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Sudanese Refugees Allege Ethnic Cleansing in Homeland - 2004-03-08

Sudanese refugees in Chad say Arab militiamen backed by the Sudanese government continue to attack their villages in what they describe as a campaign of ethnic cleansing in western Sudan.

Sudanese refugees are living a precarious existence in the Chadian border village of Ouendalou, where they build makeshift straw huts on the scorching desert plain.

More than 1,300 Sudanese have arrived at Ouendalou, and the nearby village of Mahamata, in recent weeks. They are among an estimated 110,000 refugees now living a hand-to-mouth existence in about 30 villages along a 600 kilometer strip of bleak and remote borderland in eastern Chad.

They have fled a war that began a year ago, when rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government in Sudan's western Darfur region. The rebels have formed two groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Army.

The guerrillas claim the Arab-controlled government of President Omar Hassan al Bashir has ignored the needs of Darfur's predominately black African population.

The government is accused of giving arms and air support to an Arab militia, called the Janjaweed, in a campaign to drive out the blacks and establish an Arab stronghold in Darfur. The government denies those charges. It says the rebels' political grievances are contrived, and it dismisses the rebels as criminal gangs.

In mid-February, President al-Bashir declared the fighting over, and he said the government now controls all major population centers in Darfur.

However, recent arrivals at the refugee centers in Chad dispute his assertions. Among them is Hawaya Abdullah Ibrahim, a 60-year-old widow who spoke with reporters at the Mahamata camp dispensary, where she was being treated for multiple wounds she had sustained a day earlier.

Her arms and legs were heavily bandaged. Mrs. Ibrahim says she was severely beaten by Janjaweed militiamen when she went to fetch water at the riverbed that forms the international boundary between Chad and Sudan, a few hundred meters from Ouendalou village.

"When I tried to go for water, I was met by four Janjaweed on horses. They were armed with guns and sticks. They asked me where the rebels are staying, and if they have guns or not. I told them I didn't know, and they beat me around my face, my arms and my legs. I will never go back to Sudan. I cannot go back again," she says.

Other refugees tell similar stories. Yahamir Mohammad, a 52-year-old farmer, says he fled to Chad with his eight children and two wives to escape the Janjaweed. "I came here because the Janjaweed attacked us with guns and bombs. They took all our cattle and our house and everything we had. I cannot go home because there is no stability, there is no security in my country," he says.

He says he ekes out a living by cutting firewood and selling it in the town of Adre, about 20 kilometers away, where he buys food for his family.

Government officials in Adre say they are worried about the refugee influx and the cross-border raids. The secretary general of the regional government, Tahar Mohammad Ali, says Sudan is not responding to Chad's concerns. "The Sudanese government gives weapons and ammunition to the Sudanese militia and those people cross our borders and steal our property and then they go back to Sudan. And that creates insecurity on our borders," he says.

Outside Adre, the Chadian army patrols the border region to try to fend off Janjaweed incursions.

An army pickup truck mounted with a 50 caliber machine gun stopped some journalists, including this reporter, who were traveling on a dusty desert track toward the village of Gongolo, where more refugees are camped.

The troops said they almost fired on the journalists' four-wheel drive vehicles, thinking they had been hijacked by the Janjaweed.

Government officials say Chadian President Idriss Deby, on a recent tour of the area, promised to send more troops to bolster the border defense forces.