Sudan bombs Darfur rebels – and civilians – amid calls for a 'no-fly' zone.
A Dutch journalist and photographer traveled with rebel forces in Darfur in February. They were pinned down by government forces for weeks, before escaping across the border into Chad.
Karoya Laban, Sudan
Ache Ali has lost four children and a husband.Skip to next paragraph
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A Sudanese cattle herder, she rides on a donkey cart with her youngest child, a daughter, wedged between hundreds of other fleeing Sudanese, herds of bleating goats, and other livestock.
"They [the children] ran away three days ago when our village, Buhera, was bombed." she calls out over the din, hoping for some help.
For weeks, she says that her family lived in fear, as the region was bombed day and night by Sudanese government aircraft. In early February, when this reporter caught up to her, she was fleeing her village. She is just one of the roughly 30,000 displaced Sudanese who has fled the region around Muhajirya in recent weeks.
Muhajirya is strategically located along a transit route in southern Darfur. It became the scene of intense fighting in mid-January. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels captured the town after a fight with another militia, a Sudanese Liberation Army faction known as the SLA-Minni Minawi, which in 2006 had declared loyalty to the government.
To oust JEM, who are supported by neighboring Chad, from Muhajirya, the Sudanese government launched an offensive, sending in ground troops and bombing the area for about three weeks. Residents say most of the bombers were Russian-made Antonovs, but they also saw MiG fighter aircraft. About 10 villages were bombed and dozens of civilians were killed.
Hide the cattle
During the bombing runs, Mrs. Ali's husband, and the other cattlemen in the village, had taken their herds, the most valuable assets in Darfur, to a safe area. In the past, janjaweed raiders had taken their cattle, she says. But Ali doesn't know where her husband is now – or whether he is still alive.
When bombers hit Buhera in late January, Ali was with her daughter, using the donkey cart to gather firewood. They were just outside her village. After she saw bombs exploding, she says, she ran back to her home. "I saw my house and those of several neighbors' burning. The villagers told me that my children had run away screaming." Four people died the attack.
For two days, Ali searched for her missing children in the area around Buhera. But when people from the surrounding villages began fleeing their homes because the Janjaweed were reportedly approaching on horseback, she decided to leave. "I quickly dug up my emergency supply of food that I had received from the World Food Programme, and got out of there," she says.
Her cart is also now loaded with the food and the belongings of other refugees on foot. Ali says that she doesn't know where she is going. She is following the flow of thousands of other refugees.
After the government air strikes on Muhajirya at the end of January, all of the aid agencies stationed there withdrew. Only one compound – with a few hundred blue helmets of UNAMID, the UN/African Union peacekeeping force – remained open. It became a gathering place for thousands of war refugees.
Following these air strikes, government ground troops tried to recapture the town, but on Jan. 26 they were defeated by the JEM in a battle about 15 miles east of Muhajirya.
"The area is still dotted with some 200 dead bodies of government soldiers," Alhadiy Djoama of the rebel group SLA-Unity (another faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army) told this reporter on Feb, 3. To support his claim, he shows photos of dozens of corpses he took with his mobile phone.
Mr. Djoama recounts the events while sitting on a Persian carpet, 12 miles north of Muhajirya. Some 500 rebels had set up camp, including 40 jeeps, under the trees. They say they move their camp every couple of days. To hide from the government aircraft, the jeeps remain parked under the trees for most of the day.
Dodging Russian bombers