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Fleeing the Fire, Landing in Hell

Displaced Darfur villagers endure rain, mosquitoes, leaky huts for shelter, weeds for food, and memories of brutal militia attacks.

August 29, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KALMA CAMP, Sudan — When it rains in this refugee camp, as it does most days in the rainy season, the stinking green puddles rise and spread, washing like a river through Mura Ali's rough shelter.

Last month, the rain did not stop for days, and an elderly man in a low-lying area of the camp, near Nyala in South Darfur, drowned in his hut. Ali, 60, and her daughter Fatima Ahmed Idris, 30, were drenched, sitting in about 4 inches of water for more than two days.

"We were just sitting in water with sacks over our heads all night," Idris said. "I could steel myself to bear it, but my mother was shaking with cold."

Their small, fragile shelter is woven of sticks and grass, and with nothing to keep out the rain, it never dries out. The inside is bare but for two wheat sacks to sit, sleep or pray on and a pot of wheat porridge cooked two days ago. Now it's black with flies, its cloying, rancid smell assaulting the nostrils. The women had begged the wheat from a relative.

At night, mosquitoes descend in clouds.

The women fled Tawila in North Darfur in October during an attack by Arab militia fighters who had swooped down on horses and camels, in cars and on foot. Aircraft bombed the village and later attacked a column of fleeing residents, killing dozens, Idris said.

The Arab militias, known by their victims as janjaweed, don't have planes; the Sudan military, however, does. The Sudanese government has denied attacking civilians or supporting the janjaweed.

Idris said she saw the corpses of 14 children who had been cut down by swords. Thirty-five schoolgirls were raped and kidnapped, she said, and no one knows their fate.

The memories of that day are so awful that her mother cannot bear to talk about it.

"It would be better to ask somebody to come and fill in all these pools of water with sand than to ask me about all these attacks," Ali said, nodding toward a poisonous-looking pool a few yards from her hut. "I don't want to remember that story."

More than 1.2 million African farmers from the Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa tribes fled the Arab militia attacks in Darfur, and 30,000 to 50,000 died, according to United Nations estimates. The World Food Program fed about 930,000 people last month, but 38% of those termed "conflict affected people" did not get food assistance, including those in areas inaccessible to the WFP.

Kalma camp, with 80,000 people, is a sea of grass shelters, many with waterproof covers supplied by aid agencies.

The number of new arrivals is overwhelming. In the jostling, desperate hierarchy of the camp, it is often the most vulnerable who miss out, such as those who are not strong enough to push forward to get what they need.

So Fatima Juma, 47, a widow, and her daughter Fatima Abaker, 17, have no waterproof cover for their hut. Five people sleep on a small platform of sticks perched above the puddle that gathers when it rains.

Abaker has twin baby girls. She and her sister Nayima Muhammad, 30, lost their husbands when Arab militias killed the men outside their village, Wadi Gara, three months ago.

Every few days, Juma crosses the wadi, or river, in Kalma camp to collect two kinds of weeds to feed the family. There is nothing else.

"If you eat it every day, it gives you a sore stomach and diarrhea," she said.

With that diet, her daughter does not have enough milk to feed her twins, one of whom has chronic diarrhea and a fever.

"My children cry all night because they're hungry," Abaker said. "My heart aches, but what can I do?"

In three months at the camp, they did not receive any food aid. A few days ago, they managed to get the blue World Food Program ration cards, which they carefully stored in a small plastic bag tucked into the hut's roof.

"We are just waiting. We are all hungry, my daughter and her babies," Juma said. "When we were there in the village, we were fit. We could do anything without pain. But now we're weak. We can't do as much. The rain comes in and we get sick."

When pressed about seeking out the food aid distributed monthly by the WFP, Juma stared listlessly into the distance, as though she had given up hope. To her it seemed as though the stronger families in the camps had muscled in to get food, while she could not.

Ali, from Tawila, who had been in Kalma for two months, said she had not received food aid either.

Asaka Nyangara, a local official with the WFP, said widows were given priority during food distributions, which were announced using vehicles with loudspeakers.

Nyangara said so many people kept coming to the camp that there often was a month's delay in getting new arrivals registered and issuing food ration cards.

The last distributions were July 14, and a new round began Friday, which will move sector by sector through the camp, Nyangara said.

Despite the harsh conditions and the fact that she had not yet received food, Juma said she was happy to be secure in Kalma camp.

Going back to her village is unthinkable, she said.

"We don't feel confident of going back because we heard that people have been killed," she said.

"There is no way to live there. There we have no houses, nothing to plant, nothing to eat."

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