A Darfur Village Bears Up Under Janjaweed Yoke

Ibrahim Ahmed, right, and his friend Abdulmalik Ismail are among those who have stayed in Kuteri, western Sudan, through four years of conflict.
Ibrahim Ahmed, right, and his friend Abdulmalik Ismail are among those who have stayed in Kuteri, western Sudan, through four years of conflict. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 24, 2007

KUTERI, Sudan -- The men with rifles lounged on a carpet in the sand. The five of them had come to the village that morning from the crumble of mountains nearby, and now the afternoon sun was blasting. Some sipped tea.

Since arriving four years ago in a herd of horses and camels and guns, the militiamen known as Janjaweed have killed several of the 500 people who live here, villagers said, beaten others and generally menaced the population into believing that their village could be destroyed at any moment, like hundreds of others across the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Now their unwilling host, Ibrahim Ahmed, greeted the men with smiles, a friendliness that dissolved into a grave whisper once he was inside his hut.

"We told them, 'This is your home, and you can come anytime,' " said Ahmed, the local sheik, explaining that he and his people had decided four years ago to remain in their village even if it meant embracing their tormentors.

"They beat us, but we treat them like family," added his friend Abdulmalik Ismail. "In our minds, we hate them."

The story of Kuteri is in many ways emblematic of a conflict that is slipping from crisis into a more chronic state of dysfunction.

Now in its fifth year, a military campaign by the Sudanese government to crush a rebel movement in Darfur has almost completely reordered the region's demographics. The conflict is complex but comes down to one in which the government has armed and supported certain nomadic Arab tribesmen against the region's farming villagers, who are predominantly black Africans.

At least 450,000 people have died from disease and violence in the conflict, and more than 2.5 million -- around half the area's entire population -- have fled to vast displacement camps whose numbers continue to swell.

Yet there remains a relatively small number of farming villages such as Kuteri where people are struggling to maintain dignity under the yoke of the government-backed Arab militiamen, who eat their food, drink their water and lounge under the spare shade of low, twisted trees.

"We think that here, we are freer," Ahmed said. "We are better than we would be in the camps."

His village of mud-walled huts and straw fences sits along a sweep of rolling desert scattered with thorn bushes, fallow grass and fists of purple flowers. The nearest town is Abata, where Arab militias occasionally race their horses through the streets.

An hour away are the ruins of two villages and the town of Zalingei, a Janjaweed stronghold where battered Land Cruisers, the battlewagon of choice in Darfur, are repaired in a local market. A militia training camp is nearby, according to African Union officials, and local residents say the entire area falls under the notorious command of Musa Hilal, whom human rights groups accuse of war crimes.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company