Magazine article Geographical

Darfur's Road to Hell: With Mass Starvation and Disease the Inevitable Outcome of the Conflict in the Darfur Region of Sudan, Photojournalist Damian Bird Reports Back from Some of the Worst-Hit Refugee Camps and Looks at the Origins of This Humanitarian Tragedy. Additional Reporting by Chris Edwards

Magazine article Geographical

Darfur's Road to Hell: With Mass Starvation and Disease the Inevitable Outcome of the Conflict in the Darfur Region of Sudan, Photojournalist Damian Bird Reports Back from Some of the Worst-Hit Refugee Camps and Looks at the Origins of This Humanitarian Tragedy. Additional Reporting by Chris Edwards

Article excerpt

As our vehicle slowed down and came to an unscheduled halt, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. We were half way into a four-hour drive from Abeche in eastern Chad to the refugee camps near fire border with Sudan. The boulders that littered the road had sent my head banging repeatedly into the roof of the vehicle, but Jamail, the driver, and Banabe, my interpreter for the journey, took it all cheerfully in their stride.

The vehicle had come to a halt in front of a wadi, a river that flows only during the rainy season. The flooded wadi was the first sign of a geography that has helped turn Darfur from a place where intertribal tensions have always been high to the scene of brutal killing, mutilation and rape. Dry for most of the year, wadis across Darfur were filling up with water as the rainy season began.

Soon, parts of the region would be practically inaccessible, cut off by flood-waters coming in torrents from the mountains that straddle the border between Chad and Sudan. As it was, the water level in the wadi was getting close to the point where we wouldn't be able to drive across.

Jamail jumped out and, after assessing the water's speed and depth, he climbed back into the pick-up and drove forward. The engine surged violently and we plunged into the water, sinking into the muddy soup until it flowed halfway up the windows. After much gurgling and choking from the near-flooded engine, tire vehicle hauled itself out on the opposite bank.

The rain would see many of the refugee camps in Chad cut off from help by the end of August. But, for centuries the rain has been one of the factors that make Darfur a scene of regular tensions that occasionally break out into fighting. Heavy rains for just three months of the year provide the draw for tribes of nomadic herdsmen who journey north each year with their cattle.

Tribal disputes

Darfur is occupied by several different tribes--the Fur, who gave the region its name, and the Masalit in the south; the Zaghawa towards the north. But these simple designations mask a much more complex situation, in which itinerant nomads rub shoulders with settled farmers scraping a living from the increasingly parched ground.

A drought hit the region 20 years ago and desertification around Darfur has forced the tribes to converge on shrinking areas of fertile land. But it was an unexpected rebellion in Darfur that has led to massacres by gun-toting riders, the so-called Janjaweed.

The Janjaweed are members of the Baggara, Arab tribes who live mainly in northern Darfur. Jamail told me the Sudanese government was funding them to help quell the rebellion. But that isn't all they're doing, he said--they're trying to wipe out the region's other African tribes.

Speaking from the UK, Charles Gurdon of political analysts Menas Associates and author of the book Sudan at the Crossroads, says: "Geographically, Darfur is on the fault line between the Arab north, the African south and climatic change."

Semantics are important here: it isn't Arabs versus Africans, but the Arab north versus the African south. When Sudanese government spokespeople say there is no ethnic cleansing in Darfur, there is a grain of truth in their words, it isn't even a conflict of Arab Islam against other religions in the way that the civil war in the south saw Christians rebelling against Muslim rule imposed from Khartoum to the north. Islam permeates the area that straddles Chad and Sudan and many of the tribes have adopted it as their religion, although the words of the Koran may get mixed in with traditional beliefs.

"It's only since the civil war in Darfur that the Masalit has become 'black'," says Professor Lidwien Kapteijns of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, USA, author of several books on the history of the Masalit tribe and the Darfur region.

As Jamail and I sat for lunch under a tree on the way to the refugee camp in Breidjing, we exchanged tins from the French army ration boxes with which Oxfam had supplied us. …

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