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A refugee from Sudan's Darfur region crosses into Chad on her way to the Tine refugee camp
Sunday, May. 09, 2004

Open quoteFor Halime Hassan Osman, Sudan is no place to pray. The wells that once supplied water for her daily ablutions now belong to members of the Janjaweed, a rampaging, government-backed Arab militia that has forced hundreds of thousands of black villagers like Osman to flee their homes in western Sudan. Osman, about 50, now lives in an unsheltered refugee camp in Mahatama, Chad. After a failed attempt to recover her belongings from her village, she prays in a dry riverbed along the border between Sudan and Chad. She and other elderly women are the only ones from the camp who attempt the return. "If the men go, they will kill them," she says. "If it's a young woman, they rape her. That's why it's us, the old women, who go see."

What they have witnessed is a campaign of attacks that were labeled "ethnic cleansing" last week by Human Rights Watch — a charge Sudan denies. In the western Sudanese region of Darfur, a 14-month-long war between the government and the region's black African rebel Sudan Liberation Army has displaced more than a million black villagers and sent more than 100,000 fleeing into Chad. (The conflict in Darfur is not part of the country's 21-year-long civil war between Khartoum and rebels in the south, which is inching toward a peace deal.) In interviews with Time, Sudanese refugees described scenes of Janjaweed fighters dressed in military uniforms marauding through villages on horses and camels, stealing livestock and burning houses. The Arab militias, nomadic cattleherders who have long competed for land with Darfur's black farmers, are backed by Sudanese troops and warplanes. 404 Not Found

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At least 10,000 blacks have died since the government stepped up its attacks on civilians last summer; according to Human Rights Watch, in one instance Arab militants loaded 136 villagers into army trucks, forced them to kneel, and shot them. "They say: 'You are the slaves to the Arabs, and you are born for the profit of the Arabs,'" says refugee Abakar Ismail Ahmad, 57. "If you're black and edu-cated, you're suspected of being a rebel, and they shoot you."

When the Janjaweed attacked her village last February, Salga Mahadir ran to her son's house and called for him to flee, but he came out to a street full of militia. "He said, 'There are too many weapons. Mother, come inside,'" says Salga's sister, Ashta. The gunmen shot Salga and killed her son. "The bullets were falling like water," says Ashta. The horsemen set fire to the village. Salga slid to safety as the flames approached, then watched as her son's body burned. Today, Salga is in too much pain to talk. Her arms, which once dug wells, have withered nearly to the bone. "She doesn't eat," Ashta says. "We don't know if she'll recover or if she will die."

The Sudanese government has promised to observe a cease-fire in Darfur, and recently allowed U.S. officials to visit the region. With the flood season approaching, the camps in western Sudan and Chad are at risk from isolation and outbreaks of disease. Most black villages have been abandoned; the Janjaweed raid them more than once to send the message that it's not safe to return. "You won't see someone with black skin in western Darfur," says Adulrahman Abdullah Abakar, 65, a refugee in Mahatama.

For those forced from their homes, there is nothing left to return to. When the sky darkens in Mahatama, flames can be seen rising from Sudan. They glow for about 10 minutes, then fade away. The Janjaweed are passing through, say the refugees, torching what they missed.Close quote

  • STEPHAN FARIS | Mahamata
  • In western Sudan, civil war has led to an apparent campaign of ethnic cleansing
Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP-GETTY IMAGES | Source: In western Sudan, civil war has led to an apparent campaign of ethnic cleansing. For the hundreds of thousands of innocents who fled, there are no homes or villages left to go back to