When Sudanese government bombs fell on his town of Kornoya in the troubled region of Darfur four years ago, Abdu Mohammad Phile found something to be grateful for: None of his three wives or 20 children had been killed, and he had three donkeys to carry them all out to safety.
The journey took three weeks, through a merciless landscape of scrubby trees and sand, but everyone in his family made it alive.
"If I didn't have donkeys, we couldn't have made it here with my children," says the owner of a trucking business in Kornoya, who now lives in a refugee camp just across the Sudanese border in neighboring Chad. "I lost everything I had in Darfur, all my possessions. We put the children on the donkeys and we carried the food and the water ourselves and walked."
In the rugged semi-desert regions of Darfur and Eastern Chad, a donkey is not just a beast of burden. It is a pickup truck, carrying water or firewood. It is a source of wealth and pride. It can be part of a dowry at the wedding of a daughter. But in times of conflict, such as the four-year-long civil war in the Darfur region, and now as local conflicts reach a war-footing in Chad itself, possession of a donkey can be the difference between survival and death.
After four years, the stories of destruction inside Sudan's Darfur region have become familiar ones, told with numbing regularity to visiting journalists. Plastic and canvas tents have by now been replaced by familiar round mud huts with conical thatched roofs made of grass, a sign of resignation to the bitter status quo. But while families still rely almost entirely on international food assistance, since they are mostly forbidden from working in the local Chadian economy, the one possession many refugees can still call their own are their animals, and especially their donkeys.