The numbers reeled off about Darfur tell their own story: more than 1 million displaced people, almost 200,000 refugees, 30,000 dead, all in just 18 months. All of this death and destruction, the result of a brutal Sudanese government crackdown on a rebel insurgency.
But as with so many immense tragedies, the scale of the numbers often obscures their meaning for those who haven’t been in Darfur or neighboring Chad, who can’t imagine the heat that blisters, the white glare of the sun, or the sparseness of the trees. It’s also probably difficult for most people who haven’t been there, who haven’t met the families torn apart by armed attacks, to imagine the personal tragedies of people thousands of miles away who don’t share their language or culture.
While the events in Darfur have been a nightmare for every man, woman and child who has survived them, I often wonder whether it isn’t most difficult for the elderly. In addition to the pain and fear shared by all who have been forced to flee their villages or seen family members killed or assaulted, the elderly carry the fear that they will never be able to return to their homes and land in their lifetime — that they will die in a foreign land. This fear is particularly strong among the farmers, as I learned when I met Khamis, a Masalit man in his 70s who had been a farmer in Darfur all his life.
When my translator, Muna, and I saw him on the grounds of a hospital in Chad, he was whiling away the hours while his wounded son Mohammed — the only one of his four sons still alive — slowly recovered his health and hopefully, his sanity. I asked him if he was willing to tell us his story, but I’m not sure he was prepared for what that meant. It was a good thing he was not in a hurry — we spent the next four hours sitting beneath a tree, talking and drinking tea.
Khamis’s village was attacked by the Janjaweed militias and government forces three times. He described how the first time the village was attacked they went to the police in a nearby town seeking protection and were told to go away. He explained how after the third attack last July, he and the other villagers waded through chest-high water across the river-bed separating Darfur and Chad.
He told us what he had lost: not only children, but four camels, two mules and many goats that were stolen by the government-backed militias. He told us how his son Mohammed was hurt days earlier when the militias attacked the refugee settlement on the border where he and his family were trying to regroup. Mohammed was shot trying to follow the militias after they stole the last of the family’s livestock, but Khamis was more worried about his son’s mental health than about the wound.
“Since this started, he is not the same,” Khamis said. I asked Khamis about the conflict that existed for many years in Darfur: the clashes between farmers and nomads over land and grazing, and whether what was happening now was different. He said, “You know, before there was conflict, it is true, but now when a village is burned, then automatically a helicopter descends to reinforce the attackers. Whenever a village is burned, the plane comes down, so for me, it’s the government that is different from before. It has changed its attitude.”
Abdul’s face sticks in my mind, too. He is 20, from a small tribe called the Dorok, not a major actor in this conflict but one of the smaller groups pulled in because they were attacked by the militias. Abdul has one leg and was learning, painfully, to use his crutches, but still managed to give me a huge smile full of humor and crack some jokes in Arabic that made a whole room full of amputees laugh every time I came to say hello over a three-day period in March. His right leg was amputated just above the knee after the bullets lodged in his thigh and shin festered for weeks without treatment.
Abdul was not the innocent civilian portrayed so often in these conflicts; he had carried a weapon and fought to defend his village as part of a self-defense group. He told me how the people from a neighboring village had warned his community in January that the Janjaweed militiamen were coming to attack. He said, “We prepared 10 Kalash [Kalashnikov] to defend ourselves and then we went about 10 kilometers outside the village. We saw the Janjaweed and the government coming, but they were so many. They had guns and cars and planes, and we farmers, we have nothing, just knives and whips.” He told me about three women who had been raped in the attack, and three young boys who were killed when they refused to let the militias take the animals they were sworn to guard.
And then there’s Fatima, a Zaghawa woman I met in a Chadian town along the border with Sudan. A small, attractive woman with good English and a vibrant personality, we could speak without a translator and discovered that we shared many things, including our age, both 34 years old, and our education; she had also been to law school and showed me creased photographs of her friends in Cairo, where she had spent some time studying in her 20s.
Fatima was working for an international organization when I met her, doing menial work in one of their programs for the refugees. She had only minutes to talk because she had to finish her work. Unlike Khamis, who seemed sad and resigned, Fatima was angry.
She told me about how after the rebels attacked her town, the government turned against the residents, accusing them of helping the rebellion. She said that many people were arrested and the government soldiers opened the shops and started looting. People were afraid to go out in the streets.
After the last bout of fighting, the government bombed her town and everyone fled. She had to cross the full river that separates Chad and Sudan in the panic of flight. She said it was difficult to cross, particularly with the children, grandparents, donkeys and whatever belongings they managed to grab in their haste. She didn’t know where her husband was, but at least she had their two children with her.
“Why doesn’t the government take care of us?”, Fatima asked me.
I didn’t have an answer, only the same question.