Traumatised Darfur refugees seek safety in Chad

The sun-blasted desert between this small Chadian border town and Sudan’s Darfur is scattered with stunted trees and thorny shrubs.

Beneath each one, Sudanese refugees huddle under blankets or sheets tied to branches, desperately seeking shade.

Thousands have fled with their children and belongings from Sudanese army and militia offensives against a mountainous Darfuri rebel stronghold, Jebel Moon, whose silhouette is visible in the shimmering heat over the border.

The luckier arrivals are crowded into straw shelters on the outskirts of Birak, a settlement of mostly mud-brick homes and a few concrete buildings that lies at the crossroads of armed conflicts being waged on both sides of the frontier.

Between 10 000 and 20 000 Darfuri refugees have poured into Birak in the last two weeks since Sudan’s army and its Janjaweed militia allies launched what they called a “cleansing” operation to try to dislodge insurgents from Jebel Moon in West Darfur. Shocked and traumatised, most refugees say their villages in Jebel Moon were bombed by Sudanese army aircraft and then attacked by Janjaweed fighters riding in vehicles and on horses and camels.

Crouching alone under a tree, 90-year-old Ali Abdan Doudou counts on the fingers of his gnarled hands the members of his family who were killed in the attacks. The dead include his brother, several of his children, nieces and nephews.

“Since my birth, I’ve never seen planes bombing like this.
There were no warning signs the attack would come,” he said.

Another refugee, Adam Aboho, said: “They came to kill us.

“We were able to bring nothing with us. Some people were lucky and had time to gather food, but I brought nothing out apart from my children.”. He said he was being forced to beg for food from neighbours.

Amputated limbs

When villagers tried to flee the bombings, they ran into encircling Sudanese army troops and Janjaweed who killed and raped, and looted and torched homes, the refugees said.

Birak residents said they heard the bombing raids over the border and saw plumes of smoke rising on the horizon.

Many arrived injured from the fighting and the hospital at Guereda, a larger Chadian town northwest of Birak, is filled with women and children with bullet wounds. Several young children have had limbs amputated.

Sudanese spokespersons blamed the attacks against civilians on Darfuri rebels and on Chadian government and rebel forces, all of whom crisscross the porous frontier.

The refugee influx has triggered a fresh humanitarian emergency in Chad. It is already sheltering about 300 000 Sudanese refugees from fighting in Darfur that since 2003 has killed an estimated 200 000 people and rages on despite international peace efforts.

Hala Al-Horany, a protection officer for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, said many refugees were sleeping out in the open, enduring cold nights and scorching days.

“Most refugees ... are in a state of shock, especially those still unable to trace family members from Darfur,” he said.

Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno’s government is itself recovering from an attack by Chadian rebels on the capital Ndjamena, far to the west.

The Chadian and Sudanese governments accuse each other of supporting hostile insurgents.

In Birak, Chadian anti-government rebels, their pickup trucks painted with black markings to distinguish them from army vehicles, race out of the town. Some carry mounted machine-guns, others are packed with fighters.

On the other side, their arch enemies, Sudanese JEM rebels who support Déby Itno, roll in aboard their pick-ups. They are known as “Toro-boro”, another armed faction in the interlocking conflicts that grip Chad and Darfur.

European Union troops are deploying in east Chad with a UN mandate to protect refugees. But in lawless Birak, civilians are still at the mercy of the marauding factions. - Reuters

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