“Even the stones were destroyed”

“Even the stones were destroyed”
A young refugee from the fighting in Darfur scraps for food with other children in a camp on the Darfur-Chad borderGethin Chamberlain

Gethin Chamberlain, on the Darfur border, for The Scotsman, 15 June 2004

HALAWA’S body lay on the mountainside where she fell when the bombs exploded, her womb torn open, the tiny body of her unborn baby lying by her side, the blood soaking into the soil congealing in the heat of the sun.

She was nine months pregnant; her friends said she was due to give birth to her fifth child within days.

Halawa had run to Djabal Moune, the mountain overlooking the village of Rifedakoza, to hide among the rocks from the Janjaweed militia who had arrived on horseback at eight o’clock in the morning, firing their guns at anyone they saw.

Fifteen people had died in the first onslaught; their bodies lay on the ground in small groups. It was two hours later when the Antonov came, a big bomber high in the sky. As the survivors crouched among the boulders and watched, the bombs began to fall.

“Even the stones on the ground were destroyed,” says Halawa’s friend Amhayal Abba Oussmane. “The bombs cut people like sticks being snapped. You could find a head here, a leg there, a hand somewhere else.” Some people were never found, she says.

When the bombs had stopped falling, Haloum Abdelkerim ran to where Halawa had been cowering. “She was pregnant with a baby,” she said. “When I went to her after the bomb fell the baby was outside her stomach and her stomach was open and they were both dead.

“She was ready to deliver. She was our friend. She had four other children too, but they are living with their father on the mountain now. There are a lot of people on the mountain.”

When the bombers had finished with the mountain, they went back to the village, and pounded that too, and those who had remained inside. The people of Rifedakoza, those who managed to escape, say that at least 300 people died that day.

That was 15 days ago, as the government in Khartoum was telling the world that the killings in the Darfur region of their country had come to an end.

It took the survivors five hours to walk west to the border with Chad and across to the arid country on the other side. Now they sit under the thorn trees at a place called Senette, just inside the border of their western neighbour, within sight of the country they fled; a handful of families, or what remains of families, seeking shelter from the sun.

Ms Oussmane had been inside her house when the men on horses arrived. “I heard horses,” she says, “and the sound of people screaming. When we went outside we saw people on horses and people from the village were running. The men on the horses were trying to catch the people who were running and they were shooting at them as they ran.

“I saw seven men killed in one place and eight men in another place, and one woman. I saw the woman killed by the men on horses. The seven men were in their house and the other men were killed with their animals. When they found men there, they killed them immediately. We took our children and hid on the mountain.

“We went back to get the woman later because we knew she had been killed in the road. She was running when they killed her. Two of the men were my brothers and another was an older man from my family.”

Those who escaped thought they would be safe on the mountain, but two hours later the Antonov appeared.

“The plane bombed the people on the mountain,” says Foutouma Ibrahim Younouss. “We had run away to the top of the mountain but the plane bombed us there. A lot of people were killed on the mountain.”

It was a big plane, she says. She had heard about the Antonovs, and she thought that was what it must be. It was high in the sky when it started to bomb. “Some people near to us died so we were running again. Everyone was running for themselves. You forget your children, you forget everything; you are just running for yourself.

“They bombed for an hour and then they came back again. This time they bombed the village, and more people died.”

Khadidja Abakar Issakha had run away with the others; when she was on the mountain, people told her that they had seen her brother, Yaya, killed. She went back to find him when the bombing was over, but by then his body had already been buried.

Senette is a desperate place, the ground baked to dust by the heat of the sun. Even in the early morning the heat is blistering; there is nowhere for the refugees’ animals to shelter and nothing for them to eat. The nearest water is an hour’s walk away in Sourou. The people sitting under the trees are women and children in the main, though there are a few older men and boys. The people had time to snatch only a few possessions. What their donkeys could carry is laid out around them, a few blankets, pots and pans and a little grain and oil.

Workers from the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees found them there a few days ago; they took their names and told them they would send vehicles to carry them to a new refugee camp that has opened at Mile, a drive of about 100km away along rutted dirt roads over which deep sand has drifted in many places.

Not long after the survivors of the massacre at Rifedakoza reached Senette, other Sudanese began to arrive; they brought with them news of fresh barbarity in yet more villages.

Ache Yaya arrived six days ago. “We came because of the war,” she says. “They killed our people.”

Ms Yaya says she is 32, though she looks much older; she has brought her five children with her. Three of her brothers were killed, she says, when perhaps 150 Janjaweed – the Arab militia supported by the Sudanese government – attacked the village of Koutache, where she lived. It took her three hours to get from the village to Senette, walking with her donkey.

“The men who attacked us came on horses and with guns,” she says. “The first thing they did was to try to steal our clothes and our animals. We said no, but then they started to kill us. I saw them kill about 15 people, but we left there quickly because they were killing people.

“When they found a man, they killed him. They killed a lot of men.”

She gathered up her children and ran from the village, but the Janjaweed followed. “We were running without anything. We just ran,” she says. Eventually, they realised the Janjaweed were no longer behind them, and they stopped. A little later, they went back to the village to salvage what they could, a donkey and two cows, but most of the homes had been burnt to the ground.

“Some people went back to get their clothing and they found their relatives dead, so they buried them,” she says. Now she sits under a tree with six small children, a boy of about 12 and seven other women.

From a village of about 1,000 people, perhaps as many as 60 died that day. Ali Adam Brahim says the gunmen arrived at 6am, wearing uniforms and firing guns.

“They came with horses and they started to kill straight away,” he says. “They pointed their guns at people and shot at them. In the houses and outside it was the same. It was very noisy from the shooting.

“They have horses so they can kill you near to or they can chase you down and kill you. I saw a lot of people who were killed near to me but I was lucky because I ran away. Everyone split up and ran in different ways.”

When the Janjaweed had gone, those that were left went back to see who was there, and who was not. “When we went back we saw a lot of people who were dead,” he says. “They had been shot in the stomach and in the head and in the neck. There was a lot of blood on the ground and some of them had been slashed across the stomach.”

He says he found two women from his own family when he went back to the village; one was dead, and the other was badly injured. He says he counted 30 men, 20 women and ten children dead on the ground.

All along the border, people are telling these stories, of fresh attacks by the Sudanese planes and troops and the Janjaweed militia. They say that talk of ceasefires and an end to the genocide in Darfur is just that: talk. They say they have the evidence of their own eyes. They say they do not need the government to say that it is doing such things to know that it is true, because they have seen the bodies, and they have buried their friends and family.

A little way to the north, on the border at Tine, Koubra Hassabou sits among the few things she was able to salvage from her home in the village of Kouwa after the bombers came last month.

It was a little after midday when she heard the sound of the planes overhead, she says. She had gone into the fields to keep watch over her donkeys and camels; the sun was high in the sky.

“I went to the field and I heard shooting and bombing. The planes were bombing. They were high in the sky and when I came back there were a lot of people running and a lot of people were killed.

“They killed our relatives, the women who were driving their cattle; they killed the women and took their cattle. When the women were running I saw them fall down when they were shot.”

Fifty years old, Ms Hassabou walked with her family and donkeys for 15 days to reach the border, but the journey was too much for the donkeys; they died soon after crossing over to Tine.

Now she waits for a truck to take her to Mile; one arrives, but there is no place for her today. At Senette, some of the refugees refuse to move. They must wait for their children, for their husbands and brothers to join them, they say. So they sit under the scant shade of the thorn trees, with the few possessions they still have spread around them, and the bus that was to take them to the refugee camp further away from the people who did this to them pulls slowly away, and disappears in the dust.

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