A Political and Humanitarian Tragedy

The Khartoum government is being accused of conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing against the black, non-Arab people of Darfur and of targeting civilians in its response to the rebellion by local militias. Reinhard Baumgarten reports from Sudan

photo: AP
Sudanese refugees wait in Darfur to get medical attention while a sand storm rages in the area

​​Darfur, a large desert area, is home to one-fifth of Sudan's 30 million people. In the former Sultanate, located in the Sudanese-Chadian border region, a human tragedy is taking place. In February 2003, a rebellion shook the province. Rebels attacked police stations and military bases. Many Sudanese soldiers from Darfur deserted and joined the rebels. Meanwhile, more than a year of fighting in the region has left thousands dead and uprooted a million people from their homes.

Tulum is a refugee camp in the Sudanese-Chadian border region. 18,000 people from Darfur have found shelter here. Doctors Without Borders, Secadev from France, Caritas International from Germany, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have all come to help.

One of the patients is Ahmed Burhani, a small man on crutches, who lost his left leg in a bomb attack. "It was a disaster", says Burhani. "The Janjaweed destroyed our houses, killed our families. We fled to Chad. The Janjaweed came on horses and camels, with guns and tanks, killing, destroying. A catastrophy. And they dropped bombs on us from planes."

Fights over water and land

The Fur, the Zaghawa, the Berti and the Masalit are farmers and traders. And see themselves as ethnic African groups. They have been in a conflict with Arabic nomads and cattle-breeders for many generations. For centuries both ethnic groups have fought over water and land.

Bloody conflicts used to be avoided by traditional conciliatory proceedings. But at the beginning of the 80s, this form of conflict resolution began to fail. At that time there was a disastrous drought in the province of Darfur. The herds of the nomads died of thirst and the crops of the farmers withered away. The people began to kill each other in a battle for survival.

When slightly more than a year ago ethnic African rebels attacked police stations and military bases in the province of Darfur, many Sudanese soldiers from Darfur deserted and joined the rebels. They occupied parts of the capital of North-Darfur, al-Fasher, and took over the airport.

The central government in Khartoum felt humiliated and President Omar Hassan al-Bashir appointed a new governor in the province. He formed an alliance with the so-called Janjaweed and attacks on ethnic African groups began. In following weeks, tens of thousands of people fled their homes.

According to the United Nations more than 10,000 people have been killed so far. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people from Darfur fled to neighbouring Chad. Large refugee camps have been put up there. In Darfur more than 1 million people are on the run, says James Morris, director of the World Food Programme, WFP. "This is one of the most severe humanitarian crises worldwide."

Diarrhoea, malnutrition, fever, temperatures of 50 degrees in the shadow, little water and food. Dead donkeys and cattle lie on the ground, thousands of them - a horror scenario. Adding to the heat is the smell of decay and the danger of infection. Time is not on the side of the aid workers.

Logistic difficulties for aid organisations

The rainy season is just about to start. The Sudanese Darfur and the Chadian province of Waddai will soon be inundated with mud. Aid goods can then only be delivered by planes. Christine Decker from Caritas International says that even now, an adequate water supply is far from guaranteed:

"They constructed this thing behind us for the water supply. It looks like a big inflatable mattress. This will be a sort of water tank. From there the water will be distributed to dispensing heads. Right now you can see a row of cans which will be used to distribute the water. The problem is that the water comes out at relatively low pressure from the well. It´s not really enough for the people. So we have had to reduce the water rations."

The situation in the border region is tense. Even without the refugees situation, the Chadians are engaged in a daily struggle for survive in the hot Sahel-region. The population of Waddai has now almost doubled, which leads to fighting. Camilo Valderama, a doctor in the camp, says there are severe tensions and life-threatening fights.

The depletion of the natural resources in the border region is breathtaking. Every year, the desert shifts eight kilometres to the south. "From the east armed troopers approach the region - the Janjaweed, on horses and camels, armed with Kalashnikows and swords. They don´t even stop at the border", says Haroun Salih, governor of the Chadian province of Waddai. "Again and again, the Janjaweed attack our villages and refugees on Chadian soil."

Tensions between Sudan and Chad

Chadian soldiers doing their early morning exercise in the border city of Tini. They´ve engaged hundreds of times with the Janjaweed in the past weeks on Chadian territory and the situation could well escalate. The president of Chad, Idriss Deby, belongs to the ethnic group Zaghawa, that settles on both sides of the border. They are the most brutal rebels in Darfur.

The government in Sudan suspects foreign forces behind the rebellion of February 2003, accusing Chad. The Sudanese government has a right to defend itself, says foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail. "War is war. The people who started it must be held accountable. Those people who encouraged the rebels to take over, while our government had its hands tied and was able to secure the unity of the country."

But Adam Moussa Ahmed, school director from Darfur, now a refugee in Chad, says that government troops and Arabic militiamen, the so-called Janjaweed have attacked civilians. "Government troops have used Antonov bombers and army helicopters to attack our little villages. They have burned them, killed everybody, even women, children and old men. We all had to flee to the Chad."

The world must now not look away from one of the worldwide worst humanitarian crises.

Reinhard Baumgarten


Translation from German: Kerstin Winter

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