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An Attack on the Will to Learn

Sudanese villagers recount Arab militia assaults on blacks' schools. They say the aim is to rob children of their education.

September 28, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

KALMA CAMP, Sudan — The walls of the school at Kailek village were made of straw and sticks, so the bullets went right through them.

As the children studied one morning about six months ago, armed Arabs on camels and horses attacked the village in Sudan's Darfur region and surrounded the school. They raised their weapons and fired again and again, gunning down the trapped children and teachers.

The most haunting memory of that terrible day is the sound of children screaming and weeping.

"I saw the janjaweed shooting the children with Kalashnikovs and students shouting and crying," said Ibrahim Abdullah, 37, referring to the Arab militias. Three of his children were at the school.

He tried to run to the school with other parents, but there were too many horsemen, too many bullets. "We had no chance to help them. We stopped from a distance to watch, and then we ran."

His son Adam Ibrahim Abdullah, 9, and an adopted nephew, Haroun Sherif, 13, died in the hail of bullets. Two daughters, 8 and 12, escaped. Six teachers and 36 children were killed, Abdullah said.

Afterward, the attackers burned the schoolbooks.

It was the third time in two years that the Kailek school had been set upon. Two months before the final attack, two teachers and seven students were slain, Abdullah said.

The assaults on Kailek were not isolated incidents. In many villages across Darfur, schools have been targeted by the marauding militias. Some have even been bombed.

World opinion is divided on whether the campaign of attacks on indigenous African tribes by Arab militias in Darfur amounts to genocide. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell this month accused the Sudanese government and pro-government Arab militias of genocide. Sudanese authorities -- dismissing the charge as an attempt to win African American votes in the U.S. presidential election -- portray the Darfur crisis as part of the tribal conflict over land between Arab herders and African farmers going back a decade.

But for many victims, the school attacks and killings of teachers seem far from random. In the villages of Shataya and Bindis, locals say they have evidence of premeditation, maintaining that Arab teachers left several days before the carnage.

"They don't want our people and our children to learn anything," said Abdullah, who now lives in this refugee camp near the town of Nyala.

Although it is impossible to determine whether there was a policy of exterminating educated people in a campaign that has left as many as 50,000 dead, the leaders of Darfur's black African tribes say the attacks fit into a continuum of discrimination by authorities in the capital, Khartoum.

That fierce sense of injustice led to a rebellion by two black African groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, which took up arms early last year seeking a greater share of the country's resources. And it underscores the deep reservoir of ethnic mistrust and hatred that must be overcome before peace is possible.

The government, for its part, distributed a booklet to international journalists saying it had expanded services such as schools and medical clinics in Darfur since seizing power in a 1989 coup.

The chief of the Fur people in Nyala, Ahmed Abdul Rahman Rijal, said in an interview at his home there that the government has always failed to protect Africans from Arab attacks.

"The government is steadfast in its policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing, using airplanes to bombard villages," Rijal said. He described the rebels as "our boys. They raised arms to protect our people."

Rijal, who recounted that in 1956 he became the first person from Darfur to graduate from Khartoum University, said the level of education among his people had since fallen.

"The policies of the government since independence [in 1956] were pro-Arab," he said. "We felt the government was backing the Arab tribes over the African tribes, giving them more chances to learn while the African tribes were kept as they were. This feeling of segregation between African and Arab tribes became very prominent under the present regime."

He said most of the government, police and security posts were filled by Arabs while the level of education among African tribes was low.

A State Department report released this month that was based on more than 1,100 interviews with Darfur refugees in Chad said the Sudanese government had encouraged an Arab alliance in Darfur to keep non-Arab groups in check. It disarmed non-Arabs but allowed Arabs to keep their weapons. In the early 1990s, Arab militias destroyed 600 non-Arab villages and killed 3,000 people, the report said.

The report found a consistent pattern of atrocities, killings and rapes currently in Darfur. It said more than 400 villages had been destroyed and at least 100 bombed, and that Arab militia and government military activity was closely coordinated.

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