Image: Displaced Sudanese from Darfur
Sarah El Deeb  /  AP
Displaced people arrive by truck at the Zamzam refugee camp in northern Darfur, Sudan, on Thursday.
updated 3/3/2009 6:35:33 PM ET 2009-03-03T23:35:33

The tall 14-year-old's parents were killed when government soldiers swept into his hometown in Darfur to chase out rebels. Then Arab militias went after the survivors. That's when the teenager fled atop a truck piled with mattresses and pots.

Mohammed Bahreddine arrived at this refugee camp last week after a two-day journey, joining more than 26,000 people from the region around the town of Muhajeria who have flooded into the crowded camp in recent weeks.

It's one of the largest single flights of refugees in the past year in Darfur — a sign how civilians are bearing the brunt of a war that entered its seventh year in February. At least 10,000 more people from the Muhajeria area are expected at Zamzam soon, camp leaders say.

The fighting comes as the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands prepares to announce Wednesday whether it will issue an arrest warrant for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, on charges of war crimes in Darfur.

Many residents and international aid workers in Darfur fear that if a warrant is issued, the government in Khartoum will lash out with greater violence in Sudan's vast, arid western territory, fueling the flow of refugees.

The government has sought to ease fears of any backlash, saying it will continue peace efforts in Darfur.

A confident al-Bashir derided the possibility of a warrant, smiling and waving at a ceremony Tuesday opening a dam in northern Sudan. "They will issue their decision tomorrow, and we are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it," he said, using a common Arabic insult.

According to the U.N., some 2.7 million people have been displaced and 300,000 have been killed since Darfur's conflict began in February 2003, when ethnic African rebels rose up complaining of discrimination by the Arab-led national government.

Al-Bashir's regime is accused of unleashing Arab militias known as janjaweed, which have committed atrocities against ethnic African towns and villages. The government denies backing the janjaweed and says the death figures are inflated.

Government troops seized Muhajeria in early February after rival rebel groups in the area fought among themselves. Survivors say most of the town's ethnic African population of Zaghawa tribesmen didn't start fleeing until Arab militias moved in, looting and attacking surrounding villages. U.N. officials estimate at least 30 people were killed in the fighting.

Bahreddine's voice stumbles when he tells of his parents' death from an aerial bombing attack during the government's initial assault on Muhajeria. "Our house was on fire. My parents died inside. I ran out," the teen said.

He finally made it to Zamzam, where his grandmother lives. "I will never go back. Even our clothes, everything is gone."

Zamzam camp already houses 50,000 people, and humanitarian workers say the pressure of new arrivals is straining scarce water resources.

Toby Lanzer, a deputy humanitarian coordinator for the U.N., says 50,000 people are believed to have been uprooted in the Muhajeria area over the past month. It is not known if all are moving toward Zamzam or if some are heading elsewhere.

"This is a very significant movement of people," Lanzer said.

Mass exodus
During 2008, a total of 315,000 people fled their homes from multiple places across Darfur, indicating the Muhajeria flight is large for a single exodus.

The government of North Darfur province, where Zamzam sits, is reluctant to open new camps to house the influx, said Ahmed Salah, a provincial official. Besides the strain on resources, Zamzam and other camps are rife with anti-government sentiment.

"The idea is not to have new refugee camps or to have them settle there," he said. "The hope is that they can return."

The exodus from Muhajeria also reflects the complicated map of tribal rivalries in the area, which pits ethnic Africans against each other as much as against Arab tribes.

Zaghawa tribesmen moved into the area in the 1970s, forcing out rival African tribes. One rebel faction then turned the area into its stronghold, before being attacked in January by a rival rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. Then the government forces drove out the JEM fighters.

Sharif Issac, a humanitarian coordinator for the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, accused the government of using "forced migration" to empty Muhajeria of Zaghawa to make it easier to control.

"It will only create more frustration and maybe many of (the refugees) will join the rebels," Isaac said.

However, the commander of a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission, Nigerian Gen. Martin Agwai, said the government would not have attacked the town if JEM hadn't waged its offensive first.

"If JEM did not move into Muhajeria, those people that are displaced ... wouldn't have been displaced," Agwai said.

No place is safe
In a sign of the rearranging of the population, the government wants to move 100,000 people from the original tribes back into Muhajeria, said Daniel Augstburger, humanitarian director for the peacekeeping force.

But Augstburger said that even though the returning tribes may have an old claim to the land, the Zaghawas can't be forced out. "We have to find a solution for everybody, not only for one part of the population," he said.

Refugees from Muhajeria continue to pull into Zamzam in trucks that carry dozens of people perched atop piles of mattresses, blankets, water jugs and food. Some of the new families set up their belongings in a wooded area of the camp, taking cover under the trees.

"After the government forces came, they armed the tribes. They kill you if you go get water. So we left," said Ali Hussein, a 26-year-old Zaghawa, whose family of five slept in the open, waiting for a tent from aid groups.

Hussein hopes to find a job in Zamzam and keep his family safe. "Here, there is protection."

Peacekeepers nearby set up a checkpoint nearby to boost the sense of security among camp residents.

But Bahreddine said no place is safe. "The war is not yet over," the teenager said, keeping a wary eye on the sky watching for the Sudanese fighter jets that fly over North Darfur. "We will die wherever we go."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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