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Darfur's villagers struggle to survive; UNHCR appeals for more funds

Darfur's villagers struggle to survive; UNHCR appeals for more funds

The UN refugee agency has launched a revised appeal for $114.8 million for eastern Chad and Darfur. The funds will allow UNHCR to better assist Sudanese refugees in Chad and will also go towards UNHCR's work in the UN-wide effort to protect those displaced in Darfur who are struggling to survive.
3 September 2004
Displaced women showing the grass they eat in Hejailija in western Sudan's Darfur region.

HEJAILIJA, Sudan, Sept 3 (UNHCR) - First came the terror - murders, rapes, pillage, arson. Now comes a life on the move, sleeping in tiny, flimsy straw huts and eating grass and seeds barely fit for animals.

"We are safe here, but we have no food," says Asha Adam Noor, a 25-year-old woman with a 17-month-old baby boy at her breast. She's one of 60 displaced families now sheltering in Hejailija, a village north of El Geneina, capital of West Darfur, after wandering back and forth across the border with Chad in search of security, water and food - in that order.

For many families in West Darfur, violent threats from the marauding Janjaweed militia in western Sudan have receded somewhat, only to be replaced by a more basic struggle just to survive the elements and stay alive from day to day.

Having emptied much of the countryside of the three Darfur states, the Janjaweed now seem content to keep the displaced people corralled inside towns and makeshift camps. All along the border with Chad north of El Geneina, villages are swollen with people displaced from their own villages over the past year and a half.

In Sirba, for example, the original population of some 1,200 people has risen to around 7,000 due to the influx of displaced people. Kondebe hosts more than 5,600 people who have fled their own villages, and displaced people are still arriving because of threats by the Janjaweed militia. Even where they find shelter, the displaced people report they cannot venture out more than a few kilometres from the settlements because of the risk of being beaten, raped or killed.

Asha, the mother of three children, says she saw 10 people killed when the Janjaweed chased her from her home village of Lambo nearly a year ago. "They killed my brothers and my uncles, the brothers of my father," she says. "They killed them and they stole the cattle and burned the houses."

She and her fellow villagers fled to Chad, camping just inside the border under scraggly trees in the desert. Some Westerners - she thinks they were from the UN refugee agency - "came and offered to take us to a refugee camp because there was food and water there."

Some went to Kounoungo camp - one of nine UNHCR refugee camps located inside Chad at a safe distance from the Sudan border - but others preferred to remain close to their homeland and their relatives in Darfur.

"They asked us to go to the camp, but we came back here," confirms Khadeja Ishaq, a 23-year-old woman now in Hejailija. "We want to stay in our home and our country. We don't want to go to another country."

But the problem is that her home village has been burned and she's displaced within her own country with no way to support herself. "Now we want our own government to feed us," she tells visiting UNHCR officials.

Hunger has also driven people in Hejailija to eat mukhet, seed pods normally fed to animals.

The displaced women of Hejailija produce bowls of wild grass and seeds - called mukhet - usually fed to animals, and with little apparent nutritional value. "This is all we have to eat now," they complain.

A UNHCR team that visited Hejailija and other nearby villages in the vicinity of Saleah at the end of August found people wandering back and forth across the border with Chad. They found 532 families who have returned from Chad in recent months.

The people who have returned to the Saleah area appear to have returned for the long term, because they have remained in difficult conditions without any assistance for some months. Other refugees have come back from Chad to farm now that it is the rainy season, and intend to return to Chad after the harvest.

Flimsy straw huts in Riyadh camp on the outskirts of El Geneina.

At least as important as food to these wandering people is the security situation, which has improved slightly but remains precarious in West Darfur.

Although the government appears to be beefing up police presence in the area in response to international pressure, the UNHCR team found 91 police men in Saleah, with only one police car among them. Displaced people in and around Saleah continue to report occasional attacks by the Janjaweed, and say tensions are also running high between members of different tribes.

To build confidence between police and the community, UNHCR plans to facilitate meetings between them to identify ways in which the police can support and protect the community.