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.

By , Correspondent

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    HOMELESS: Ache Ali and her daughter flee after their village in Darfur was bombed.
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    REBEL LEADER: Alhadiy Djoama with his SLA-Unity militia near Muhajirya, Sudan.
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Ache Ali has lost four children and a husband.

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.

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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

The roar of a Antonov cargo plane, making bombing runs less than a mile a way, could be heard while this reporter visited. "I hope that our movement quickly gets special missiles to take these planes down, because they drop bombs on unarmed civilians," says Djoama angrily.

At night, the Antonov pilot and the approaching government ground troops can be heard talking in Arabic. The conversation is picked up on an FM radio. Djoama and his comrades make a sudden dash to their jeeps. A convoy of a few hundred government vehicles and tanks is on its way. Headlights off so the aircraft cannot spot them, they move to a new campsite about a half-dozen miles away.

But before long, the Antonovs find the sleeping rebels. A bomb lands in a deafening explosion just 50 meters away from Djoama. Djoama looks up for a moment, then rolls over and goes back to sleep.

Early in the morning of Feb. 4, the rebel group moves out, and arrives near the village of Karoya Laban. On the same day, back in Muhajirya, government troops succeed in retaking the town – after the JEM rebels pull out.

Many refugees from the region around Muhajirya are now camped under the trees just outside the village of Karoya Laban, where there is a well. In the village of thatched houses, residents say that there was an Antonov air strike at the end of January just outside the village. "The victims were two elderly men who had just taken their herd of sheep there to drink," says Abdullkerim Abdullah.

Mr. Abdullah, who lives with his wife and seven children in Karoya Laban, says the bombings have occurred with regularity. "But there were two occasions when the area was attacked day and night for weeks without end: in July 2008 and in recent weeks. The Antonovs did not hit this village. They can't aim very well."

The UN Security Council prohibits offensive air operations over Darfur, but according to the UN, Sudan has been ignoring the resolution for years. Bombings of villages took place on a large scale in 2003 and 2004. The number of bombings has since been reduced.

Nearly all air strikes are in conjunction with government attacks on rebels. UN reports claim that between 2007 and 2008 about 100 Darfur villages have been bombed. The air raids have resulted in around 400 known civilian casualties.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a no-fly zone over Darfur was "under consideration" during her Senate confirmation hearings. And on March 5, former US Air Force chief of staff Gen. Merrill McPeak wrote in the Washington Post that "establishing a no-fly zone remains the most promising initiative to halt the atrocities in Darfur."

No fly zone takes a back seat

But the current focus of the US and the UN is to get aid groups, expelled on March 5, back into the country. UN Ambassador Susan Rice made no mention of a no-fly zone in a Friday statement to the UN Security Council, where she expressed concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Darfur.

"The bombing has certainly increased the demands for a no-fly zone," says Darfur expert Alex de Waal, a British writer on African issues. But, he adds, "Most of those who have examined the practicalities of a no-fly zone over Darfur consider it impractical: hugely expensive in comparison to the impact on the Sudan government's military capability. It is also an act of war which the Sudan government is expecting, and will almost certainly elicit a counter-response from the Sudan government, such as closing Darfur to all flights, including humanitarian and peacekeeping planes."

As the aerial attacks continue, and Darfuris flee their homes, the stockpiles of humanitarian aid are dwindling – and so are the options for Darfuris.

Assistant village leader Abdullah would also like to leave. "I'm scared to death that the janjaweed will take away my cattle. But there is no place to hide; we will always have to return to the well, because there isn't another one for miles around here."

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