Arab militias in Sudan's western Darfur region are accused of looting millions of dollars worth of livestock from African villages. The looting is yet another aspect of Darfur's ongoing crisis.
Located on the outskirts of Nyala, the market is flourishing, with rows of butcher shops and kiosks selling baskets filled with tomatoes, onions and grains. It's one of the largest livestock markets in Sudan's Darfur region. On most days, camels, cattle, and goats crowd into the market's six-acre plaza under a sun hot enough to ripple the air. Herders and traders negotiate prices in what from a distance looks like the beginnings of a brawl.
But amid the heat and the hubbub of the market, another sign of the suffering in Sudan's western Darfur region is visible: the selling off of tens of thousands of cattle, goats and camels - the wealth of Darfur. According to several international aid groups and independent Sudanese investigators, the animals are looted from African farming villages by Arab militias, known as the janjaweed. The stolen animals have flooded markets like this one in Nyala.
Abdel Sharrifa Gharida, who lives near the Nyala market, is one of the Sudanese investigators. He is the regional chief of the Zaghawan ethnic group, one of the African tribes being targeted by the janjaweed. He has spent the past year tracking looted livestock, searching for brands and other markings that identify the livestock as Zaghawan-owned.
"According to the cases that I've already filed, that came to me, about 8,800 heads of sheep were taken by the janjaweed from people here," he said.
With the cattle, because they would be taken from outside Nyala there, he doesn't know exactly, but from his own tribe, the Zaghawa, had about 5,000 head of cattle taken.
Arab herders bring livestock and dried meat, which is harder to trace, to Nyala, a major transit point for western Sudan. Nyala has an airport and a railway connection to Khartoum, and, farther north, Port Sudan, which opens into Red Sea. Once sold, the livestock is often shipped to Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other countries in the region.
In this part of Sudan, like much of Africa, ownership of livestock is a measure of wealth and stature. Here, a camel costs about $1,000. A cow about $400, and a goat about $40.
Shortly after the fighting in Darfur intensified in February and March, the markets here began filling up with livestock looted during hundreds of attacks against Darfur's African villages. The huge supply of cattle and goats in Nyala brought prices down so low that people, Arabs and Africans alike, who rarely could afford to eat meat were eating it almost every day. At one point, cattle were selling for about $30 a head.
The butchers and the traders in this meat market are unconcerned about the brands and markings of the cattle and goats they buy and sell. And despite filing nearly 300 stolen livestock claims to local authorities, Gharida says the police rarely investigate his reports.
Still, he persists in tracking looted animals at the request of other leaders in his tribe, whose land stretches as far west as Chad. He frequently gets harassed at the Nyala market. It doesn't help that he sometimes shows up with a camera and a thick notebook.
He says local Arab livestock traders in the area have threatened him and his family. It's clear they don't want him snooping around the market.
And he says he has seen first-hand the willingness of Sudan's Arab fighters to kill in order to steal livestock. He describes a janjaweed attack on a village not far from Nyala, in which 81 people were killed, more than half of them from Gharida's Zaghawan tribe.
"He went personally from Nyala to witness the burial of these people," said his translator. "From his own clan about 45 people were killed on that spot. 81 people killed in the whole area. This is what happened in May in a place called Tibel Dia. Janjaweed attacked the area in the morning. These are janjaweed known to us because they are our neighbor, an Arabic tribe called Tarijeem. They took the cattle. When we went to attend the funeral for the burial of these people, also they shot us with machine guns. But fortunately enough, none of us was wounded."
Government officials say police in Darfur have arrested several people recently for selling livestock, and that reports of stolen herds are being investigated.
So far, the international community, focused on halting the violence in Darfur, has put off for now pressuring Sudan to compensate those who have had their livestock stolen during hundreds of janjaweed attacks against their villages.