Sudan: The Tragedy of SUDAN

Fifty thousand are dead, thousands more will die, and more than 1 million have lost their homes. Simon Robinson visits Darfur and witnesses what is happening while the world dithers

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    Halima and her daughter took three weeks to reach the Abu Shouk camp outside al-Fashir, the capital of northern Darfur. By then, Amna's weight, just 16 lbs., was more appropriate for a child less than half her age. Over the past two months, staff members from French aid group Action Against Hunger, which feeds up to 100 malnourished children a day in the camp, have slowly nursed her back to health. "I will never return unless there is peace," says Halima, who wears a bright purple and blue veil wrapped around her head. "We used to have peace, but now we have only war."

    Survivors, aid workers, the U.S. government and human-rights activists say the Janjaweed often work closely with Sudan's regular security forces, attacking alongside government troops in military vehicles or relying on air support in the form of bombers or helicopter gunships. "We were at morning prayers when the bombing began," says Kaltum Ali Ahmed, 47, whose village was attacked last March and who along with her daughter and granddaughter sought refuge in the larger town of Tawila. "Then the Janjaweed arrived and tore off our clothes and our jewelry. Anyone who refused was punished or killed. They took some girls and only let them go after three days. I do not want to say what they did to them. It is shameful."

    Near the Chad border last month, Janjaweed and government troops razed nine villages, according to survivors interviewed by the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based group that studies war crimes and whose research the State Department has used for its genocide assertion. Survivors say that government helicopters targeted civilians inside the villages while Janjaweed rounded up cattle. Khartoum works "hand in glove" with the militias, says Stephanie Frease, special project manager with the coalition. "At this point, all the government has to do is fly an airplane to instill terror, to get people to move."

    The U.N. says only half of all Darfurians have sufficient food and health care and only 40% have adequate sanitation. Malnutrition rates in Darfur are always high, but because crops have not been planted this season, people must now rely on aid groups to feed them for at least a year. But the biggest concerns are the continuing violence and the government's efforts to force people to return to their villages, where they may face new attacks. "[The violence] is still inside me," says Ahmed. "And they want to act as if nothing has changed."

    The conflict in Darfur is literally rooted in the soil. Most of the region's 6 million people are farmers and herders, who cling to the valleys where the soil is less sandy, or nomadic graziers, who migrate between the arid north and the south, which blooms green after the rains every August. Though most of Darfur's farmers are African and its nomads Arab, the two groups have mixed easily. Centuries of intermarriage have blurred the most obvious distinctions: nearly all Darfurians are black, Muslim and speak Arabic. Disputes between the two are traditionally settled using tribal laws as complex as the spiderweb of cattle routes and rivers that crisscross Darfur's plains.

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