Caught in Darfur's Crossfire

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Sudan Liberation Army rebels after a raid on Tawila

The souk was deserted on the morning that Maka Mohamed Nadi was raped. Moments before, two Sudanese soldiers had cleared the market by casually firing volleys into the air, sending townspeople scurrying for cover. But Maka had crept back to lock up her vegetable store — the soldiers often stole from the vendors — when the two men wedged their way into the doorway. They demanded food, and when Maka refused, they shut the door and took much more.

The soldiers seized her wrists and pinned her to the floor. First one man; then the other. Maka shut her eyes and tried to cry out, but her assailants wadded her tobe, the long, colorful shawl worn by Sudanese women, and stuffed it down her throat, choking her. "You are the wife of a rebel," they taunted, and beat her. When it was done they spat and called her a sodomite.

In the 22 months since violence erupted between African rebels and pro-government Arab militias known as janjaweed in Sudan's remote western region Darfur, tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.6 million forced from their homes. From the parched Saharan dunes in the north to the grassy savannas in the south, the war has been a study in lawlessness and savagery. Villages have been razed, looting and rape are commonplace, and food and medical attention are in short supply. The United Nations calls it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world; the United States labels it genocide.

The succession of UN Security Council resolutions and internationally sponsored mediation efforts have shown, however, that Darfur has provoked a level of global concern unusual for a man-made African tragedy. By late summer, there had been reason for hope. Violence appeared to have subsided; international aid groups were servicing hundreds of displaced communities; the threat of starvation and disease seemed to have been contained. The African Union had deployed troops on the ground to restore security, while peace talks sponsored by the international community were underway in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.

But the late summer's rays of hope have since been clouded, by a series of setbacks that appear to have reversed progress on every front. The most recent apparent breakthrough had come on November 10, when the government pledged to end its aerial bombardment of suspected rebel redoubts, the rebels promised to disclose their troop locations and both sides renewed their assurances of unfettered access to aid workers. Just two weeks later, in this dusty trading town precariously situated between government, rebel and janjaweed strongholds, those tentative steps toward détente collapsed, plunging Darfur into a new round of violence. And, as ever, it has been civilians like Maka that have borne the brunt.

On Friday, Nov. 13, just as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended, a group of nomadic Arabs looted the souk, threatening vendors at gunpoint. As on countless previous occasions, the townspeople complained to the police, who again declined to pursue the janjaweed . Their job was to police the town, not the surrounding area, they told the merchants. Besides, the police admitted, the thieves had better weapons.

The official response may have been nothing more than laziness or temerity, but Tawila's African merchants read it as a sinister alliance between the authorities and the raiders. They decided to take matters into their own hands: When the Arabs returned the following Tuesday, again taking items and refusing to pay, the merchants and townspeople attacked them with sticks and stones and camel whips. When the melee was over, four of the raiders — including one woman — lay dead.

The same night, the Arabs returned to exact revenge. Cattle and livestock were taken; shops were plundered. An elderly woman and a young boy were shot.

And so the cycle of violence continued. Just after morning prayers on Monday, Nov. 22, antigovernment rebel gunmen from the Sudan Liberation Army descended on Tawila in battered pick-ups, heading straight for the police station. After a gun battle that lasted almost an hour, some two dozen police officers had been killed. Then came the government response — old, white Antonov airplanes, circling the town under the noon sun and dropping crude bombs. Six civilians were killed, and three African Union helicopters were called in to evacuate 45 aid workers from a nearby displaced persons' camp. Two days later, the government followed up by bombing nearby villages suspected of harboring rebels. At least 20 people, mostly civilians, were killed, and twice as many wounded.

When the ripple effects of the Tawila market clashes had settled, more than 100 Sudanese lay dead or wounded. The United Nations and international aid organizations had suspended humanitarian operations, withdrawing all personnel and leaving thousands without medicine, food or protection. And the gulf between the warring sides seemed wider than ever, with most Darfuris trapped between them.

Long on blame and short on restraint, Darfur's combatants show little desire to work things out. Despite the rebels' concerted wave of attacks in recent weeks on Tawila and other towns across Darfur — for which they have been solely blamed by UN special envoy Jan Pronk — the rebels insist it is the government that continues to violate the cease-fire.

