'You are slaves, die like slaves': Darfur refugees tell of Janjaweed killing spree

Posted in Other , Africa | 22-Aug-04 | Author: Kim Sengupta| Source: The Independent

Sudanese refugees at the Kounougo refugee camp, eastern Chad.

There is little left in Silaya except burnt-out huts and a row of graves in the fields beyond, the only reminders of one of the worst atrocities of the savage conflict in Darfur.

On 30 July, three weeks after the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, announced that he had reached agreement with the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, on ending the violence, the village came under sustained and murderous attack from government troops and their Janjaweed allies. Under a UN resolution, Sudan has until the end of the month to meet a set of conditions aimed at alleviating what the UN calls "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world".

This week, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, the latest international dignitary to visit the country, will tell President Bashir that his failure to disarm the Janjaweed remains the most serious unfulfilled obligation of the UN terms. However, the British government is expected to agree with Mr Annan that Khartoum has made efforts to rein in the terror unleashed on African villages and established "safe" areas, even though another 35,000 refugees, fleeing fresh attacks, are threatening to cross into neighbouring Chad. About 200,000 Sudanese are already filling camps to capacity there.

The Sudanese government, some argue, should be given more time. But the people of Silaya, in south Darfur, have a far different experience of the government. More than 100 people were killed in one raid. Most of them were shot, but 32 were tied up and burned alive. Twenty-five young women and girls were taken away; the bodies of some were found later. Also discovered were the remains of many who had fled the onslaught but were pursued and slaughtered.

Survivors say that the raiders had specific, targeted victims whom they hunted down and set alight - teachers, clerics and those who had returned after further education in the cities. In some cases, other members of the family were shot while one person was dragged off for burning.

Picking off the educated few in the rural areas is not a new practice. Influential figures in the Islamist administration and the military blame them for organising opposition to the government, and those taught in the past by foreigners are suspected of imbibing non-Muslim beliefs. Priests in African villages are particularly blamed for not using their influence to condemn the rebels.

Many of those who did manage to escape from Silaya had ended up in Muhajariya, an enclave south-east of Nyala, the capital of south Darfur, which is controlled by two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement.

They are among 50,000 refugees driven into the area after government troops and their Arab militia allies burned an arc of villages around Muhajariya. The rebels, who have sparse resources and little aid coming in from the international agencies, now have to look after these dispossessed as well as their own fighters.

Commander Abdul Majid of the SLA said: "The attacks on the civilians are part of a military campaign. This war is not just against the SLA or JEM but against the people of Darfur. They are following a scorched-earth policy. They are burning the villages and driving the people into our area because, that way, they can finish off both the fighters and the civilians."

Babikir Ali, from Silaya, described how the village was attacked. "It was in the morning," he said. "We first had two helicopters which were flying very low. They fired from the air and hit some of the huts. Then we had troops in Land Cruisers, and the Janjaweed on horses and camels. They shot a lot of people before catching some others, putting them together and setting them on fire. It was a terrible, terrible thing."

"One of them was my brother," said Bahir Hashim al-Bakr. "He was a schoolteacher. When they arrested him, he was in the classroom. There were about 12 children hiding under tables and crying. They were all shot. They were looking for the educated people, the leaders we had. They're the ones who were being burned. I've heard about this happening at many places, but it is the first time I saw such a thing with my own eyes."

Yahir Ali, 33, recalled: "They were carrying matches and they set fire to people. Some others they threw back into the burning huts. They were shooting at everything and shouting 'Zurghas' [a pejorative term for blacks] and they were laughing, 'You are slaves, die like slaves'. My aunt was killed. She was an old woman and she had fallen. This man stood over her and just shot her."

The refugees at Muhajariya were not aware of the minutiae of the UN resolution or the machinations of the big powers. Asked whether they felt the government had made the situation safe for them, Babikir Ali smiled bitterly. "We are a problem. If we go back to our village, the Janjaweed will come again and kill off the rest of us. Then there is no longer a problem. Maybe that is what the outside world wants."