Gethin Chamberlain, on the Darfur border, for The Scotsman, 26 June 2004
THERE is a small boy, no more than six years old, clutching a rolled-up rug whose length is three times the height of his body. His arms are wrapped around the rug, the end of which sways backwards and forwards as he tries to push it upwards towards the roof of the bus parked in the sand on the edge of the town of Tine.
The boy tries again, but he is too small and weak to lift the heavy rug. Two of his friends join him, pushing from the sides, and the end rises perhaps six inches. But they cannot hold it, and slowly it begins to topple, until it crashes to the ground as the boys jump clear and a cloud of dust rises into the air. The first boy loops both hands through the piece of string tied around the centre of the rug, and starts to haul it towards the back of the bus.
The bus is waiting to carry away the lucky few refugees who have been selected from the 10,000 or so who have camped themselves around the edges of the town after fleeing into Chad across the nearby border from Sudan to escape the relentless attacks by the Janjaweed, the Arab militia backed by Khartoum, and by the Sudanese government forces with their Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships.
Many have been there for months; the UN hands each family a card on which their names are printed, and the date they registered. Eventually, their names will appear on the list of those whose turn it is to move to one of the organised camps further away from the border.
The camps are filling up and some of the refugees will not wait; many have started to make the journey on foot. The rest wait in the baking dust while the temperature soars into the mid-40s Celsius, their only shelter a few clothes strung between sticks pushed into the sand. This is the place the refugees call the Village of the Clothes; some days the buses come, some days they wait in vain. There is nothing to eat apart from the food they have brought with them and water must be bought.
Today there are two buses, each with 50 seats, each already half full, plus two trucks to take the belongings of those in the buses, and one spare truck to take the place of whichever of the other vehicles breaks down today. There are normally more buses than this, but they are being used to distribute food somewhere else along the 400-mile border along which the refugees have camped.
More luggage is piled on top of the buses; it is to that pile that the young boy is trying to add his family’s rug. An older boy near the top of the ladder running up the back of the bus reaches down and takes hold of the end of the rug, hauling it up to the roof and throwing it onto the mounting pile.
The big Renault buses, with their red, yellow and blue livery, arrive just before 8am, more trucks than buses, windows in the sides and luggage racks on top. Those convinced that today will be their day had packed up their belongings hours earlier, and are sitting on the ground clutching the cards that they hope will be their tickets out of this place. The adults flick at the flies that settle on their faces; the children play with home-made toys – a stick with a couple of wheels fashioned from wire twisted together or a hoop made from a bit of tubing – or they stand and watch the approaching buses. There is no rush to fight for places, though there are a few people without cards standing around the edges of the waiting group in the hope that they too might be able to find a place on one of the buses.
Noura Said Meki has no card, but she thinks she will go today. She has packed up her few belongings into a sack and waits with her four children. “I will go,” she says.
She came over the border from Cornay in Sudan with her donkeys, crossing at Tine, but the donkeys are dead now. Few survive the journey; those that do often die when they eventually find water and drink too much, while those that do not find water die anyway.
As a crowd begins to gather around the buses, Chadian soldiers push their way to the front. They have been sitting watching for some time, their AK47 rifles cradled on their knees or leaning against the sides of their Toyota pickups. The soldiers wear yellow scarves wrapped round their heads and under their chins, and green shirts and trousers. As the refugees haul their belongings to the front of the queue, the soldiers pass metal detectors over the assorted jumble, searching for weapons. There are Sudanese rebel fighters among those who have come over the border; the Chadians do not want the camps used as bases for striking back across the border.
The first few women and children show their pieces of paper and their names are ticked off the list; they climb on board the bus, leaving their possessions to the boys at the back of the bus to manhandle onto the roof. Their whole lives are packed up in these few bags sitting in the dust.
Hawa Mohammed sits in the front row of seats with her five children, two girls and three boys. The girls wear broken plastic sandals; the youngest child, on Hawa’s lap, has flies on his lips. She has waited four months for this moment, she says, since she fled from Sudan. Hers is a familiar story: one day, the Janjaweed rode into the village on their horses and camels and started to kill the people who lived there. “They took our cattle and started to kill us so we ran,” she says. “They killed everybody, women and men, in the village. Two of my brothers were killed by shooting. We ran during the night to get here.”
They crossed over at Bamina in the morning and made their way to Tine; there was no shelter from the sun, but they had heard that the UN was moving people from the edge of the town to the big camps at Mile and Iridimi and Kounoungo.
As she talks, the bus is filling up, the new arrivals squeezing into the dirty and battered velour seats and making themselves comfortable; no-one wants to move once they are on board in case they cannot get back on again. Anyway, this is the first time they have sat in shade for weeks; they have no desire to relinquish such a luxury.
Ismael Mousa Adam is next in line. She has been in Tine only a month, though she left Sudan four months ago. Her house was burnt and her cattle stolen, she says. She wants to go to Mile, where she has heard that life is more bearable. It is very difficult here, she says, because there is no food and water.
“If you have money you can buy a little water,” she continues. “People work a bit to get money, making bricks or cutting stone.”
Outside the bus, Maka Ibrahim Moussa watches the others as they reach the front of the queue. She is clutching her card tightly in her hand; the date on it says 6 June, 2004. It is a long time after that date. But the date only shows when the UN registered her, not when she will leave, the Red Cross workers outside the bus explain. She cannot hide her disappointment; her face is a picture of anguish. She thought, she believed in her heart, that today would be the day that she moved. She had packed up her few things into a couple of small bags. She stands and watches for a while, then turns away, and walks back towards the place where she left her sticks pushed into the ground.
And then the buses are full, and the luggage is all packed, and they are pulling away across the sand, driving in a wide arc to avoid those still camped out, heading for where the thin strip of compacted mud that passes for a road in this place runs past the open ground and off towards the town. Koubra Hassabou watches the buses go; she and her family had packed their things away, but there was no place for them today.
She sits in the sand, her face blank. “What are we to do?” she asks. “If we had donkeys we could go ourselves but we have no donkeys. We put a lot of luggage on our donkeys and they died here.”
Koubra is 50; she ran from her village of Kouwa 25 days ago when the Janjaweed rode in and the Antonovs dropped their bombs. “I’m not happy to see the vehicles go away and I’m still here. It is very difficult. I want to go quickly because of the sun. It is very hot here and there is no food and water.”
All that remains of the shelters that were home to today’s passengers are a few pieces of wood sticking out of the ground, but already other families are scavenging the sticks to make shelters of their own.
A few yards away, Maka sits on her mat again, her bags still packed at her feet. She had watched the last few people waiting to climb on board and turned her back to the truck. As the bus pulls away, she is talking to a friend, paying it no attention. She does not look up. The sun moves a little higher in the sky and the temperature creeps up another couple of degrees. Maka settles into another day of waiting. Maybe tomorrow her name will be on the list.