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The horrors of Darfur's ground zero

A mass grave and horrifying memories illuminate the calamity of Sudan's killing fields, correspondents in Mukjar and Kalma report

| May 28, 2007

Article from:  The Australian

UNCOVERED by a restless wind, skulls and bones poke above the thin dirt in this corner of Darfur, lying surrounded by half-buried, rotting clothes.

A short, bearded man named Ibrahim, 42, scratches through the sand. He is quiet and serious, close to tears. The bones he is looking at are those of 25 people who he is sure are his friends and fellow villagers. Some of them were dragged from the prison where he was held and were axed to death, he says. Ibrahim is showing the burial ground to an Associated Press reporter and photographer, the first Western journalists to visit this remote town in more than a year.

Western Sudan is about to enter a new phase in its four-year-old conflict, one villagers fear may encourage more killing.

Sudan's Government recently agreed to let in 3000 UN peacekeepers, a fraction of the 22,000 mandated by the Security Council last August. The deployment could take months and villagers fear the Government will want to get rid of all witnesses to atrocities before peacekeepers move in.

"We need them to come as fast as possible, because we're all in danger," said Ibrahim.

Aid workers and UN personnel say the burial site is just one of three dozen mass graves around Mukjar, a town at ground zero of the Darfur calamity, holding evidence against Sudanese leaders for war atrocities.

Some of what witnesses such as Ibrahim say corroborates what a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in The Netherlands, has documented: at least 51 cases of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Mukjar area - mass executions, torture and rapes of civilians. The prosecutor says most of the killings were done by the Sudanese army and the janjaweed, Arab militiamen backed by the Sudanese Government. Their war on Darfur rebels, which turned against all black African villagers, has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 200,000 dead and 2.5million made homeless.

This month, the court issued arrest warrants for two men - a Sudanese government minister and an alleged janjaweed commander - who it contends directed atrocities here.

Most of the mass killings in this area happened in late 2003 and early 2004, when long-simmering tensions in Darfur flared into its latest bloodbath.

Ali Kushayb, the alleged janjaweed commander named by the ICC, has been fired as the Mukjar region chief of the "central reserve" police, a force regarded as a cover for the janjaweed. But he was replaced by his deputy, Addaif al-Sinah, who villagers say is the area's janjaweed chief.

Ahmed Harun, who was head of the Government's Darfur taskforce when the killings occurred, is also sought by the court. He is now the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs.

Mukjar offers a sobering look at the results of a government victory. Impoverished and frightened ethnic Africans huddle in refugee camps, while Arab nomads control the hinterland, threatening any farmer who tries to return.

"They did such a good job at cleansing the region in 2003 that there's not much left to fight over," said an aid worker, who insisted on not being quoted by name for fear of being expelled.

Janjaweed fighters still stroll through the market, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

"We live side by side with the murderers of our families, and we can't do anything," said Ibrahim.

Nearly four times the size of France, Sudan is Africa's biggest country. It is a patchwork of more than 100 tribes and ethnicities ruled by an Arab-dominated Government. Sudan has been plagued for decades by rebellions driven by feelings of discrimination and economic neglect. Darfur's tensions escalated just as the Government was negotiating an end to a 20-year civil war with its African, partly Christianised south, and it apparently feared a new threat to Sudan's territorial integrity. Its response was a fierce counterinsurgency.

The Government is accused of arming some of Darfur's Arab nomads and paying them to attack not just the rebels but innocent black African villagers. The name janjaweed roughly translates as "demons on horseback". The Sudanese army is also allegedly involved.

The International Criminal Court's prosecution, after 20 months of investigation, limited itself to events between August 2003 and March 2004.

It charged that Harun and Kushayb bore "criminal responsibility in relation to 51 counts of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes, including persecution, torture, murder and rape".

All the cases stemmed from the Mukjar area. The Sudanese Government disputes almost all the allegations.

For Ibrahim, finding his friends' bones in a shallow grave was just one of the torments he described. In February 2004, he said, his father, a sister, three brothers and five nephews were killed during an army-janjaweed raid on his village, Trindi.

He managed to bury his relatives then fled to Mukjar, a three-hour hike away. But the following week he was arrested and jailed.

He and other witnesses said that nearly every day for more than a month, government forces would pluck a few men from the jail. Ibrahim said he saw or heard people being killed. Others just disappeared, and sometimes their bodies would turn up later.

"I learned to survive by hiding at the back of the cell when they came to pull people out," Ibrahim said. He was jailed until April 2004, when the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontiers reached Mukjar and first reported the atrocities.

The ICC report says large-scale purges had begun eight months previously after Harun, the minister, met in Mukjar with Kushayb, whom the ICC describes as the "colonel of colonels" of all janjaweed in the zone. It says Harun armed and funded the janjaweed with government cash and made regular follow-up visits to Mukjar.

Ibrahim recalled watching from his jail cell when about 1000 janjaweed gathered in front of the prison to receive their share of looted cattle. "The minister (Harun) told them their mission was to burn all the region down," he said. Next, he said, Kushayb ordered his men to "get rid of every Fur" and turn their territory into Dar al-Arab, meaning "Land of the Arabs". Fur are the main tribesmen of this region, hence the name Darfur. Kushayb then opened the cell's barred door, pulled out a prisoner and split his head open with an axe, Ibrahim said. Ibrahim said Kushayb then axed two more prisoners to death while his men shook their right fists and shouted "janjaweed, janjaweed".

As for Harun, Kushayb's boss, "the minister was sitting under the shade, and he was also cheering", Ibrahim said.

With Ibrahim in prison was Abdallah. He said two men were crucified on the prison wall. "A janjaweed then hammered a nail through one man's forehead," he said. The other was nailed through the chest.

Both Ibrahim and Abdallah separately said they had seen and heard women being brought to the prison and raped for hours by janjaweed. "I heard the women's cries all night," said Abdallah.

In Kalma, 190km from Mukjar, rapes are also a hideous frequent occurrence. Kalma is a microcosm of the misery - a sprawling camp of mud huts and scrap-plastic tents where 100,000 people have taken refuge.

It is so full of guns that overwhelmed African Union peacekeepers long ago fled, unable to protect it.

Seven women who had pooled money last July to rent a donkey and cart ventured out of the refugee camp to gather firewood, hoping to sell it for cash to feed their families. They told AP they were gang-raped, beaten and robbed. The women say the men's camels and their uniforms marked them as janjaweed. The women said 10 Arabs on camels surrounded them, shouting insults and shooting rifles in the air.

The women first attempted to flee. "But I didn't even try, because I couldn't run," being seven months pregnant, said Aisha, a petite 18-year-old whose raspy voice sounds more like that of an old woman. She said four men stayed behind to flay her with sticks, while the others chased down the rest of her group.

Once rounded up, the women said, they were beaten and their rented donkey killed. Zahya, 30, had brought her 18-year-old daughter, Fatmya, and her baby. The baby was thrown to the ground and both women were raped. The baby survived.

Zahya said the women were lined up and assaulted side by side, and she saw four men taking turns raping Aisha.

The women said the attackers then stripped them naked and jeered at them as they fled. A camp leader said: "Ever since, I've made sure that women living on the outskirts of the camp have spare sets of clothes to give out".


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