Uncovered by a restless wind, skulls and bones poke above the thin dirt in this corner of Darfur, lying surrounded by half-buried, rotting clothes.
A short, bearded man named Ibrahim, 42, scratches through the sand. He is quiet and serious, close to tears. There are other, bigger grave sites elsewhere, he says, but the bones he is looking at are those of 25 people who he is sure are his friends and fellow villagers.
Some of them were dragged from the prison where he was held and were axed to death, he says.
Ibrahim is showing the burial ground to an Associated Press reporter and photographer, the first Western journalists to visit this remote town in more than a year. The western Sudan region is about to enter a new phase in its four-year-old conflict — one that villagers fear may encourage more killing.
Sudan’s government recently agreed to let in 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers, a fraction of the 22,000 mandated by the Security Council last August. The deployment could still take months and villagers here fear the government will want to get rid of all witnesses to atrocities before peacekeepers move in.
“We need them to come as fast as possible, because we’re all in danger,” said Ibrahim.
Aid workers and U.N. personnel say the burial site is one of three dozen mass graves around Mukjar, a town at the center of the Darfur calamity, holding evidence at the heart of the international community’s case against Sudanese leaders for war atrocities.
Ibrahim and others interviewed insisted their full names be withheld because they fear reprisals. It is difficult to independently verify their accounts, but they cited dates and victims’ names and drew maps of grave sites. Ibrahim named nine of the people buried in the grave he showed to the AP.
Some of what the witnesses say matches up with what a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, has documented: at least 51 cases of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Mukjar area — mass executions, torture and rapes of civilians.
The prosecutor says most of the killings were done by the Sudanese army and the janjaweed, Arab militiamen backed by the Sudanese government. Their war on Darfur rebels, which turned against all black African villagers, has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 200,000 dead and 2.5 million made homeless.
This month, the court issued arrest warrants for two men — a Sudanese government minister and an alleged janjaweed commander — who it contends directed atrocities here.
Most of the mass killings in this area happened in late 2003 and early 2004, when long-simmering tensions in Darfur flared into its latest bloodbath.
‘Side by side with the murderers of our families’
Ali Kushayb, the alleged janjaweed commander named by the ICC, has been fired as the Mukjar region chief of the “central reserve” police, a force regarded as a cover for the janjaweed. He was replaced by his deputy, Addaif al-Sinah, who villagers say remains the area’s janjaweed chief.
Ahmed Harun, who was a government minister and head of the government’s Darfur task force when the killings occurred, is also sought by the court. He is now the minister of humanitarian affairs.
Mukjar offers a sobering look at the results of a government victory: Impoverished and frightened ethnic Africans huddle in refugee camps where they survive on humanitarian aid, while Arab nomads control the hinterland, threatening any farmer who tries to return.
“They did such a good job at cleansing the region in 2003 that there’s not much left to fight over,” said an aid worker, who like all others interviewed refused to be quoted by name for fear of being expelled by the government.
Aid workers say the town is like “a security bubble,” where refugees can live in relative safety as long as they don’t venture more than a mile or so into the countryside.
Janjaweed fighters still stroll through the marketplace, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.
“We live side by side with the murderers of our families, and we can’t do anything,” said Ibrahim.
‘Persecution, torture, murder and rape’
Nearly four times the size of Texas, Sudan is Africa’s biggest country. It straddles black and Arab Africa, a patchwork of over 100 tribes and ethnicities ruled by an Arab-dominated government.
Sudan has been plagued for decades by rebellions, some separatist, driven by feelings of discrimination and economic neglect. Darfur’s tensions escalated into all-out conflict just as the government was negotiating an end to a 20-year civil war with its African, partly Christianized south, and it apparently feared a new threat to Sudan’s territorial integrity.
Its response was a fierce counterinsurgency.
The government is accused of arming some of Darfur’s Arab nomads and paying them to attack not just the rebels but innocent black African villagers. The name janjaweed roughly translates as “demons on horseback.” The Sudanese army also is allegedly involved.
These forces swept through parts of Darfur searching for rebels, and some black Africans fled Mukjar — a coveted part of the arid region where water and vegetation are more abundant.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecution, issuing a report in February that capped 20 months of investigation, limited itself to events between August 2003 and March 2004. It charged that Harun and Kushayb bore “criminal responsibility in relation to 51 counts of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes, including persecution, torture, murder and rape.”
All the cases stemmed from the Mukjar area. The Sudanese government disputes almost all the allegations.
