His gut was twisted into a knot, his head pounding, his leg searing in pain from a gunshot wound. Ibrahim Mohamed Doud, a village elder in an African tribe, remembers the day an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed attacked his village.
He had been hit in the left leg. His two wives knelt by his side to soothe him as he twitched in the burning sand. But in his moment of agony, he recalled that his deepest concern was not about the wound, but about one of his wives. Aisha Haroon Mohamed, 29, his Arab wife with the almond-colored eyes, is from the same ethnic group as the attackers. Her uncle was a Janjaweed commander.
Doud begged her to flee. He was fearful that African villagers would turn against Aisha. She stood frozen, her eyes watering with tears. She refused to leave his side. In the end, they all escaped, fleeing the village in western Sudan's Darfur province in an arduous, month-long journey through the desert sands of the Sahara.
Today, Doud sits in a tent at the Oure Cassoni refugee camp here, 15 miles north of the Sudanese border. His two wives are safely at his side, but his anxiety from that day still runs deep. "I just kept shouting at her to leave. It hurt me to do that," he recalled of the day of the attack, in January. "At first, I confess, we were all scared of hatreds brewing."
"We were a family before all of this happened," he added. "Now what are we?"
The experience of Doud and his two wives, one African and one Arab, illustrates the tangled ethnicity of Darfur, the scene of the violent displacement of 1.5 million people that has become one of the world's most urgent humanitarian crises.
Once, intermarriage was common. Having two wives from different backgrounds was seen as prestigious for men. But now, ethnic hatreds, flight and war have enveloped Darfur. The U.S. government has called the conflict genocide.
Sudan sits on the ancient Saharan crossroads between Arab North Africa and sub-Saharan black Africa. For generations, the trade of beads and spices from West Africa into the Middle East led to the intermixing of peoples. The spread of Islam across the Sahara and into black Africa firmly united the two regions.
The history can be seen in the blended faces and skin tones of the people of Sudan. Members of Sudan's three elite Arab tribes often say they have an African grandmother, either through slave raiding or through intermarriage.
Labels such as Arab and African in Darfur are rooted far more in appearance, class, language and social mobility than in bloodlines. The nomadic tribes primarily speak Arabic and have physical features like fine hair and light brown skin that are more Arab than African. They live in concrete-block housing close to urban centers or in spacious nomadic tents and move across the desert with carpets, straw mats and blankets rolled up for sleeping. They often eat Middle Eastern styles of food like sweet pastries, rice with raisins, meat kabobs and dates.
By contrast, peasant farmers speak indigenous languages. When they speak Arabic, it is usually for commerce and religion. They are sometimes viewed as having a lower social status, less money and less education. They live in stone huts capped with thatched roofs. They live on a steady diet of millet porridge and the occasional meat dish of camel, goat, chicken or antelope during special occasions.
These two communities, both Muslim, have intermingled, but also have been increasingly at odds. African farming tribes were called zurga by the Arabs, a derogatory term that means blacks, or abid, meaning slave. The tensions deepened during a prolonged drought in the 1980s, when nomadic Arab tribes began clashing with farmers over water and land. Nomadic tribes moved south onto the more grassy and fertile plains of central Darfur. Cattle raiding and killings sparked violence.
In Khartoum, three ruling tribes, which consider themselves Arab, make up a majority of Sudan's government. Last year, three of Darfur's African tribes launched a rebellion against the government, saying their region was underdeveloped and Arabs were responsible.
The government rallied Arab nomadic tribal leaders and their associated militias, still bitter over land disputes during the drought, to put down the rebellion, according to human rights groups and the United Nations. The government claims that the militias are out of its control.
Darfur's social fabric is now torn and tattered by the crisis, which has divided families and intensified rivalry between communities. Arab tribes claim they have suffered, too. Food prices have soared and grain, once grown by African tribes, is difficult to find in the markets. Arab leaders have expressed envy at the free food aid and water that refugees are being given at the camps.
"I heard word that some of my family members were hungry and others were worried for me," Aisha whispered as she sat with the family in a musty tent in the refugee camp. "I hope they are okay and have enough to eat."
She looked down. Doud's other wife, Nazifa Monsour, 40, stared up at her. Then Monsour started sweeping the sand from the tent into the sunlight.
Monsour shrugged, waved her hands and said, "malesh," or never mind. Aisha's children stopped braiding each other's chocolate-colored hair. Outside, aid workers distributed oil, corn and peas. The tent fell silent.
A Hopeful Beginning
Aisha, a gentle woman with a round face and long wavy hair, remembers the day she met her husband, 11 years ago at the courthouse in Umbero, a town in northern Darfur. He worked as a court clerk, she as a secretary. He was tall, from the Zaghawa tribe, with a dusting of gray beard. He seemed smart. She was tall, with spirally curls and eyes that turned light brown in the sunlight.
He was looking for a second wife. His first wife, a member of his tribe, could bear no more than their two children. His job was going well and he had finished expanding his spacious compound from four huts to eight.
Taking a second wife is an accepted and prestigious act in many parts of African and Arab society, where men of wealth often seek a second mate and more children.
Aisha came from a family of three sisters. She had no other suitors. "He had good habits and good behavior," she recalled. "I always liked the company of older men and the Zaghawa." She laughed and covered her face with her head scarf. "The decision was simple."
Her parents, who are from the Maharia ethnic group and identify themselves as Arab, approved the marriage. Her mother felt Doud was earning a good living. His tribe at that time was respected and powerful in the region, including in neighboring Chad, where a Zaghawa is now president.
