GOZ BEIDA, Chad — The conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, which President Bush has labeled genocide, has intensified in recent weeks after a lull that followed a partial peace agreement signed in May.
The attacks by Arab militia, known as janjaweed and said to be backed by the Sudanese government, have spread from Darfur to neighboring Chad where many Darfurians have been seeking refuge. Chad declared a state of emergency on Monday in the capital, N'Djamena, and some areas on the Sudanese border.
NBC News’ Ann Curry reports from Goz Beida — a UNHCR refugee camp in Chad giving temporary shelter to 15,000 people — on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sudan and Chad.
What is the situation like in the refugee camps?
The situation is very sad. About 6,000 of the refugees here are children and they are very hungry. Right now as I speak to you, they are crowding against the fence asking for food and water.
People might think that this is the way things goes in Africa, but in fact these people from Darfur once lived in beautiful villages once where they were well fed, had livestock and put their children through school. They grew so much millet, sorghum and peanuts that they had to store it in huge jars.
What has happened is that there is this firestorm of ethnic cleansing, which started as an effort to seize territory, that has spiraled out of control. The violence is widely blamed on the ambitions of the Arab government of Sudan to seize territory and squash a rebel movement. There has been a systematic burning of people’s homes, and now some 200,000 Darfurians are living in these squalid refugee camps in Chad and their lives are completely changed.
We focused on the children, and I asked them to draw pictures of their lives in Darfur, as well as pictures of what happened in the attacks. The pictures of their lives in Darfur are so full of colors, flowers, animals and happy smiles. And then the pictures of the day of the attacks are full of men with guns, fire and people dying. You can see that even though much of this was almost two years ago, they are still haunted.
This violence has now escalated. In the last ten days more than 20 villages in Chad have been burned in the same way as the attacks in the Darfur region of Sudan. The perpetrators have come from Sudan, wearing Sudanese military uniforms, and have joined forces with Arabs here in Chad. Now this Arab-on-African violence is moving deep into Chad.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the last ten days and thousands are fleeing. We are hearing every day about villages being lit on fire by these Arab militias, who locals believe have been uniformed and armed by the Sudanese government. The militants are shouting racial epithets, gang-raping women and killing the men.
The U.S. government, the president of Chad and humanitarian workers on the ground are very worried about this very fragile situation. They are concerned that what happened in the Darfur region of Sudan is going to happen in Chad.
Have you seen evidence of the village attacks in Chad?
Yes. We were in the village of Tama Jour, which was set on fire last Wednesday, and the entire village, which once had 600 people, was still smoldering days later. Everything was burned to the ground — even the Koran was burned. We saw animals burned, homes completely destroyed and some fires still raging in the fields. We basically saw a place that had once thrived with 600 people that was now completely empty.
We found the villagers about 70 miles away, here in Goz Beida, under a tree. They were just broken. Before they never had to worry too much about having enough to eat because they were very able farmers, but now their children are cold at night, they don’t have enough food, and many of them are dying.
I met a woman who had four kids, three of whom were sick. I took her back to the village so she could get some food, if there was anything left. She was able to get some millet that had survived the fire. She was moving very fast because the janjaweed are still in the area.
We’ve heard that some humanitarian workers have heard gunfire not far from here. So things are becoming very tenuous. All of the people who came here to Chad for safety may well be on the move again.
What are you discovering about the violence?
The difference here is the racist element to this killing. This is Arab-on-African violence, this is not a religious war. Both sides — both the victims and the perpetrators — are Muslims. They worship from the same book, the Koran. The fact that they are both believers in Allah, just adds to their horror. People here keep saying, how can anyone who believes in Allah do this to us?
To make matters worse, they know the perpetrators as their former neighbors and friends. They are looking at the face of people that they once lived next door to.
We met a woman who threw her body on top of her elderly husband because he couldn’t move fast enough in the fire. She was burned with second degree burns on her chest and she’s probably about 80 years old. And her husband didn’t survive.
We met another young man who was bayoneted in both eyes. The last thing he ever saw was violence.
This is a different kind of ugliness that mirrors what we saw in Rwanda and what we saw in Kosovo and Bosnia. It is evocative of the hatred we saw during the Holocaust.
That’s why so many American Jews and other religious leaders have been pushing to get the U.S. government and the world to do more to stop this kind of shame. There is a sense in America that when people say “never again” that it should stand for something. So, they are pushing hard to do something about it.
Now, this was your second trip to Chad, in the border area near Darfur, does it seem like the situation is getting worse?
Yes, there is no question that the situation is growing worse and that more people are getting killed. The violence is moving deeper into Chad. There is no question that this thing is spiraling out of control. So many villages are being set on fire that humanitarian workers are struggling to keep count, that’s how bad it is.
The violence in Darfur is so extreme, it seems almost so horrific that many Americans can’t even imagine it or relate to it. Is there a story you heard there that you think really sums up the gravity of the crisis?
The story of the 17-year-old girl who was raped last month deeply affected me. She went to go gather firewood for her family and was doing her chores with six other girls when three janjaweed — the Arab militias — chased them down. One of them caught her and asked her what tribe she was in and whether they owned any land before they gang-raped her.
What this speaks to is the deliberate political effort to terrorize these people. This girl’s life can never be normal again. In this culture, if you are raped, you are shunned for the rest of your life. You may never marry. People believe that you are somehow guilty of the rape. This young girl was actually bitten by the man who raped her to mark her so that she would have the stigma forever.
And this is what we saw in Bosnia, where there was a deliberate effort to destroy the soul of the people, to terrorize them and to defile their women. And that’s what’s happening here.
This 17-year- girl looks like she could be any girl down the street. She is beautiful, thoughtful, and helpful to her mother — just a girl you would want as your daughter.
How this happened to this young child is just a horror. Her mother was just so lovely with her.
I’m the mother of a 14-year-old and I can only imagine what it must be like for her mother, given the deliberate nature, the deliberate effort to destroy her life. Her mother has lost all hope for her daughter being happy. How does one go on?
We were surrounded by women who were raped at one point and they started singing a song about the janjaweed and how they had destroyed their lives. These very stoic, proud women started sobbing because they say there is no one to protect them. They say that the men only have bows and arrows and the Arabs come in with rocket-propelled-grenades (RPGs) and automatic weapons in Land Rovers, and in Darfur they even had airplanes and helicopters. So there is great, tremendous sadness. And yet, a faith that Allah, or the world, or both may save them.