They escaped the Janjaweed. Now Darfur's returning villagers face real fight to surviveThose who could not get to refugee camps exist on seeds and grass-pollen porridge
At first sight, the village appeared deserted. There was no sound of children laughing, or donkeys braying. The dry stone walls of the huts were blackened with fire. Within each hut, the thatched roof had tumbled in, leaving a carpet of black and grey ash which crunched and billowed underfoot.
Then a ghostly figure in a white robe stepped out from the ruins.
Bohid Ali Hamid walked with a firm tread through the village where he had spent all 91 years of his life. Seeing foreigners, he drew himself up and greeted them as a British soldier had once taught him to do, by stamping his right foot and giving a military salute.
"I have spent all my life in this village," he said. "I do not want to leave. I will stay until they come to kill me in my house."
In this region of north-western Darfur, a swath of villages was levelled by the government in April and May. Refugees poured across the border into Chad, but others remained behind; some because they chose to do so, but many others because they were too old or too poor to make the long journey to the frontier.
Across Darfur, there are up to 1 million people whose livelihoods were destroyed by the war, but who did not reach the camps. Their plight is even more desperate than that of the refugees, who are being cared for by the UN and aid agencies.
Mr Hamid's village was destroyed by the Sudanese military in collaboration with the Janjaweed Arab militia. It was attacked from the air and the ground. There is still an unexploded bomb, a fat blue tube with mangled fins, lying in a clearing at the centre of the huts.
"When they came here, all of the people ran away, but I hid behind a tree just over there," he said, indicating a cluster of trees on the outskirts of the village. "For six days, I stayed behind that tree, then one of my relatives came to get me."
He spent months with some other villagers, hiding in a dried-up river bed, then returned less than four weeks ago. His son and a group of female relatives are with him, but the village is otherwise deserted.
In a metal bowl, a pile of watermelon seeds are soaking in water. Since the attack, this has been the villagers' only food. They are desperately hungry. One elderly woman vigorously mimed her plight by rubbing her stomach, marching on the spot to show the search for food, and raising her hands, beseeching Allah.
At a neighbouring village, three elderly men walked out from between the shattered houses to greet the strangers. With them were a few of their children, two boys with swollen bellies.
Murugani Ibrahim, 70, fled to hide in a mountain range when his village was razed by the Janjaweed. He was one of those who was too poor to escape Darfur, after his livestock were stolen in the raid.
"I wanted to go to Chad, but I didn't have a camel or a donkey," he said. Without an animal to ride, it is a six-day walk across the desert to the border.
Since April, the family has been living on mati, yellow nuts which are poisonous and have to be soaked in several changes of water before they are edible. They fill the stomach, but have no nutritional content. They are eating grass pollen too; tiny dark brown grains cooked into a porridge.
Mr Ibrahim's son Anwar is six, but a few grey hairs curl from the base of the boy's scalp. His father said the child's hair started to turn white after the attack on their village. Like his brother Abdel Karim, his stomach is bloated and both boys are short for their years.
A comprehensive destruction has been visited on this region. Fire has turned stone huts into shells and grass huts into circles of black ash on the ground. The villagers' stores of dried fruit and grains have been carbonised to hard black lumps. It seems as if no clay storage pot has been left unsmashed.
In the town at the centre of this group of villages, the marketplace has been ripped to pieces. Bolts on storehouse doors have been smashed, and the thatched wooden shelters that held stalls have been splintered. Corrugated iron huts have been torn apart.
The region is home to a black African people called the Zaghawa. Some of its men have played a leading role in the revolt against Khartoum. The government's response has been to inflict a collective punishment on village after village.
The Guardian was conducted to the region by the rebels, and has agreed not to identify the precise location of the villages because a rebel base is now nearby.
The villagers who have returned here must now rebuild their lives with few tools and barely any animals. There are a few cows to provide milk for their children and a handful of donkeys to help fetch water and firewood after most of their flocks were stolen by the Janjaweed.
At another village, one woman had returned from a refugee camp in Chad to survey the ruins of her home. Amina Buye Khadir escaped with her four-year-old daughter on her back, and four older children running in front of her.
"Since that time I haven't seen my husband. I don't know if he has been captured," she said. "I have come here to plant. My oldest daughter, Saida, is looking after the other children. I will return to Chad when I have planted my crops. I won't stay, I am afraid."
She raked the ash of her former home with her fingers to show where the fire had charred her store of dried fruit and seeds. The family's Qur'an did not escape either. The sheets of paper inscribed with holy verses have turned brown and black, and wavy from the heat. They flake into pieces when touched.
In the doorway of her house is a tin box of ammunition discarded by the attackers. It has no maker's mark, but the olive green box is stamped in English lettering: "1200 rounds, 7.62mm".
"I am very angry because they burnt all my property, our house, everything," Mrs Khadir said. "There was one suitcase which had all my life gathered together in it; my blankets, sheets and mats."
Living in this semi-desert region of north Darfur can be harsh. Short rains and a poor harvest can spell hardship and death for many. But the people of Darfur understood those odds and had learned to cope. Now their own government has brought them to their knees with a war that is turning children's hair grey.