Sudan government vows to boost security in Darfur village after UNHCR reports
MASTERI, Sudan, Aug 23 (UNHCR) - The question for the villagers gathered in the shade of a huge tree in this large West Darfur village was, is the violence that has wracked this area of western Sudan for the last 18 months still continuing?
One man, perhaps in his 30s, raised his hand and stood up. "My mother was killed yesterday," he told a visiting high-level UNHCR official. Trembling with emotion, he added, "She was with her cows and they wanted to take the cows, so they shot and killed her."
The villagers saw no need to specify who "they" means. It's the Arab Janjaweed militias who expelled them from their own villages - killing, raping and looting in the process - and who now keep them penned up in this larger village 50 km south of El Geneina, capital of West Darfur state.
The displaced people were speaking last week to Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the new Director of Sudan Situation for the UN refugee agency, who has been visiting Chad and Darfur to see for himself the effects of fighting that has displaced some 1.2 million people in an area roughly the size of France.
Originally sent to quell an insurgency, the Janjaweed have terrorised civilians throughout the three Darfur states in a deliberate pattern of clearing the countryside of inhabitants and confining the indigenous black Africans to a few centres where they have created squalid slums. (The so-called camps for displaced people are not run by UNHCR.) More than a million people are displaced within their own country, and another 188,000 are in Chad, where the majority of them are in UNHCR's refugee camps.
As Fakhouri listened to the concerns of the people who fled villages around Masteri, it became clear that Masteri has become a giant prison camp for the black African tribe, the Masselit, who now live there.
"Can the men go out?" Fakhouri asked. "La, la, la, la (No, no, no, no)," the crowd shouted in Arabic as one.
"We only have 50 percent security here. We can't go one kilometre outside of Masteri," explained the acting chief of the entire Masteri area, which once encompassed some 65,000 people. (The man's name has been withheld to protect him.)
The Janjaweed, who brazenly ride their horses around the perimeter of the village, sometimes come inside to steal horses or food - or just to send the message that the inhabitants are at their mercy.
"The day before yesterday, they attacked our ladies and they beat me inside Masteri," one young woman told Fakhouri.
"If a man leaves the village, he has only two choices - run to Chad or be killed," added another man.
For the women, every trip outside the village for food or firewood carries the risk of rape. "Rape happens every day," says a 34-year-old mother of three who was herself recently raped. "Only yesterday and today it didn't happen, but today is not over, and if a woman goes out this afternoon she may still be raped." (The villagers reported new rapes later that day and offered to introduce the women to UNHCR staff.)
Clearly moved by what he heard, Fakhouri observed later: "These are normal people in a totally strange situation of being confined in their own country without having committed any crime."
These people are astonishingly resilient, but they have nearly reached the end of their tether. The acting chief took Fakhouri and his team on a tour of some of the 33 deserted villages of Terbeba, about 20 km west of Masteri. He would never have dared to come here without UN protection, he said.
The 8,000 people who lived in the villages of Terbeba withstood nine different attacks by the Janjaweed before the 10th finally made them flee in February this year.
Most of them headed west across the wadi - then a dry riverbed that demarcates the border - into neighbouring Chad. When some of them came back to their own country, they sought safety in Masteri rather than return to their burnt-out villages. But some families are split - a man in one place, his two wives and their children in two other places.
With the rainy season, waist-high grass and weeds have grown over fences and up the sides of abandoned mud-brick homes. Untended, millet and maize have sprouted on their own in the fertile soil. Large terracotta water pots upended in the grass and cooking pots akimbo on fence posts testify to the haste with which the villagers fled.
In one school, all the metal doors and windows - the only way to keep out sandstorms and rain here - have been looted, now decorating, no doubt, buildings in the nearby Janjaweed villages.
Of the estimated 65,000 people who once lived in this region, some 35,000 are now in Chad, mostly in UNHCR camps. It's the remaining 30,000 in the Masteri area who pose a concern for the refugee agency.
"What we need first of all is security and food," says a Terbeba official. "We don't trust the police. When the Janjaweed attacked, they just watched and didn't do anything to protect us."
The message was echoed in the meeting Fakhouri held under the tree with the villagers. One man said, "We are waiting for you (the UN) to send an international force and if not, we are going to cross" into Chad as soon as the wadi - now a shallow but fast-flowing river - dries up, perhaps in a month's time.
"It's a frightening prospect that 30,000 people might be poised to cross into Chad," Fakhouri said. "That would be a 15-percent increase in the number of refugees in Chad, and this is just one crossing point. There might be other people who feel the same way."
"We are already in a very precarious situation right now, barely able to feed the people we already have in camps in Chad," he added. "This many more would severely strain our ability to cope."
Alarmed by UNHCR's reporting from Masteri, a high-level Sudanese delegation accompanied UNHCR officials back there on Sunday, a few days after Fakhouri's visit. After the villagers corroborated the information they had earlier given to UNHCR, the Wali (Governor) promised to take measures to improve security around Masteri. He said he will send five vehicles for the police, and will beef up military and police presence there. He urged the displaced people to remain in their own country.
"We are pleased the reaction has been so immediate and has resulted in such a high-level Sudanese delegation taking an interest in the situation," Fakhouri said. "UNHCR will continue to visit this and other border areas regularly. We want to work together with the government of Sudan in the spirit of effective cooperation."
By Kitty McKinsey in Masteri, Sudan