Fleeing Darfur

We had been sitting in the tiny, twin-engined aircraft for three hours when I first caught sight of the rugged green peaks of the Nuba Mountains.

The plane fell abruptly through a hole in the black sky.  Mike the pilot jabbed a finger through the left-hand window. ‘It’s your lucky day! There’s cloud all around, but the Kauda strip’s clear.’

I had come here to investigate just one of the terrible stories that have emerged from the tragedy in Darfur.

I had heard reports of thousands of refugees marching across war-torn Sudan into the Nuba Mountains. Why would anybody embark upon a 600-mile journey on foot across hostile arid desert when there were refugee camps all over Darfur?

More than 200,000 have died in Darfur and two million have become refugees and have flooded into camps set up along the Darfur-Chad border. But these aid-rich camps have become magnets for the Arab militia.

Their attacks have forced the victims of the Darfur crisis to flee the sanctuary of the tents set up by the Western aid organisations for refuge further afield.

When I met up with my local fixer, Kuku Khadia, he explained that in recent months Darfuri women and children had started arriving in the Nuba Mountains in their thousands.

I was the first Western journalist to visit the refugees in this remote part of Sudan and was welcomed by Noor Haroun, one of the aid workers desperately trying to provide some shelter for the arrivals.

There  were  crowds  of children everywhere, sheltering from the burning heat under sheets of old plastic and refuse, their faces dripping mucus, swarms of flies buzzing around their mouths and noses.

I have reported the horrors of the Sudan war for 10 years, but I had never before encountered such  an enormous  groundswell of trauma and pain.

A woman told me her name was Khawa Ahmed, and slowly through her tears she told me why she had come up to the mountains.

The Janjaweed had attacked her village just before dawn. She awoke to find her hut on fire. Her husband was already at the door, but he was gunned down in front of her eyes. Flames engulfed her hut.

She tried to rescue her three children, but the Arab raiders on horseback were all around her. She turned from their hooves and their guns and fled.

She did not know where to go. She knew people who had gone to the refugee camps, only to find that they too had become overrun by Janjaweed.

She was terrified of these people who had slaughtered her entire family. In desperation she had joined a group of other survivors who had heard about a place called the Nuba Mountains where the killers did not go.

A man introduced himself as the Sheikh, the traditional leader of the camp. He said: “The raiders always come in the autumn when their animals have good grazing and can rest safely in their pastures. They come on horseback, two to each horse, one riding and  the other  firing  his weapon. Look around – everyone here has lost someone.”

“Only if you are young and fast can you have a chance to escape. The old people, they don’t even manage to leave the huts – they’re burned alive.”

A man thrust a tiny girl towards me. “And any of the females – even girls as young as this one – they rape them. Either they rape them until they die, or they kill them afterwards.”

“Even daughters are raped in front of their mothers,” another called out. “There are girls here this has happened to. You can speak to them. Then you will know it’s true.”

“Many children just disappear,” the Sheikh added. “They tie them on to their horses and carry them off to their villages, to be slaves.One woman, Medina, told me how the Arab raiders had captured her and taken her to a clearing in the forest where she was held for three days. She was in her late twenties and had three children.

“I can’t really describe what they did to me,” she said, her voice strangled with revulsion. “People know what men do to women… When they had finished with me, they threw me in the bush to die. That’s where the people from the village found me.” It took Medina and her three children four months to reach the mountains.

The worst was the story of a little girl called Fatima. “I was in the forest when it happened,” she murmured. “The Janjaweed smashed me in the face with a rifle. Then two of them carried me to a tree and laid me down. I can’t remember what happened next, it all went black.

“I came to sometime later, my clothes scattered everywhere. I was bleeding from between my legs and there was this terrible pain, so I knew they had done something to me. I was in so much pain I couldn’t move, so I called to some passing villagers.”

The people who found her made a stretcher from tree branches. There was a refugee camp nearby, but they knew it was not safe. So they lifted her up and began walking south. It was the start of a six-month journey.

Since my return from Sudan I have spoken to other NGOs. It is not just the Nuba Mountains that are being overrun by Darfur refugees. The south of Sudan is also being inundated. A recent fact-finding mission by the US-based Sudan Campaign put the numbers of these refugees in the hundreds of thousands. “These people are living in hell,” the Sudan Campaign concluded. “They are forgotten refugees who call the trees their home and the leaves their food. Starvation, disease and destitution is everywhere – and there is no hope in sight.”

Damien Lewis’ reporting from the Darfur camps in Nuba won him this year’s One World Popular Features Award.