For Ibrahim, finding his friends’ bones in a shallow grave was just one of the torments he described.
‘I learned to survive ...’
In February 2004, he said, his father, a sister, three brothers and five nephews were slain during an army-janjaweed raid on his village, Trindi. He said it was targeted because it is inhabited by people of the same tribe as that of a rebel group.
He managed to bury his relatives in a hurry, then fled to Mukjar, a three-hour hike away. But the following week he was arrested and jailed.
He and other witnesses said that nearly every day for over a month, government forces would pluck a few men from the jail. Ibrahim said he saw or heard people being killed. Others just disappeared, and sometimes their bodies would turn up later, he said.
“I learned to survive by hiding at the back of the cell when they came to pull people out,” Ibrahim said.
He said he was jailed until April 2004, when the international aid group Doctors Without Borders reached Mukjar and first reported atrocities.
The ICC report says large-scale purges had begun some eight months previously after Harun, the minister, met in Mukjar with Kushayb, whom the ICC describes as the “colonel of colonels” of all janjaweed in the zone.
It says Harun armed and funded the janjaweed with government cash and made regular follow-up visits to Mukjar.
Ax killings and torture
Ibrahim recalled watching from his jail cell when about 1,000 janjaweed gathered in front of the prison to receive their share of looted cattle.
“The minister (Harun) told them their mission was to burn all the region down,” he said.
Next, he said, Kushayb ordered his men to “get rid of every Fur” and turn their territory into Dar al-Arab, meaning “Land of the Arabs.” Fur are the main tribesmen of this region, hence the name Darfur.
Kushayb then opened the cell’s barred door, pulled out a prisoner and split his head open with an ax, Ibrahim said. He said he witnessed the killing.
Ibrahim said Kushayb then axed two more prisoners to death while his men shook their right fists and shouted “janjaweed, janjaweed.”
As for Harun, Kushayb’s boss, “The minister was sitting under the shade, and he was also cheering,” Ibrahim said.
With Ibrahim in prison was Abdallah, a young man who said he never belonged to a rebel group. In a separate interview, he said he witnessed the ax killings described by Ibrahim.
Abdallah said he was repeatedly beaten with an iron rod and saw others being burned or lashed or having their nails torn off.
‘Not a speck of evidence’
He said two men were crucified on the prison wall. “A janjaweed then hammered a nail through one man’s forehead,” he said, and the other was nailed through the chest.
Both Ibrahim and Abdallah separately said they had seen and heard women being brought to the prison and raped for hours by janjaweed.
They said the janjaweed shouted they were “planting tomatoes,” a reference to their skin color. Darfur Arabs describe themselves as “red” because they are slightly lighter-skinned than ethnic Africans.
“I heard the women’s cries all night,” said Abdallah.
After the ICC report pointed its finger at Kushayb, the Sudanese government said it arrested him. That cannot be independently verified, and Sudan’s justice minister told the AP he could not comment on when the government investigation into Kushayb’s doings would be concluded.
But Abdallah Khamis, acting governor of the West Darfur region, said the “central reserve” force in Darfur is now commanded by al-Sinah, the former deputy.
“It’s standard procedure — everywhere in the world: A deputy replaces his superior if he is removed,” Khamis said in an interview in el-Geneina, capital of West Darfur.
As for Harun, a prominent figure of the ruling party, Sudan’s justice minister has said authorities investigated and found “not a speck of evidence” against him.
Harun initially agreed to an interview with the AP but then bowed out, saying his schedule was full.
‘We’re always frightened’
Harun has told other interviewers, mostly for Arab media, that all his orders came from the top. The ICC report quoted him as saying the government gave him “all the power and authority to kill or forgive whoever in Darfur for the sake of peace and security.”
Sudan says that, like the U.S., China or Israel, it is not party to the International Criminal Court and will not hand over suspects.
The ICC prosecutor’s office says it has the right to investigate Darfur crimes nonetheless and will push ahead. In an e-mailed reply to a question, the court said, without elaborating, that the prosecution “continues to gather information about alleged crimes committed in Darfur.”
Most rebels are gone from the Mukjar area, nearly all the villages have been burned to the ground and the Sudanese government considers the zone peaceful by Darfur standards.
But some 14,000 refugees have moved into Mukjar.
“We’re always frightened,” said Ibrahim. “We live in Mukjar like in a prison without walls. ... We’re not safe, but we can’t leave.”