IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Tribe endures another of Sudan's wars

After years ago fleeing north in pursuit of Darfur's promise of peace, Sudan's Dinka tribe is again enduring a parade of human suffering in which 1.5 million people have been  driven from their homes and tens of thousands killed.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Dinka men once danced in a green field here in Darfur. A weave of drum rhythms would rise with the smoke of their twilight bonfires. The men would form a tight line with their spears, honoring their lost homeland in war-scattered southern Sudan and chanting praise for the peace they had found as refugees.

Now, come nightfall, the camp is silent. No more dancing, no more music, nothing to celebrate. The towering Dinkas now find themselves strangers in the middle of Sudan's latest war.

Squatting on a mud floor, Peter Bak Mrach squeezed into his dank shelter with his wife and children. He now lives in fear that government-backed militia fighters, known as the Janjaweed, will attack the camp where he and thousands of Dinkas have lived peacefully for the last two decades.

The peace these Dinkas once praised in Darfur has long been erased. Beliel is less than five miles from a newer camp, Kalma, where about 70,000 other refugees have built row after row of shelters patched together from twigs, plastic sheeting and rags, just as many Dinkas did years ago. Like the war in the south that expelled the Dinkas, the conflict in Darfur has left a parade of human suffering, with 1.5 million driven from their homes and tens of thousands dead.

"Sudan's wars are chasing each other now," said Mrach, 35, who had yellowing, cloudy eyes and spoke in hushed tones. "The same thing that made me leave the south so long ago has happened again in Darfur."

The story of how two camps from Sudan's separate wars wound up as neighbors highlights the fragility of Africa's largest nation. Conflicts between the central government and rebel groups in the south and the west have made Sudan a country unified only on maps.

The war in the south, which has lasted 21 years, has caused the deaths of 2.2 million people and has displaced 4.5 million more. After a long delay, peace talks between the government in Khartoum, the capital, and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army resumed last week in Naivasha, Kenya. In a tentative peace deal, the government agreed to share oil wealth and to allow regional autonomy, including a referendum on secession in six years.

The negotiations between the Islamic and Arab government and Christian and animist tribes in southern Sudan could be a model for resolving other conflicts in the country, some analysts said. The government, which came to power in a 1989 coup, has been accused of concentrating development and slowly rising oil wealth in Khartoum.

"The road to peace in Darfur is through the north-south peace agreement," said Charles R. Snyder, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, who visited Khartoum last month to push for an agreement. "We have to remember there is a bigger Sudan, where a bigger war took place. But there are worries that what is happening in Darfur will distract from the larger peace."

Witnessing a reenactment

The trauma of Darfur has reminded Mrach of the atrocities that his Dinka community once suffered: the raiding of cattle, raping of women and burning of huts. Such tactics are nothing new in Sudan, he said. It was like watching a reenactment of the chaos that overran his village of mud huts in Bahr el-Gazal in southern Sudan in 1988.

He was 16 when men on horses came to his village, he said. They were local militiamen armed by the government. After a rebel attack in the area, the government had provided automatic weapons to Arabs of the Baggara tribe and encouraged raids on Dinka villages, according to human rights reports at the time.

The government-backed fighters were known as Muraheleen, and they were the forebears of the Janjaweed who terrorize Darfur today.

Just as in Darfur, militiamen stole the Mrach family's cattle and burned their homes. Women were taken as "wives," Mrach said, whispering that they were held and raped and some were never seen again.

Mrach's family walked with thousands of other Dinkas through the bush, along the railway line and into Darfur, where 17 camps are now home to 53,000 Dinkas.

Mrach said he survived for six weeks on tiny amounts of wild seeds and muddy water. He hid in the reeds and traveled early in the morning and late at night, arriving in Beliel, a patch of unwanted land just 10 miles north of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur province.

"There was a horrible food problem," he said. "We walked along the railroad to get here. I never felt hunger like that. I never saw so many starving people dying."

They set up camp in Beliel. Aid groups from around the world came to feed them and provide health care.

