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A 'time bomb' in Darfur

A deadly standoff at a camp for the displaced raises fears that the front lines of the rebellion have shifted.

September 25, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KALMA CAMP, SUDAN — This overcrowded Darfur displacement camp is preparing for battle.

Men have dug trenches and dragged tree trunks across dirt roads. Young lookouts, some armed with sticks and axes, scan the horizon for invaders. Even aid workers and United Nations peacekeepers are increasingly wary of Kalma's besieged and, at times, belligerent population.

Since a deadly standoff a month ago in which Sudanese government troops killed 31 people here, including 17 women and children, the sprawling camp has been on the brink of eruption.

"We are like people living inside a fire," said Ali Abdel Khaman Tahir, the camp's head sheik. "Our anger is stronger than ever."

His second in command, Sheik Issa Adam Ahmed, added, "If the government comes to try to kill us again, we will kill them back."

Kalma and dozens of similar camps are intended to be havens for the hundreds of thousands of victims of Darfur's violence. Nearly 90,000 people can find food, shelter and other assistance here, having fled their villages over the last five years.

Since Darfur rebels began fighting the government, more than 200,000 people in Darfur are believed to have died, mostly of disease and hunger but also in attacks by pro-government militias. More than 2 million have been left homeless.

Now the Aug. 25 attack, the most deadly clash in a camp since the early days of the conflict, is raising fear that the front lines of the rebellion are shifting from mountaintop rebel strongholds and remote desert villages to the displacement camps to which victims have fled to stay out of harm's way.

"We've got a ticking time bomb in the camps," said Sudan analyst Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College. "The anger is overwhelming. The camps are awash with weapons. And if the fighting moves there, the civilian casualties could be higher than anything we have seen."

Displaced Darfurians, some armed and loyal to anti-government rebels, are grappling with reductions in food and humanitarian aid because of thievery, and many have lost hope in the ability of peacekeepers to restore calm to the western Sudan region. The World Food Program, which temporarily halved food rations in Darfur because of carjackings plaguing its convoys, recently threatened to stop deliveries altogether.

At the same time, the Sudanese government, in an effort to convince the world that the conflict has been exaggerated and stave off prosecution by the International Criminal Court, is pushing to dismantle the camps and send people home, sometimes by force, critics say. Sudan officials arrived this week at the U.N. to seek an ICC delay, but attacks like the one in Kalma have diminished their chance of success.

"The more time people spend in the camps in close proximity, the more agitated they become," said Ali Hassan, head of U.N. operations in Nyala. "They are becoming more militant."

Kalma is the starkest example of the militarization and politicization of the camps, but there are signs that the violence is growing elsewhere.

Food riots at the western Darfur camp of Um Shalaya resulted in one death last month when refugees from Chad protested a reduction in rations. Members of a government police reserve unit reportedly terrorized another camp this month near El Fasher by firing indiscriminately as they drove by, killing one person.

Not all of the violence can be laid at the government's feet. Gereida, Darfur's largest displacement camp, has been largely abandoned by aid groups because the rebel faction in control is accused of taxing residents, stealing food and attacking international workers.

Government officials defend the Kalma raid, saying it was an attempt to seize weapons and arrest rebels hiding in the camp. They say rebel fighters fired first and used women and children as shields.

Many aid agencies agree that there are weapons hidden in Kalma, but a U.N. investigation found no evidence of gunfire emanating from the camp, and placed the blame squarely on the government, citing its "excessive, disproportionate use of lethal force."

Leaders in Kalma deny hiding guns, but they say they will use sticks, stones and knives to prevent government troops from entering.

"First the government shot at us in our villages; now they are trying to kill us here," said resident Osman Abdul Haman, 49.

Kalma sheiks got a tip about the government's early-morning raid last month and quickly mobilized the sleeping population by lighting torches and beating drums. By the time government trucks arrived, thousands of people had lined up to block the entrance. After a standoff, troops opened fire without warning, witnesses said.

In addition to the 31 deaths, at least 65 people were wounded by gunfire, most of them suffering frontal wounds, indicating they had no time to run or duck for cover, officials said.

"I thought I was dead," said second-grader Nasser Mahmoud Mohammed, 8, who had sneaked out of his parents' hut that morning and was shot in the leg.

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