Traditionally, when a Zaghawan man rises from a farmer to work in government or become a merchant, his status increases. It was part of the history of the region that members of the Zaghawa, an economically ambitious and successful African tribe, often rose into the Arab social fold. Doud, who was educated and had a regal way of carrying his 6-foot-2 frame, was regarded in this manner: a man of intelligence and means.
They made wedding arrangements at the local mosque, with the approval of Monsour, Doud's first wife. She saw the advantages. She would not feel bad about not bearing more children and she would be able to share the household duties with Aisha. In many African cultures, the first wife becomes the household manager and can relegate the most troublesome chores to the second wife.
"It's never easy to take a co-wife," Monsour said on a recent day, holding one of Aisha's children on her lap. "But I liked her enough, and I figured we could share the work. Her tribe did not bother me. She told me she respected the Zaghawa. Our people were not natural enemies."
It wasn't until just last year that the situation started to grow "a little strange," as Doud recalled. Aisha's uncle, an unemployed accountant, joined the Janjaweed. He became a commander. He was always the rowdy uncle, Aisha said.
"He drank too much sometimes. His wife was always tired of his behavior. Then he became a Janjaweed," Aisha said. "My family was all feeling sick."
"He told everyone he was offered $10,000 and he couldn't refuse," Aisha added. He was also given a gun and a uniform, she said.
"At first, we didn't know where he was wandering off to," she said, adjusting her scarf over her hair. Then one day he led a raid on their village. "He came with the others, shooting and yelling all over our area. He stole animals from our friends. I ran up to him and made him look at my face, but he didn't stop. He said he had orders to 'kill the zurga,' " meaning blacks.
At that moment, Monsour grabbed a cooking pot, some blankets, a flashlight, her teapot and some clothing. Doud rounded up the goats, donkeys and cattle. Aisha just stood in shock, her mouth open, Doud recalled.
"I didn't know what to do," she said. "Stay with my parents and sisters, or leave."
Doud told her to flee. They ran out of his compound.
Aisha's uncle spotted them. He ordered them to stop.
Aisha pleaded with him. She recalled saying, "Just let us go. No one will see."
Instead he sent some younger men on horseback over to the family compound, she said. Doud protested. "We know who you are. Stop this violence," he yelled. They shot him in the leg.
Aisha remembers the moment her husband told her to move away from his body, as he languished in the white sand.
"It made me feel weak," she said, as she collected heavy buckets of water from a water pump inside the camp on a recent day. It was like "the way I feel now," she said, "like I hadn't eaten milk or meat for weeks."
Family Fears for Safety
Amid rows of sand-covered tents, Doud peered from his new home, holding a bright blue cracked plastic mirror as he trimmed his now unruly beard. He dusted dirt from the folds of his long white robe.
When he used to look at his home, he would see a spacious compound with his master bedroom and sitting area that occupied a large round hut. That room is where he would hold forth, and it sat at the center of a grassy, peaceful stretch of countryside. Seven smaller huts were spread out around his hut, one for each wife, and the rest split among his children. Each wife had her own outdoor cooking area along with a separate grassy enclosed area for a shower and latrine, a nearby water pump and fresh land to grow millet, beans, sweet onions and fruits.
Now the entire family, seven children and three adults, is crowded into a tent meant to sleep four. Now Doud owns a radio and flashlight, along with his last two batteries, prayer beads, a Koran, one change of clothing and a water bucket. Now he must wait in line under the unforgiving sun to go to a latrine that festers with flies and stench.
On top of his daily humiliation, Doud said he was deeply worried about Aisha, fearful that she and their five children of mixed heritage would not be safe in a camp filled with the angry and the desperate. Aisha worries too. She said her life had become a hazardous obstacle course. She feels nervous all the time.
Sometimes, she fears she will offend Monsour, who seems to lose her patience more quickly since they fled their village.
Monsour denies there is tension. But she admits her temper flares more often.
"We are not happy here," Monsour said of the refugee camp in Chad, picking bugs from her child's hair. "It is hot. It is not the food we want to eat. We used to have great wealth and cows. There was meat and milk on Fridays. Now we eat like the poor, from handouts. We want to be back in Sudan."
Aisha said she knows Monsour is angry but is at a loss for how to make her happy. Aisha said she wants to change her accent, the texture of her hair, to fit in.
Standing in a line to receive food aid recently, a few women inquired about her background, noticing her light eyes in the sun and her curly hair.
"Someone said I had pretty light skin and then turned to her friends and whispered something," she recalled. "They were laughing at me. I knew what they thought."
She rarely leaves the tent now, except to collect water and food.
On this evening, with a dark yellow sandstorm spreading like a fire outside, she rose to start a flame under a charred pot. She made the evening meal, a mushy porridge of millet. Flies settled on her face, seeking shelter from the rain that has started to cool the air. She wiped her cheeks, looked outside and said: "I worry too much now."
More than her own life, she frets about her five children. The children don't realize what the fuss is about. They say they like the camp, where they can nap and play under the hot sun. There's no school and they don't have to drink milk.
They do, however, notice that their mother is sad.
Aisha used to tell them about their mixed heritage. Now living in the camp, she has learned to tell them that they are Africans. Their brother and sister from Monsour were also told to not make any announcements about Aisha's uncle being a Janjaweed.
"I'm Zaghawa," her 10-year-old, Shaize, declared proudly. He's also learned something from the restless boys who spend their days lying in the sand and playing under empty boxes of food aid. "When I get older I want to fight the Arabs. I want to join the rebels."
Aisha wonders aloud if that will be his only option. "There are no schools here. What else can young boys do?"
Then she thinks again, about the dangers, about her family, and how she doesn't know where they are. "I don't think we will ever be a family again," she said, staring at the sandy floor of the tent.
"I just hope my son doesn't have to fight his uncle one day," she added, dropping her head to her knees. "That would be a disgrace."