Over the years, the aid groups left. But the business community in Nyala considered the Dinkas good cultivators and low-wage workers for laundry and cooking. There were instances of racial tension at first between the black Dinkas and lighter-skinned Arabs, but overall, Darfurians tolerated and sometimes welcomed the Dinkas' presence, he said.

Some local citizens from African tribes donated seeds and an exchange program began. Nyala's economy was vibrant with overstuffed Arab-run souks, or markets, and the town served as a crossroads between Nigeria and Chad to the west and central Sudan to the east.

"We became self-sufficient," Mrach said. "We missed the south. But we had no options."

The Dinka here changed some of their customs, he said. They started wearing Darfur's omnipresent dress: a white flowing jallabah, or robe, and a turban that sets off their dark-skinned faces, like a curl of white icing.

"Darfur was very good to me," Mrach said as he looked over his children, who had grown thin in the last few months. "But today it's all war. I don't want to say this, but I think there is no chance for peace in Sudan. What do I tell my children about their country?"

In the wrong place

Even though the war in Darfur is not being waged against the Dinka tribe, there are new arrivals streaming into Beliel every day. They are Dinkas who lived in camps to the south and were attacked by the Janjaweed because they were simply in the wrong place.

On a sweltering afternoon, Manyuat Mahol, a gaunt and graying 68-year-old chief with oversize plastic glasses, displayed his few belongings, all under an acacia tree: three plastic jerry cans, a burnt cooking pot, a withered-looking donkey. He bore a haunting resemblance to his displaced Darfurian neighbors in Kalma camp.

He arrived here in the last few months, along with 1,000 other Dinkas, all of them running from one displaced camp to another.

The first time Mahol was forced to flee war in Sudan was in 1988, when men on horses stole his 270 cows, he said. He settled 70 miles southwest of Beliel in a Dinka camp in Darfur. Then four months ago, he found he was in the middle of another war and had to flee once again. The Janjaweed rode in, firing guns, he said, as the Dinkas ran.

"My life was interesting in Darfur," said the chief, who has four wives and 26 children to care for. "Now we are in the same situation again. We have no food again. My sons are hungry again. Why does the war keep chasing us?"

Then out of a shelter made of sticks, a woman ran up to the chief. She was wearing a shredded dress that revealed her spine. Her name was Akot Tick Thiep; she was 88 and angry.

She said she was too afraid to farm because the Janjaweed recently attacked one Dinka woman, leaving her bloody and beaten. With new refugees coming, their food storage has now dwindled.

"I want to go home to south Sudan now. Give me wings. I will fly," Thiep yelled. "Give me a car. I will travel right now. Every year we say, 'Next year in southern Sudan,' and we never go. What is wrong with us? We just want to stay here and die?"

She showed her skeletal waist and collapsed into hysterics.

The chief gently told her: "You can't go. The road is closed. The government has blocked off the route because of the war in Darfur."

She waved her hand in front of her face and walked away, her head hung low.

All but forgotten
There is only one small health post for 5,000 Dinkas in Beliel. A winding line of sickly people wait for help under the hot sun.

By contrast, there are 150 doctors and aid workers from Africa and Europe at the nearby Kalma camp, setting up watering holes, sanitation projects and feeding centers.

The caregiver for the Dinkas is Yusuf Amin Abdullah, an overwhelmed medical assistant, working for the Spanish branch of UNICEF. He is required to ask patients for contributions toward their medical costs. He works with a tight budget and little more than aspirin and malaria medication.

He has watched over the years as the world forgot Beliel and focused on Africa's other disasters, such as Rwanda, Congo, Liberia and now Darfur.

"We need a feeding center here now, too," Abdullah said. "The children are getting thinner. The parents can't cultivate anymore. They have run from one war straight into another one."

The U.N. World Food Program has started giving out rations at Beliel again, just as it did 20 years ago. But some local staff members say they worry that funds will disappear when the next conflict emerges.

Sitting outside a mud hut that serves as a Seventh-day Adventist church on a recent afternoon, Mrach said he doesn't plan to wait for the next Sudanese war.

"My idea is to make it to south Sudan and then leave to Kenya," he said. "I'm not trusting anyone in Sudan to help us anymore."

With that he trudged back into the pitch-dark church to pray, he said, for a miracle.