Darfuris flee on eve of Bashir case

More than 50,000 people have fled government and rebel attacks in Darfur in recent weeks. The International Criminal Court could issue an arrest warrant for President Bashir on Wednesday.

Rob Crilly
Forced to flee: Umsinin Abdullai Adam reached the Otash aid camp last week after surviving a government attack on the town of Muhajiriya, Sudan.

Six years after the start of Darfur's messy conflict and days before Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is expected to be charged with war crimes, the steady stream of people arriving at the region's aid camps is a reminder of the scale of humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

A United Nations-led military force is on the ground. Government officials are subject to international sanctions and the world is demanding action.

Yet people like Yacoub Suleiman Hari are still staring death in the face, forced to flee their homes after recent attacks by the notorious government-backed Arab janjaweed militia.

He is one of 50,000 people displaced from the town of Muhajiriya in South Darfur after a rebel advance followed up by government and janjaweed reprisals in February.

More than 23,000 have trudged and trucked their way to the capital of North Darfur, filling already overstretched aid camps to the breaking point.

Thousands more have been arriving in Otash, on the outskirts of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.

"We knew something like this was going to happen. We had been afraid for a long time," said Mr. Suleiman, as he put the finishing touches on his new home, a simple hut built from sticks covered with reed mats – a gift from his brother.

"Things had been very difficult with lots of small fighting," he says. "Then the janjaweed came and attacked our home."

More than 300,000 people have died and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced since the conflict in Sudan's troubled Darfur region broke out after rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.

The town of Muhajiriya had been under the control of guerrillas loyal to Minni Minnawi, the only rebel leader to sign a 2006 peace deal with the government. However, a spate of defections and fighting saw the town switch to another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement in January amid weeks of deadly clashes.

That was the signal for the government forces to retake the town, which they did with the help of air support.

Suleiman, a father of 30, gathered up the seven children he still had living at home as gunmen on camels and horses swept through the town just as dawn was breaking.

They walked for two hours to a neighboring village before venturing back the next day to salvage what they could.

"There was nothing left. All my animals were gone, my goats, everything," he said.

His home had been torched.

The family's remaining possessions – a battered suitcase and a sack of dirty clothes – were sitting in the new shelter.

All around, other families are trying to make their homes in the sprawling camp, already home to more than 70,000 people.

They face a constant battle against the dust that swirls through the air and the uncertainty of life in the camps. Many of the alleys become no-go areas at night. Gunshots and robberies are a daily hazard.

Suleiman arrived on Friday, a reminder that all the world's efforts to resolve Darfur's multilayered conflict have made little difference to more than 2 million people forced into camps for their own protection.

Once again aid agencies are faced with a fresh emergency.

Toby Lanzer, the UN's deputy humanitarian coordinator in northern Sudan, says the UN is now desperately trying to reach all the people displaced from Muhajiriya and surrounding towns.

"It's a bad time to be on the move because the land is bone dry," Mr. Lanzer says. "It's very difficult to reach people in rural areas, and we know there are places where there are thousands of people in dire straits."

On Wednesday, judges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague will announce whether President Bashir will face charges for his government's actions in Darfur. The court's chief prosecutor has presented them with evidence of war crimes, murder, and – most contentious of all – genocide.

They are expected to issue a warrant for Bashir's arrest, their first for a sitting head of state.

All eyes are now on how Khartoum reacts. Officials and government-controlled newspapers have gradually stepped up their rhetoric in recent days, preparing the ground for pro-Bashir rallies planned for immediately after the ICC judges announce their decision.

Bashir himself spoke at a mass gathering during the weekend.

"Where was international justice during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Gaza, and the crimes committed in the prisons of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?" he said on Sunday.

Most diplomats and observers in Khartoum say the Sudanese government will avoid a knee-jerk response and take its time responding. But no one knows for sure.

Aid workers in Sudan fear a backlash that could prevent them from reaching people in need.

"We are the ones on the ground, and while we will try to keep operating as normal, it is very difficult with all of this hanging over us, knowing that the government could easily expel some of us just to make a point that it is still in control," said an aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Abdallah Adam Khatir, an independent analyst in Khartoum, said the government was preparing to maintain the illusion of business as usual.

"We have heard propaganda from officials and the president himself," he says, "but they are all trying to play down the ICC and make it seem as if it is irrelevant."

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