“The wholesale burning of farms; the deportations; the burnt-out populations, brought in by hundreds in convoys; deprived of clothes; the semi-starvation in the camps; the fever-stricken children, lying upon the earth; the appalling mortality”…
While this description could readily fit into a news report on the situation in Darfur today, it in fact is a description from May 1901 of conditions in the concentration camps, established by the British in Natal, and the Orange Free State of South Africa, for Boer civilians, captured and imprisoned, during the second Boer war. The lesson is that while we may justifiably condemn the appalling conditions of the displaced in Darfur in 2004, within the lifetimes of people still alive today our own Governments were responsible for similar appalling human rights abuses, and largely escaped any punishment or censure. Impunity for war crimes is not a new phenomenon.
That said; conditions in Darfur are indeed appalling. I spent time in El Fasher in North Darfur as well as Nyala in South Darfur and Zalingei in West Darfur, so had exposure to a range of conditions across the region. I visited camps for the internally displaced at all those locations and saw the conditions under which the displaced are living. In most cases those conditions are very bad. These are people who were subsistence farming families, not rich by any standard, but able to support themselves through production on small plots of land, growing sorghum, millet, sesame, groundnuts, and certain vegetables. Perhaps they kept some poultry, a few goats and sheep, some donkeys; perhaps some cattle and a camel or two to use as transport, or to turn the grinding mill to extract oil from sesame or peanuts. When the Arab militias arrived they lost everything. They were driven in terror from their homes, which were then burned along with their stored crops; their livestock was looted or killed, and in many cases the men were slaughtered, the women and girls raped, and perhaps also killed.
Now they live in tented cities, in huts built of branches and leaves with a white plastic sheet provided by the aid agencies, tied down over the top to give some protection against the torrential rains of the wet season. All their food is aid food, their water supply from emergency tanks built by the Red Cross, Oxfam or World Vision, and if that is not available they collect water from dirty, muddy puddles after the rains. Toilets are still in short supply, so people shit where they can, and that often washes back into the water supply. Hence water borne diseases are rife. Pregnant women are dying of Hepatitis A and E, caused by bad sanitation and poor hygiene. The aid agencies provide bars of soap along with the standard ‘IDP package’. It doesn’t last long and the protection it gives against dirt and disease is short lived.
The terror beyond the camps is still real though. I talked to Fur farmers in a camp in Nertiti on the western edge of the Jebel Marra Mountains. I asked – why, if it is so dangerous for women to go out to collect wood and water, the men do not accompany them to provide protection? The answer was – yes, it is dangerous for the women. They may probably get raped, but the men will certainly be killed if they are caught outside the camps. It is a bitter choice; allow your women to risk rape, but save your own lives. That is the terrible daily choice facing these people.
The ‘Janjaweed’ Arab militias control the countryside, and so far the Government has made no real effort to bring them under control. Why should they when they are such an efficient instrument of terror against the perceived enemies of the same Government?
On the main roads the Government mounts many roadblocks to control passage along those routes. There are though, a large number of additional roadblocks that the Government claims to know nothing about (while passing them every day). These are well known as ‘Janjaweed’ roadblocks, and are used to stop and extort money from commercial traffic using the highways and back-roads of Darfur. I passed through many such roadblocks (while not stopping myself) and saw armed men in uniform. The Government denies that they have roadblocks at these locations, so they must be illegal militias; but armed and equipped by whom? Everyone knows from where they get their arms, uniforms and equipment, though it is still officially denied.
The militias do not always limit themselves to extorting money. There have been credible, recent reports of the massacre of African passengers on buses along these roads, sometimes within sight and sound of Government military checkpoints. It doesn’t take much to figure out how much Government authorities may know about what is happening and how much, indeed, they may play an active part in those incidents.
The rebel movement is still active in the mountains, though officially under ceasefire. Talks start and then grind to a halt in Abuja, Nigeria without making any meaningful progress. The rebel movements are not known to be targeting civilians and non-combatants; I certainly heard of no such cases while I was there. Their struggle is military against a military or paramilitary foe. I travelled very close to the front line between the Government and SLA forces and although we were all aware of the proximity of the rebel forces just over a low ridge to the east of the road, there seemed to be no overt threat. Certainly international aid agencies are not a target for SLA operations and, indeed, the SLA welcomes the international community both as aid providers, and also to witness the plight of the African farmers of Darfur first hand.
I saw a population that had clearly been traumatised and terrorised. They do not live in the appalling conditions of the camps by choice. They are there because they have been driven there by murderous thugs supported by a Government, intent on crushing another rebellion in an out-of-the-way part of this vast, sprawling country. All the signs are that they will be there for some time as security is still not improving in rural Darfur, and the Government fails to make a serious effort to protect its own people