They have described the region as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"We are late in Darfur. We have to admit that," U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said on 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 2 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 neighbors. 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 coordinated 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 some 56,000 mud-brick houses with grass roofs have been torched in nearly 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.

Traveling by night and sleeping during the day, they took nine days to reach safety. When they finally set foot in Chad, women in the group fell to their knees and wept. They were immediately surrounded by other refugees, among the approximately 15,000 living in the sand under thorn trees on the outskirts of the desert town of Bahai.

With a cry, 21-year-old Amani Adom recognized her 18-year-old cousin, Soureya Mohammed, among those who came to welcome them.

"It has been six months since we last saw each other," Adom said, as the two women hugged and cried. "I didn't know if she was alive or dead."

In April, when the world marked 10 years since the 1994 slaughter that killed at least 500,000 in Rwanda, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that a new genocide could unfold in Sudan.

Since then, U.N. officials have shied away from such politically loaded terms, saying Janjaweed fighters appear to include members of some of the same three main ethnic groups targeted in the raids.

U.N. officials estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 people have been killed. But some analysts put the figure much higher. Many victims were left where they fell, their families too frightened to stop to bury them.

While men are often shot on sight, women are being abducted and raped, refugees say.

Sakina Mohammed Idris, a 19-year-old student, said she was grabbed from her boarding school and taken with 41 other women and girls on a 21-day forced march through the desert.

"On the way, they would rape the girls and steal cattle," said the young woman, who was among the estimated 12,000 people living in makeshift shelters at Zam Zam camp, near the North Darfur town Al-Fasher. When the men tired of the girls, they were released.

"They spoiled me three times," Idris said sadly.

U.N. agencies have struggled to raise new funds for a country already plagued by a two-decade civil war and major famine in 1998. They have secured only about a third of the $349.5 million they need to respond to the crisis on both sides of the border.

Humanitarian workers are only helping 80 of the more than 130 concentrations of displaced people identified in Darfur. More will be cut off when the rainy season makes many roads impassible.

Following overlapping visits by Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, el-Bashir has promised to send 6,000 soldiers and police to Darfur to disarm the Janjaweed and other armed groups. But rebel leaders accuse the government of merely integrating Janjaweed fighters into local police and defense forces.

U.N. leaders say success in containing the violence and averting more deaths will depend on continued international pressure and vigilance.

"This is going to be a crisis for years to come," Egeland said. "We are afraid that when the secretary-general is gone ... this crisis will be forgotten."


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