'They come at night, sometimes they kill people'


Letter from Darfur: The Roman philosopher Seneca said "merely to live is an act of courage". Three years after the onset of the Darfur conflict in Sudan, courage is still needed - and demonstrated - by Darfur's war displaced.

And courage is still needed by those inside the apparent sanctuary provided by the many large camps for those who were forced to abandon their homes and move elsewhere in their country - internally-displaced people (IDPs) in humanitarian parlance.

The Darfur conflict began militarily in February 2003 when the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) launched attacks on El-Fasher and Golo, further south in Darfur. Protesting at what they saw as marginalisation by Sudan's central government, the rebels' initial success incurred government reprisals.

Counter-insurgency activity directed at civilians followed, conducted by the Janjaweed militia. As a result, more than 200,000 Darfurians were killed, two million people were forced from their homes into camps, and widespread accounts of rape and sexual violence emerged in various media, NGO and international organisation reports.

On Saturday morning at Kassab camp, outside Kutum town in northern Darfur, more than 50 patients are awaiting treatment at a GOAL clinic, one of two provided by the Irish NGO to service a camp where 18,000 IDPs have been resident, most for at least two years, some for three.

Seven boys aged between 12 and 15 sit waiting for treatment for conditions varying from football injuries to stomach pains and fever symptoms.

Mohammed is 15 and thinks he just has a cold. While waiting to see the doctor he says that he does not always have enough food and feels weaker than he did when he was living in his village. It is 32 degrees Celsius outside and he sits beneath a tree in the yard, shaded from the sub-Saharan sun.

After a while he says: "Sometimes people come here at night, sometimes they steal things, sometimes they kill people. Just two weeks ago, a shooting took place near my shelter. Janjaweed came into the camp and did it."

Kultum, a mother of six, is sitting in the waiting area. Her daughter, Tahani, sits impassively beside her, one eye almost glued shut due to an infection.

Her mother tells how it is "not safe to even visit your neighbour here at night", adding: "People are killed in their tents."

During December of last year and this January an upsurge in fighting displaced a further 30,000 people amid a backdrop of stop-start peace negotiations in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged the Security Council to put a UN peacekeeping force into Darfur to replace the under-funded African Union mission. Mr Annan has requested western input into the peacekeeping force, but Sudan's government rejects any non-African involvement in peacekeeping in Darfur.

As things stand, the African Union force can only intervene when directly attacked and it does not have an expansive civilian protection mandate. Amid the on-off military assaults it is Darfur's people who suffer when there is no one to protect them.

The insecurity hinders provision of even a basic health service as well as sanitation and nutrition. Marwa (17) says: "We have to rely on NGOs for our basic things. For medicine, food, water. But life here is very difficult. We have food in our villages, on our farms. But we cannot go there, it is not safe, it will not be safe for a long time."

Kultum explained: "Nobody is guarding the camp. If you have one donkey, one goat, they will take it. If you complain, they will kill you." She added cautiously: "You cannot see who does it, it is at night. It is too dark."

Three years after the Janjaweed came to his village, which lies beyond the mountains, more than halfway to the Darfurian regional capital of El-Fasher, Mohammed feels that there is now no hope, adding: "We will be here for years."

Kultum says: "Unless there is peace, we cannot go back to our villages. It is not safe there. It is not always safe here either, but we have to try and live as best we can."

In Darfur, where safety in the camps is not guaranteed, living truly requires courage.

• Simon Roughneen is media officer with GOAL in Sudan