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Weary Darfur Villagers Tell of Attack

Men in Government Uniforms, Backed by Aircraft, Force Hundreds From Homes

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page A21

HAY DRIG, Sudan, Sept. 29 -- Haggard survivors of fighting in southern Darfur, thorns stuck to their bloody feet, straggled into this refugee community before dawn Wednesday and told harrowing tales of attacks by men in government uniforms who marauded through their villages.

"The war is not over," cried out Mohamed Abdullah Ibrahim, 45, his donkey stacked with grain, cooking pots and water jugs. He arrived in Hay Drig along with 245 other refugees who were forced to flee Fashe, 30 miles to the east, seeking shelter under the branches of a wide tree at an encampment here five miles outside Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.

_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Washington Post correspondent Emily Wax chronicles the genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
Sudan's Ragtag Rebels (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 2004)
Wells of Life Run Dry for Sudanese (The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2004)
Targeting the Teachers of Darfur (The Washington Post, Aug 18, 2004)
In Sudan, 'a Big Sheik' Roams Free (The Washington Post, Jul 18, 2004)
Refugees Moved Before Annan Visit (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)
'We Want to Make a Light Baby' (The Washington Post, Jun 30, 2004)
In Sudan, Death and Denial (The Washington Post, Jun 27, 2004)
Chad Broken by Strain of Suffering (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2004)
Bittersweet Homecomings in War-Weary Sudan (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2004)

Ibrahim walked among scores of refugees who described attacks that forced them from their homes. Their stories echoed reports by refugees over the past 19 months throughout Darfur. All blamed attacks on the Janjaweed Arab militia, whose fighters are loyal to the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the capital.

The accounts of the latest refugees illustrated the difficulty of stopping the guerrilla war in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, despite intense international attention. Nearly 1.5 million people are estimated to have been displaced and another 200,000 are living across the border in refugee camps in Chad. The U.N. Security Council will soon consider sanctions against Sudan and an increase in African Union troops here if the government does not end what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The U.S. government has said the atrocities in Sudan amount to genocide.

One refugee, Ahmed Ibrahim, 53, described an attack by men on foot and others riding camels. "They were Janjaweed in government uniforms," said Ibrahim, who arrived at Hay Drig at 5 a.m. "Then we saw land cruisers following. Then the bombers and helicopter gunships came overhead."

"It was nearing harvest time. I had a thousand head of camels, cows and goats," Ibrahim recounted as a crowd of refugees gathered. "We knew this was happening around Darfur. But it had not reached us yet. This is a calamity."

The claims of attacks by government-backed militia forces were not possible to verify independently, although Sudanese police stopped a reporter and aid workers 15 miles down the road toward Fashe as the sounds of gunfire rang out. As a helicopter gunship flew by, police ordered the group to turn its cars around quickly and leave the area.

Nearby, five women accompanying a gaggle of children said their truck had been attacked on the way from Fashe to the Hay Drig refugee camp.

Aisha Mohamed, 45, collapsed, weeping, and said her mother was shot in the face by a man wearing a government uniform. In the rush to leave, her mother was left behind, and Mohamed didn't know whether she had survived.

"They ambushed us," she said. "We couldn't even escape. We were walking all night, I couldn't find my mother. I was feeling sick."

Mohamed told friends who gathered around her that she wanted to go back to find her mother. But they wouldn't let her, restraining her as she cried.

The fighting in Darfur broke out last year when two African rebel groups, charging that their tribes faced political and economic discrimination, attacked police stations and military outposts. The government is accused of backing the Janjaweed, an Arabic term for "devils on horseback," to crush the rebellion. The government contends that the Janjaweed are criminals beyond their control.

The fighting has left parts of Darfur in tatters. Thousands of women have told aid workers they were raped by Arab militiamen, and African and Arab neighbors say it will take a generation to mend relations.

A government official told the official Sudan News Agency that the recent violence was caused by African rebel groups fighting government forces in Darfur. The official, Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid, minister of humanitarian affairs, accused the rebels of launching attacks on the Damba region, 100 miles south of Nyala, wounding an unknown number of people.

The government maintains that reports of human suffering are exaggerated in Darfur and that characterizations of genocide are bogus. Sudanese officials accuse U.S. politicians of overstating the situation in Darfur during the election campaign in an effort to portray concern for the plight of Africans.

In addition, they say that African rebel groups are trying to overthrow the Sudanese government. Government officials cite reports of a failed coup last weekend as proof that the situation in Darfur was exaggerated by anti-government rebel groups who want to take power.

A foreign diplomat in Khartoum suggested that reports of the coup attempt could actually be "Sudanese theater and an attempt by the government to distract attention away from human suffering in Darfur."

The refugees who arrived at this squalid camp on Wednesday said countries around the world needed to do more. Hay Drig, a poor community even before it became a magnet for refugees four months ago, has swelled into a maze of tightly built huts resembling fragile bird nests, with a population that has grown to 11,000.

There are few services, with international medical workers visiting only once a week. The situation is similar in other areas, according to relief workers, who said that 5,000 people forced to flee their homes had arrived at camps throughout Darfur in the last week.

On Wednesday, the shocked village elders of Fashe held long meetings at Hay Drig, coming to terms with the fact that they, too, had now joined the ranks of Darfur's desperate refugees. They made lists of stolen animals and wondered what to do. Teenage girls unloaded their donkeys, searching for tin drinking cups and jerry cans to collect water.

Pregnant women sat perspiring in the sun, and children built makeshift shelters from mats, twigs and shreds of clothing.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company