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Issue Date:  April 1, 2005


FEAR and chaos in a fragile land

Nyala, Sudan

This is what war in Darfur looks like.

In “zones of conflict” a village stands one day and is gone the next. Women and children flee; only a few may return. Teenagers man military guard posts; old and young men alike tend to their war wounds.

Seeming quiet one moment gives way to bombing the next.

In early December, in a place less than an hour’s drive from this city, a group of displaced women who had encamped in a field tried to find a bit of rest and solace in the quiet of the cool morning. By 10 a.m., it is hard to escape Darfur’s bracing heat.

Living with little more than plastic sheets and a few supplies that could be quickly bundled up in case they had to flee on a moment’s notice, the women swept the ground outside their makeshift homes, giving even their temporary lean-tos a sense of fragile dignity.

Within a week, the place had been destroyed.

“Today is bad, tomorrow can be fine. Or today is good but you have to take advantage of that because tomorrow might be bad,” said one European humanitarian worker in describing living and working in the Darfur region of Sudan.

It is the sheer coexistence of war and peace that is so dizzyingly crazy, dislocating and unnerving.

“This is a war that has been imposed on the people of Darfur,” said another humanitarian worker, shaking his head in frustration about a conflict that pits the Sudanese government against several rebel factions, including the Sudan Liberation Army, and is cited as one of the causes for the crisis in Darfur. “It is not anything they have sought or supported.” Or endured easily.

Darfurians have long demonstrated a unique “resilience, tenacity and readiness to innovate,” writes British author and activist Alex de Waal, currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Global Equity Initiative. But war has severely frayed and disrupted the people’s relation to land and community.

The enormity of what has happened in Darfur is staggering. Thousands of villages -- such as Jebel Bela, a small hamlet in western Darfur that some colleagues and I uneasily walked through recently -- are now eerily quiet: completely deserted and in many cases destroyed.

Yet to grasp the sheer scale of the Darfur crisis, it is best to see things from the air -- from, say, a small transport plane or helicopter. From there you can see thousands of tents in makeshift displacement camps that dot the landscape of this harsh, arid, hardscrabble region in western Sudan.

As many as 2 million Darfurians have fled what they say is a government-led effort to drive them from their land, a charge that the Sudanese government has spiritedly and consistently denied, saying it has had no control over the so-called Janjaweed militias that have been accused of committing some of the worst atrocities in Darfur.

Statistics in this conflict are notoriously difficult to settle on; just as there has not been a consensus on what to label Darfur. Is it a war of rebellion and counterinsurgency? Is it genocide on the part of the Sudanese government? There is no agreement about the number of those affected. While there is general consensus about the approximate numbers of those who have been displaced, the number of dead has been a source of some debate.

It was commonly believed up until early this year that, at a minimum, 70,000 persons in Darfur had been killed or had died due to war, illness or malnutrition. But upon returning from the western Sudan region in early March, Jan Egeland, the head of United Nations humanitarian operations, said the figure could now be as high as 350,000.

“Is it three times that? Is it five times that? I don’t know, but it’s several times the number of 70,000 that have died altogether,” Egeland told reporters.

He later revised the figure downward to about 180,000 in the past 18 months -- about 10,000 a month.

Whatever the final numbers may prove to be, Egeland underlined a key point: Preventable diseases, such as diarrhea and pneumonia, are among the chief killers in Darfur.

That comes as no surprise to relief workers whose efforts helped ease the humanitarian crisis in Darfur to a degree during the last half of 2004 but who have continually warned that the situation remained fragile and could be easily tipped back and spiral into the harrowing crisis that marked the early months of 2004.

Some are even more blunt and pessimistic.

“2005 is going to be a disaster,” predicted a coordinator of a Roman Catholic aid operation, who, like nearly everyone I spoke to during a recent assignment to Darfur -- Sudanese and non-Sudanese alike -- did not want to be quoted by name.

This aid official noted that those uprooted from their villages in 2003 and 2004 will, in all likelihood, remain in displacement camps this year, despite a desire by the Sudanese government to initiate returns to villages and home communities. Since no planting will take place, the land will be left barren and those aching to leave but afraid to return will remain dependent on international assistance.

“They’re not moving,” the official said of the displaced Darfurians. “They fear going back home.”

For good reason. Many of those I spoke to described the situation in Darfur as remaining close to anarchy -- “it’s chaos on the ground,” said one U.S. government official. Indeed, on my last night in Darfur, in the city of Nyala, the unnerving sounds of loud gunfire accompanied the riotous shouts of militias driving through the town’s dusty streets.

But those in the camps who actually experienced the trauma of displacement in 2003 and 2004 were the most convincing about how frightful the situation in Darfur really is: Haltingly, quietly and sometimes eloquently, they spoke of fear that is real and palpable.

Sometimes, the descriptions of what happened to them and neighbors -- awful stories of forced displacement, killings and rape -- were not as difficult as hearing the spoken and unspoken longing for their home communities that in some cases are actually visible from the camps.

After a group of villagers who fled in November 2003 from a village near the city of Zalengei recounted their experiences, a young man motioned toward distant, but still visible hills. “That’s home,” he said.

He shrugged his shoulders.

“Anyone who goes back,” he said, “will be killed.”

Chris Herlinger, a communications officer for the New York-based relief agency Church World Service, was recently on assignment in Darfur on behalf of Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief and other U.S. and European relief agencies. He is currently a resident fellow at Harvard Divinity School. He has previously written for NCR on humanitarian situations in Afghanistan and Liberia.

At a glance

Sudan is a large country in eastern Africa. Its population is divided between Arabs in the North and black Africans in the South. The country has been embroiled in near constant wars between the two groups since its independence from Britain in 1956. The current civil war began 20 years ago and pits the Arab-dominated government against an array of black rebel groups based in the South. Though religion has influenced the fighting, setting Muslim Arabs against Christian and animist blacks, the current fighting may be driven by the potential oil wealth of the Southern regions of Sudan. A peace treaty was recently signed by the warring parties, but fighting, particularly in the Darfur region, continues.

-- KRT

The Western region of Sudan, Darfur is the scene of some of the worst atrocities in the Sudanese civil war. Though the Arab and black populations are both Muslim, the black populace has been subjected to vicious attacks by a government-sponsored Arab militia call the Janjaweed. U.N. and U.S. investigations have reported that the Khartoum-based government has supplied the Janjaweed with arms and provided air support for raids against black African villages. The reports also describe the widespread murder and rape of the black African population by the Janjaweed. According to the U.N. report, more than 180,000 of Darfur’s black inhabitants have died from hunger. Two million have been displaced, and another 200,000 have fled to neighboring Chad.

National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005

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