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Thursday, August 26, 2004

Refugees trapped in 'concentration camp'

Where the hell is the UN on this one. It just like Rwanda all over again.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Refugees trapped in 'concentration camp' Sudanese surrounded by militia members who rape and kill

By STEPHANIE NOLEN THE (TORONTO) GLOBE AND MAIL

AT SISI CAMP, Sudan -- As refugee camps go, Sisi actually has a little something to recommend it. The camp, home to about 7,000 people driven from nearby villages by Arab militias, sits on the highway between Jeneina and Khartoum.

That highway is a deeply rutted, swampy, single-lane dirt road, but it is the only land route in and out of western Darfur. So unlike many other camps, Sisi offers its residents an opportunity to make a little money, selling cups of sweet tea, or firewood and charcoal for cooking, to the drivers of transport trucks that occasionally rumble by.

But gathering wood to sell or bake into charcoal is women's work, and to do it, the women of Sisi must venture out of the camp. And more and more of them are coming back allegedly beaten or raped -- or not coming back at all.

In the past few months, Arab militias who terrorized these people into this crowded camp, now under government protection, have set up tents within distant sight from the hill at the edge of Sisi. They have effectively imprisoned the residents.

"It's pretty much a concentration camp," a U.N. staffer said. "The Janjaweed are right outside it, and people know what will happen to them if they go outside the camp."

The government of Sudan armed the Arab militias and sent them against African tribes in the region last year in an ill-conceived effort to crush a rebel insurrection. And the government has just days left to meet a U.N. Security Council deadline to show tangible progress in disarming those militias, or face unspecified sanctions. But the Janjaweed here brazenly pasture their herds of camels in plain sight of the main road.

When the Arabs burned their villages, people fled to Sisi because it is home to a small army post -- five thatch huts and 14 soldiers. The refugees hoped that huddling around it would offer a small measure of safety. Now these soldiers, armed with a large telescope and one midcaliber machine gun, are ostensibly charged with protecting the refugees, a task that they acknowledge they cannot properly fulfill.

"If you go even 1 kilometer from the camp, you will find problems," Sgt. Mohammed Taher Abu Bakker said. He said that his soldiers can see the Janjaweed and that they know about the rapes and beatings. But they do not leave their hilltop post to patrol and they cannot intervene.

"They have been armed by the government, and we have no right to take their arms," he said.

Two weeks ago, Ayshe Abdulkarim, 50, went with two other women about a mile along a stream bank to look for fallen wood to sell as firewood.

"We need the money to buy food and clothes," she said. "We brought nothing from our village."

But on the way, the women encountered lone Arab man on horseback.

"He beat me, on my arm and leg, with a big stick," Abdulkarim said. Then it got worse. "He grabbed my sister, and he dragged her for some distance, pushing her and pushing her -- I thought she would be lost with him."

But her sister fought back and was let go. The three made it back to the camp, she said.

The issue of rape is a delicate one here, and Abdulkarim was hesitant to discuss it. "It happens to a lot of the women," she said cautiously, and then added, several times: "He took my scarf. That man took my scarf from me."

She no longer goes for firewood, and instead tries to sell tea. But she said her family has nothing to eat. "We are surrounded and we can't move out of the camp," she said.

Sgt. Abu Bakker acknowledged that the Janjaweed control the countryside, but he said the militia fighters are no threat to the army. "They do our job and we do ours," he said, declining to say what constitutes the Janjaweed's job.

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