For Sudan refugees, a long hot wait for world action

Secretary of State Powell Thursday called the Darfur situation 'genocide' and urged the UN to take action.

Past the Arabs meandering over the fields on horseback and the burned huts overrun with vines, across the muddy rivers and beyond the checkpoints with their snoozy officials and signs in French he can't read, Ahmed Abu Bakr wakes up in his makeshift refugee camp and starts another day of waiting.

"Every day I listen," says Ahmed, who walked for four days without stopping when he left his home in Masterie, Sudan, six months ago and headed to neighboring Chad. "I listen to London."

He is talking about the BBC's Arabic language service that he tunes in to every day at 5 a.m., on the small transistor radio he keeps hidden beneath the folds of his long white robe. "They will tell me what the political situation is and when I can go home."

When he will be able to return home is still unclear. But the political situation appears to be moving ahead with sudden speed after US Secretary of State Colin Powell, testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, said the situation in Darfur that Ahmed fled qualified as "genocide." It was the first such declaration by a member of the Bush administration and could put pressure on the government in Khartoum to resolve the 18-month crisis that has left 30,000 people dead and 1.4 million more homeless. Should the United Nations echo Mr. Powell's declaration, member states would be obligated to intervene under a 1948 genocide convention.

In the meantime, Ahmed and hundreds of thousands of refugees like him, forced from their homes by marauding government-backed Arab militias called the Janjaweed, are stuck in a kind of limbo. The rainy season has begun, and at home they would all be out on their fields, fixing the rows of grain, pulling out weeds, and harvesting. Now they are living on handouts from the international community, spending their idle days wondering, alone and collectively, what's next.

Across the border in Sudan, dawn is breaking and Amira Mohammad al-Sheikh's baby Omima is quietly reaching for her mother's breast. Mother and child share a mat, together with Samia and Arafa, Omima's sisters. The empty mat adjoining belongs to Omima's father Adam Abdul Rahman, but tonight he is with his other wife and children, in a different part of the camp. Samia and Arafa's father is dead, killed, says their mother, by Arabs who took over their village of Umduek and chased them away eight months ago.

Amira has no breast milk, but she pulls Omima to her anyway. This is the sixth time the 7-month-old has awoken overnight, hungry, to feed, says Amira, and each time it's the same. She will give her crushed biscuits and water later. The muezzin, who lives next door, is calling out for prayer, using a ram's horn as his microphone. In a few moments, Amira will prostrate herself on a mat outside and pray, she says, for good things to come her way.

Of the 1.4 million refugees, 1.2 million like Amira are in about 150 camps for internally displaced people in western Sudan. Some are extensions of existing villages; some have popped out of nowhere. Some contain a few hundred people, others have tens of thousands. Some are established, with mud walls surrounding the straw huts and little garden plots with planted vegetables and some are new, with families crowded under white plastic sheeting. In the bigger ones, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide everything from water and food to health services and playgroups for the children. In some of the more remote, inaccessible or small camps, often there is nothing at all: just people crouching on the ground, shooing away the flies.

The latest UN humanitarian situation report said food is being provided to 62 percent of the conflict affected population, that 53 percent had received shelter and nonfood items like pots and blankets, 36 percent had access to clean water. The report further noted that there are about 500 international staff and approximately 3,690 national staff currently working in the Darfur operations.

After eight months in existence, Amira's camp, called Ardamata, in West Darfur, has an air of permanence. Fences made of thorn-tree branches separate neighbor's compounds, and a small market thrives on its outskirts. There is a school put up by UNICEF, a clinic run by the NGO Medair, and afterschool programs and women's groups led by Save the Children-USA, another NGO.

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) was busy last week orchestrating their third food distribution in as many months here: yellow split peas, sorghum, wheat, and vegetable oil - 2,100 calories worth per person per day - all trucked in from a warehouse in nearby Genaina. It's handed out by staff from Save the Children, who check registration cards. Further away, near the Kirinding and el Hujaj camps, where the roads have been washed away by the rains, the WFP drops food from planes to the astonishment of the people below.

While the UN has been instrumental in bringing aid to the refugees, it has only made halting efforts to stop the violence, which Powell said Thursday is ongoing. The UN set Aug. 30 as a deadline to get the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed and bring them to justice, but so far the international community has not levied any sanctions. Thursday, Powell upped the ante.

"The US will propose that the next UN Security Council resolution on Sudan request a UN investigation into all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law that have occurred in Darfur, with a view to ensuring accountability," he said.

The State Department said in a report released Thursday that the 1,136 interviews by US officials with Darfur refugees revealed a "consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities committed against non-Arab villagers." He said the evidence corroborates the specific intent of perpetrators to destroy a "group in whole or part" - using language from the 1948 genocide text.

Meanwhile, it's time for families of four to collect their food in Ardamata and it's Amira's turn to stand in line. But the sun is scorching and her baby, bundled onto her back, is wailing, so she decides to wait here. Her father Adam goes instead. When his place in line comes, Amira says, he will send word and she will go over with her card and cut the line, even if this means squabbling with others.

The hours pass and there is no word from him. Amira sits on her mat with some neighbors and pulls ticks from her daughter Samia's head. Meanwhile, her other daughter, Arafa, heads off to the Save the Children compound for school and to play with friends.

There are days, she explains, when she and the other women leave the camp to collect grass and wood outside. On four occasions they have been beaten by the Janjaweed out there, she says, demonstrating how the men smacked her on her back, even though Omima was tied there. Nevertheless, they go. She needs the wood to make a fire for cooking, and the grass she sells as animal feed at the local market or in Genaina. On a good day, she might make 100 Sudanese dinars, about 40 cents. She uses it, she says, for household needs - salt and some onions. She is saving up for a new ax.

At 4 p.m., Adam wanders over. The line was too long, and he has been told to return the next day, he says. He will stay with Amira tonight as she gets up to prepare his dinner: porridge. Arafa is home from her playgroup and school now and shows her family her notebook filled with symbols neither adult can understand. "Today was fun," she says. "We played volleyball." Amira and Adam look puzzled and get up to wash their feet and pray.

Back across the border in Chad, to conserve batteries Ahmed only turns his radio on every hour for the top of the news. If the Janjaweed have been defeated, he explains, it will make the top of the program.

"I listen at 4 in the afternoon - maybe I shall be told to go home then," he says. "And then I listen at 5 - that might be the time to go." So far he has heard a lot about Iraq, but the news he is straining for remains allusive. "Perhaps at 6," he says, cheerily. "Perhaps then."

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