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For a Small Girl in Darfur, A Year of Fear and Flight

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page A01

NERA, Sudan -- For the past month, Halima Ali's home has been a patch of sand under the shady branches of an acacia tree. Before that, it was a twig and grass hut in a makeshift camp eight miles north. Before that, it was a bush draped with a charred blanket.

Five times in the past 14 months, this slight girl of 10 has stuffed her belongings -- frilly pink dress, teapot, straw prayer mat -- into a burlap sack and fled, along with her family, to temporary refuge. Repeatedly, they have put down roots, only to hurriedly yank them up and flee just ahead of marauding militiamen and rebels.


Displaced children mill about in the Nera camp. The violence in Darfur has driven families away from their farmlands and children away from their schools. (Jahi Chikwediu - The Washington Post)

_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
New Pilgrims, Familiar Dreams (The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2004)
Violence Fractures Cease-Fire In Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
Violence in Darfur Inspires Surge In Student Activism (The Washington Post, Nov 23, 2004)
Rebel Attacks Raise Tensions in Darfur (The Washington Post, Nov 21, 2004)
In Sudan, a Sense of Abandonment (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)

"She's small, she doesn't know anything yet," said Halima's mother, pausing to comfort the despondent girl as the family set up camp in this sandy field.

"I do know," Halima said quietly, and began to tell their tale.

More than any other hardship, more than hunger and sickness and violence, the 22-month conflict in Sudan's Darfur region has been a crisis of people in flight. Since the early spring of 2003, more than 1.5 million people have been driven from their farmland by conflict, forced to abandon the millet and wheat and watermelon patches tilled by their forefathers and head into the unknown.

The forced exodus is part of a wider, government-backed effort to remove Africans from their land and give nomadic Arabs, who are allied with the Arab-dominated Khartoum government, more room to graze their cattle, according to the United Nations and human rights advocates. A drought has dried the Arabs' land, and they are pushing farther south, into traditional African territory.

As the Arab Janjaweed militias ravage the region, African rebel groups have fought back in an increasingly aggressive campaign to defend their lands and challenge Arab political dominance. Darfur's villagers are caught in the crossfire.

African farmers and Arab herders have engaged in sporadic violence for years, but no one can remember a time when so many people were driven from their homes. In less than two years, the new conflict has virtually eradicated African village life in Darfur, a rugged region the size of France, and there are growing fears that it may never be restored.

Until spring 2003, Darfur was a labyrinth of straw-roofed, igloo-shaped structures known as tukuls and markets where women hunched over stools preparing tiny cups of inky coffee and selling pyramids of tomatoes and onions. Now, the terrain has become a wasteland of decapitated huts, bomb craters, vacant markets and children's charred flip-flops abandoned in the sand.

Many homeless families have taken up extended residence in dozens of camps scattered across Darfur, but others have been forced to move repeatedly.

Halima's family reached the acacia tree after a year-long odyssey of repeated escapes from mayhem. They arrived Oct. 11, fleeing with a dozen others from a refugee camp after an attack there by Janjaweed fighters left nine people dead and the health clinic looted.

Now, on a hot stretch of scrubby field, the refugees are trying to reknit the shattered rhythms of their daily life: a farmer grieving over his brother's murder, a little girl missing the taste of cow's milk, and a century-old blind man longing for the land his family had tilled for 17 generations.

Sept. 9, 2003

Ta'asha to Bashom

Mohamed Adam Mohamed and his family had just finished taking their customary 10:30 a.m. breakfast of sweet tea and millet porridge with okra sauce, a dish known as asida, when they heard shots. Mohamed looked out of his hut and saw men on horses and camels stampeding through their village, Ta'asha. There were huts on fire and voices shouting, "Slaves, get off the land!"


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