Death is in the air, villagers say; Sudanese planes bring bombs, not help Millions of insects may pose new threat

The Toronto Star
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Page: A6
Section: News
Byline: Levon Sevunts
Dateline: MUSBAT, Sudan
Source: SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Osman Muhammad Haroun knows exactly who to blame for the air strike that destroyed his ancestral compound and nearly killed his family.

The name he invokes is not Janjaweed, the notorious militia blamed for much of the violence here in Darfur. It is Antonov, the make of plane used by Sudan’s army.

“It was a Sudanese army Antonov bomber,” said Haroun, a village headman who, with his nine children, wife and elderly parents, has lived under trees since Feb. 27. They avoid breaking cover for fear of more of the deadly bombs that pounded their community.

“We are always on the lookout for Antonovs,” he says, swooping his hand like an aircraft. “When the Antonov comes, everybody lies on the ground. Nobody moves, not even the animals. My children, my wife and my parents live with snakes and scorpions because of the government of Sudan.”

The Janjaweed are nomadic Arab horsemen recruited early last year by Sudan to help defeat two rebel groups in Darfur. What followed were waves of brutality as black African villages were pounded from the air and then overrun by Janjaweed and, witnesses say, Sudanese troops who killed, raped, torched and looted.

Sudan has denied complicity in the attacks, which have killed an estimated 30,000 and forced at least 1.2 million from their homes. But in a statement Tuesday the United Nations accused Sudan of fresh helicopter raids.

Yesterday, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk, told reporters those reports were still being checked, Reuters reports.

“So far in all my talks I am meeting a government that is seriously trying to keep the promises made,” to disarm the Janjaweed and set up safety zones for villagers before a deadline of Aug. 29 or risk U.N. sanctions, Pronk said.

But Human Rights Watch said new atrocities disprove Sudan’s claims that security is returning to the western region.

“In many rural areas and small towns in Darfur, government forces and the Janjaweed militias continue to routinely rape and assault women and girls when they leave the periphery of the camps and towns,” the New York-based group said in a report released yesterday.

Darfur villagers nervously watching the skies for bombers might soon see another unwelcome sight – locusts. Pest control experts said millions of the insects might be headed toward the region, Reuters reports.

“Swarms could get into Sudan any day, but we of course don’t know when,” said Clive Elliott, senior officer in charge of the locust group at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Two major locust swarms have devastated areas of neighbouring Chad, devouring crops, vegetation and pastures.

At a gathering of the leaders of most of Darfur’s tribes yesterday, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said they would be called on to help replace violent lawlessness with stability.

“The following stage will witness a boosting of the tribal leadership so that it may contribute to the maintaining of security in Darfur and disarmament,” a witness told Reuters al-Bashir said.

But, according to villagers here, who say death is more likely to come from an Antonov than the Janjaweed, al-Bashir is the last person in the world they can count on to protect them.

Umda Ali Suleiman Hasib, an 86-year-old leader of a Zaghawa tribe in the village of Alisko, said his people are victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign.

“Our only fault is that the colour of our skin is black,” said Hasib, pinching his forearm. “Omar Bashir wants to drive away the African population of Darfur and settle it with Arabs.”

Hasib holds al-Bashir personally responsible for the plight of his people.

“Before Omar Bashir came to power, we lived peacefully with our Arab neighbours,” said Hasib. “They never stayed in one place for long and if we had problems we always solved them with their tribal elders.

“But since Omar Bashir came to power things have been getting worse.”

He said al-Bashir wants to repay powerful Arab tribes for supporting him by settling Arabs in lands populated since ancient times by the Zaghawa, Fur and Massalit black African tribes.

Hasib, who says the 3,700 people in his care are perilously close to starvation, laughs off a suggestion the government will ever allow international aid to reach rebel-held areas.

“They are the ones who bombed us, who shot us while we were running and hiding from them,” he said.

“Do you think they’ll now give us food? Our only hope is Allah.”

Levon Sevunts is a Canadian journalist travelling in Africa.

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