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Outside camp walls, life still treacherous for Darfur refugees

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 1, 2004


Rachia Bakr Mohammad lies under a mosquito net, tended to by her sister. Two months ago, Ms. Mohammad says, she left the confines of this refugee camp to collect firewood and was whipped by an Arab from the militia known as the Janjaweed.

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But that did not stop her. This week she was out again, climbing a tree, reaching to the farthest branches when a man approached. She was pulled down and raped.

When asked if she wants to go home, she replies softly: "Go home? How? I cannot even go outside."

Sudanese President Omar El Bashir insists that security in western Sudan is improving. "There are large numbers of people now leading normal lives," he told reporters in Khartoum, adding that he had heard no reports of the Janjaweed terrorizing people.

But Mohammad's sobering story and other evidence contradict the president's assertions. Starting Thursday the United Nations will begin reconciling these conflicting realities, determining whether the Sudanese government has fulfilled its promise to secure the Darfur region so the 1.4 mil- lion refugees can return home. Right now the continued presence of the Janjaweed, the realization that there is nothing left back in their villages, and the relative comfort of the camps is holding people in place, leading to a growing dependence on outside aid. If Darfur can't be made safe soon, say aid workers, what the UN calls the world's biggest humanitarian crisis may become an intractable one.

After 18 months of brutal conflict, reports of killings and mass burning of homes by the Janjaweed are indeed becoming rare. Still, African Union monitors confirmed claims that the Sudanese military bombarded a village just this past weekend.

According to a report released last week by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international monitoring body, the Janjaweed, far from being disarmed by the government, are roaming free, precariously close to the camps housing those they have already terrorized. The report says the Janjaweed maintain at least 16 military camps in Darfur.

"Even more ominous," says the report, "the Sudanese government has incorporated members of the Janjaweed militia and its leaders into the police and the Sudanese army."

Nothing to return to

When she returned from the forest, barefoot and without her shirt or axe, Mohammad was taken to the Sisi clinic. A midwife examined her and prescribed an aspirin for the pain. Hers was the second reported rape this month and the eighth since aid organizations working here asked Ahmed Abdullah Isaac, a medic, to keep track three months ago. But many others, says Zainab Khatir, a protection officer for Save the Children-USA, never report "because of shame."

According to the HRW report, these rapes are often accompanied by dehumanizing epithets, stressing the ethnic nature of the deed. "The rapists use the terms 'slaves' and 'black slaves' to refer to the women," says the report.

Besides the insecurity, many internally displaced people, or IDPs, say they won't go home because they have no homes to return to - their huts burned, animals stolen, and their loved ones' graves desecrated. Mr. Isaac claims that 68 people were killed by the Janjaweed in Nur, his village. The community buried the bodies, but the attackers took them out of the ground and burned them, he says. "They don't want us to yearn for the graves of our families," he explains.