Meanwhile, despite craters and freshly burned huts and unexploded ordnance, the government denies that it has resumed air raids. In an interview with Time, Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir insisted the crisis was merely a "tribal conflict" that affects "only 6 percent of Greater Darfur" — this despite the fact that it has displaced a full one-third of Darfur's 5 million inhabitants. "Nobody wears a white hat here," says a senior Western diplomat in Khartoum.

Not surprisingly, frustration runs high among international diplomats engaged with the crisis. "We've tried the carrot approach; we've tried the stick approach. And we're getting nowhere," outgoing U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Danforth, told the international body last Tuesday. "Both sides — the rebels, and the government and the militia — are complicit in this disaster. They sign agreements, which apparently mean nothing at all." For now, no one — neither the government nor the rebels, and least of all Darfur's civilians — believes that the cease-fire can be salvaged. "I think I'll stay here for my year," says Major Per-Erik Widmark, a Swedish military observer from the European Union. "Unfortunately, it doesn't take a lot to start a war, but it takes a lot to end it. And for sure, there's a lot of mistrust here."

Observers believe that far more troops are needed to avert a further tragedy than have so far been pledged. The African Union has been authorized to deploy 3,320 peacekeeping troops by February, but even that deployment is running behind schedule — less than a third of that number now patrol Darfur, an area the size of Texas — and the soldiers' rules of engagement may be too narrow to make their intervention meaningful. Privately, officers predict that the number of peacekeepers will grow significantly, possibly to as high as 20,000. International aid organizations also complain of a shortage of personnel to manage the crisis. But while putting more neutrals on the ground may help keep a lid on things, it's not a recipe for lasting peace. "You might be able to stabilize, but that's not a solution," says the Western diplomat.

For the non-combatants caught in the crossfire in Darfur, however, each day brings new hardship as the population of the already resource-stretched refugee camps swells with new arrivals. The sprawling Abu Shouk camp outside of Al Fashir, home to some 52,000 displaced villagers, has begun to assume an air of permanence. Feeble tarp-and-twig shelters have been replaced by mud huts, ringed by high walls with cattle tethered inside. The camp's clinics are no longer makeshift, and a teeming market has sprouted nearby. "This is my home now," says Fadna Haroun Abdelmamout, a recent refugee from a village near Kebkabiya. In late August the janjaweed came to her village. When she and her husband and brother attempted to stop them from stealing their camels, they were shot. Only Fadna survived, but the bullet scar on her left arm is a reminder. "I will never go back to my village," she says.

Soon she will be joined by others from Tawila. Once a bustling caravan stop, Tawila is now a ghost town, the vast majority of its 55,000 inhabitants having fled. They dot the road to Al Fashir, on donkey and on foot, desperate to cover the 40 miles of desert scrub before their food runs out or they are attacked. Those that remain are too old or sick or poor to leave, and food is running short.

In the refugee camp that operated on the outskirts of Tawila, less than 50 of the town's 515 families remain. Dead cattle, their teeth bared in final agony, litter the camp, and residents scrounge the looted food depots for spilled flour and grain or forage the wasteland for something to eat. "We will have to stay because we don't have the money to go anywhere else," says Babakir Abdullah Abdurahim, a displaced man. "We are very hungry. Tell them to bring us food," he pleads.

Even though the Sudanese Army reclaimed Tawila the day after the rebel attacks, the remaining civilians don't feel any safer. Far from protecting them, the townspeople say they are again the soldiers' prey. "They have treated the people in a bad way," says one man. "They beat us, they harass us, they take our things." And sometimes they rape.

For Maka, it is still too early to return to her store. She has spread a blanket on the ground under a market stall displaying her okra and onions. She has three young children and has lived her whole life in Tawila, but her husband works in Libya and she is determined to leave. "I cannot live here anymore," she says, "I am shamed. Will my husband want me when he returns?" For Maka, the question needs no answer. She says she will gather her children and cross the desert footpaths to Al Fashir.