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In Darfur, gritted teeth behind smiles

Sudanese villagers treat militiamen like family to avoid being killed. 'We hate them so much,' a resident confides.

March 14, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KUTERI, SUDAN — Villagers in this remote Darfur hamlet bid goodbye to yet another family the other day. That makes about 50 in three years who have succumbed to the pull of nearby displacement camps, with their promise of food rations and a semblance of security.

Each time someone leaves tiny Kuteri there's a small celebration, as residents load up the departing neighbors with corn and beans for the journey. "If life in the camp isn't good," Sheik Ibrahim Ahmed usually tells them, "you can always come back." But no one ever does.

Ahmed is the chief of a village so small it doesn't appear on most maps. His four brothers are among those who have fled Kuteri since 2003. But he said he would never leave.

"This is my home," he said. "My life is here. We have a house. We have a family. We have land. I can't leave my village. I can't change my home."

To much of the world, it seems as if nearly everyone in Darfur lives in crowded displacement or refugee camps. More than 2 million have abandoned their homes, about one-third of Darfur's population.

But there are millions who have opted to stay put. In the face of constant danger, dwindling resources and only minimal assistance from international aid groups, these die-hard Darfurians are finding ways to cope on their own.

Kuteri is one such village. Founded more than 70 years ago, it has about 500 families sharing a cluster of mud-brick huts on a gently sloping plain in western Sudan. The village is just north of Zalengei, cut off by wide rivers during the rainy season and, because of the sandy roads, accessible only by donkey carts or four-wheel-drive trucks.

The people, all from the long-marginalized Fur tribe, have sustained themselves for generations by growing corn, beans and tomatoes. A valley spring provides cool water. They keep a small number of chickens, goats, donkeys and other livestock.

But for those in Kuteri, the price of survival has been high. It is a village now under occupation by Arab nomads and government-supported militia known as janjaweed.

Every day, the janjaweed come to Kuteri to eat the villagers' food, drink their water and rest in the shade of the trees. In the afternoon, they rest their guns on mats while they pray. At night, they disappear back into the bush.

Fearful that the armed men might burn down their village or ransack their homes, the people of Kuteri smile through gritted teeth. The women cook them meals. The men treat them like brothers.

"We act like they are our friends, our family," said Adam Idriss Mohammed, 56, a town elder.

Inside they seethe.

"We hate them," Ahmed whispered, careful that his voice was not heard by three janjaweed resting in his courtyard. "We hate them so much."

Mealtimes are a test of tolerance. Usually they all eat together because if Kuteri men don't share in the meal, the janjaweed suspect the food is poisoned.

Conversation is kept to a minimum.

"We keep quiet," Ahmed said. "We just eat. If you start talking, maybe you'll say something [you'll regret]." In addition to putting up with the daily incursions, each family in Kuteri must contribute a bag of beans, sorghum or another crop as a kind of protection money to the nomads, Ahmed said. When the nomads' herds need grazing, they are allowed to trample up to half of Kuteri's farmland, Ahmed said.

They are the same nomadic herders who have migrated south for years in search of grass and water for their cattle and camels. In the 1980s, one clash between the nomads and villagers culminated in the burning of Kuteri.

Residents rebuilt and agreed to a fragile coexistence. When nomads returned, villagers allowed them to water and graze their animals.

But the balance of power tipped in 2003 when the Sudanese government responded to a rebellion in Darfur by arming Arab tribes and encouraging them to attack Fur and other non-Arab tribes who were presumed to be linked to the rebels.

Kuteri villagers say the nomads suddenly began carrying AK-47s. They wore government uniforms. Besides riding camels and horses, they started driving around in fancy Toyota Land Cruisers. It wasn't long before harassment and looting started.

"Before, these people were poor and we helped," Ahmed said. "Then the government gave them money and guns. Now we are under them."

So far the arrangement is working, residents said. Kuteri has not been attacked and families are allowed to keep a few precious luxuries, such as cooking pots, jerrycans and wooden beds.

A drive south reveals what happens to those villages that don't cooperate. The road is dotted with towns burned and ransacked over the last three years. Their decapitated mud huts sit abandoned as nomads' cattle graze over the ruins.

"This is what we must do," Mohammed said. "We've lived here a long time. We don't want our village destroyed."

The bargain has not made Kuteri immune from bloodshed, but attacks seem to occur only once every three months, just enough to keep villagers in fear without driving them away.

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