Arab militias have forced more than a million black Sudanese Christians to flee their homes for the desert. Fiona Callister of Cafod is in Nyala, southern Darfur, where about 100 people are starving to death each day
UNDER ONE of thousands of tiny makeshift shelters dotted around the arid lunar landscape is Kaoltoum and five of her seven children. There is only one tree in sight, a huge Baobab which towers over the surrounding desert setting, its trunk several metres wide.
This is Hashba camp near the small village of Mershing in Southern Darfur and each shelter contains a family that has fled its home after terrifying attacks by a militia group called the Janjaweed. Kaoltoum’s shelter is even more makeshift than most, consisting of a few sticks and a collection of rags. It is a shelter in name only, and a mere gust of wind would send it toppling. Against the rains that are beginning to sweep Darfur, it will offer no protection whatsoever. It is little more than a brave attempt by the 30-year-old mother to create a new home for her family.
She has come here in desperation after spending weeks in the mountains trying to hide from the militia that is terrifying the region in systematic attacks of killing, raping and looting. After eeking out the meagre amount of food she had managed to rescue from her home after the militia attack she had finally come to the decision that the only way her family would survive was by making the journey to Mershing.
So she and her young family, including a baby on her back, made the long journey on foot. All of this would be cruel enough but Kaoltoum is also mourning the loss of her husband, shot dead in an attack in February. Her eyes fill with tears and she looks away when she explains why he is no longer with his family.
She and her children are just a small part of a massive wave of terrified Sudanese who have been forced from their homes by inter-ethnic conflict in the Darfur region. A militia force of Arab-origin nomads known as the Janjaweed have for over a year carried out systematic waves of attacks on villages where African Sudanese live. These attacks continue with every day more reports of villages razed to the ground. The Janjaweed campaign is a distorted reflection of another conflict in the region, a power struggle between the Sudanese government and Sudanese rebel forces.
It is estimated that 1.2million people in Darfur have been forced from their homes by the fighting and attacks. Most of those have managed to rescue few possessions and are now in urgent need of outside help.
All over the region, the local authorities have set up makeshift camps for the displaced but help has arrived only very recently. For a long time the conflict in the region meant that many areas were too dangerous for aid agencies to access.
Although aid is beginning to trickle in, the scale of the task ahead is colossal. Clean water, adequate food, proper sanitation, health care and shelter need to be provided for over one million people in an area twice the size of France. Furthermore the rainy season has already started in Darfur. Travel is difficult and slow at the best of times but soon many areas will be cut off by downpours which turn roads into bogs.
Surveys show one in four people in Darfur is acutely malnourished. The United Nations predicts that by October the ratio will shorten to one in two. It fears that even if aid is urgently delivered some 300,000 people will still die. If aid does not come, a million people are likely to perish.
Figures also suggest that in Southern Darfur alone, which has 350,000 displaced people, 100 lives are lost every day. It is predicted that in three months’ time the figure will jump to 700 daily.
The size of the task has brought together the two international faith-based networks — ACT international, which represents the majority of Protestant and Orthodox development agencies and Caritas Internation alis which is a global network of Catholic humanitarian and development agencies. The joint response ACDER [ACT/Caritas Darfur Emergency Response] is working in conjunction with local partners Sudo and the Sudan Council of Churches.
A team based in Nyala in Southern Darfur is working in the area and Western Darfur, providing shelter, clean water, sanitation and survival packs for families containing cooking pots, jerrycans, soap and other basic items.
Just metres away in the Hashba camp sits an old woman with her daughter and granddaughter. The old woman, Halima is intently concentrating on the straw basket she is making with a long nail pushed into a cork. They have managed to construct a shelter of sorts from two branches and an old grass mat with large holes. Once again its only use is to mark out a space that is theirs.
Both women insist that the young girl is six years old but to western eyes she appears to be a small threeyear-old, her size stunted by sickness and hunger over many years.
The small family took 10 days to reach Mershing on foot, carrying the child and their remaining possessions. All these women have left in the world are two small bowls, a tin cup and a bag of flour with about two kilos left in the bottom.
Even the basket-making tool has been borrowed from a neighbour after the Janjaweed stole Halima’s previous one.
Halima reported that the Janjaweed militia attacked her village four times in total. The first time they came, Halima ran to the mountains where she hid for five days.
She says: “When I returned to my village I found everyone had gone and had left the area. I was the last one left.
“I was alone in the village for about 10 days then the Janjaweed came back and took the few things that I had left. I managed to escape and then I came here. Whenever they attacked, the Janjaweed would shoot to kill anyone they could find.” Halima says that of her tiny village of around 25 people, nine were killed and two injured.
She continues quietly while continuing to bind together the straw basket: “When the Janjaweed used to come they used to shout at us ‘We are going to send you to the place where you need to go,’ meaning they were going to kill us.”