The Toronto Star
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Page: A10
Section: News
Byline: Levon Sevunts

Hawa Bashi’s new home is the shade beneath a thorny little tree the locals call katera, where she holds her 2-year-old son, Hari, close.

The pair, with Bashi’s two other children, is among tens of thousands who fled black African villages in the Darfur region when Sudan’s army and the Janjaweed Arab militias arrived to destroy them. While many went to refugee camps across the Chad border, others, including Bashi and her fading infant, ran only as far as a nearby valley.

Today she and her neighbours beneath the trees – 25 children and seven women in all – got lucky. Soldiers from the rebel Sudanese Liberation Army controlling the area distributed a quarter sack of maize flour to each family. Still, the help might be too little, too late for Hari.

He can no longer walk and has trouble sitting upright. He is severely malnourished and has lost almost all interest in food. He is so weak he can’t even wave off the flies that nest in the corners of his eyes. Bashi’s older daughters are cooking go, a paste made of maize flour served with sami, a local spice.

“He won’t eat more than two spoons,” his mother explains, smiling sadly. “I don’t know what to do.”

This is the ground floor of what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today. The U.N. has given Sudan’s authoritarian government until the end of this month to stop the Janjaweed raids, to start prosecuting the militiamen and to provide protection for the estimated 1 million displaced Sudanese.

Sudan has agreed to a plan to make that happen but, over the weekend, its vice-president called the deadline impractical. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail rejected a proposal by the African Union to deploy more than 2,000 troops to Darfur to help alleviate the suffering, BBC News reported.

The “security of Darfur is the responsibility of Sudan alone,” Ismail told the broadcaster.

Meanwhile, conditions grow ever more grave for those living rough like Bashi.

Her small taste of go is the first in a long time. Until now, her family, like others in northern Darfur, has survived on makhet, a tiny pea-like fruit that has to be soaked in water for days before it is edible. Even then, the bitter taste lingers.

Under a neighbouring tree, Fatima Timan is trying to feed her grandson, Teja Khater Khamis. Like Hari, Teja is severely malnourished. It seems the toddler doesn’t have much time left. But Timan, the matriarch of this makeshift community, perseveres.

“I can’t lose him,” she says as she tries to convince Teja to take a spoonful of go. “I lost my husband when the army came to our village. They took him away and I haven’t heard of him since.”

The U.N. estimates 30,000 to 50,000 villagers have died since the militia raids began early last year. Sudan denies a U.N. investigator’s conclusion – and the eyewitness accounts of many, many villagers – that government troops participated in the murder, arson and looting campaign that destroyed more than 395 villages and damaged another 121.

Every woman here has a story, but they go numb when asked about the fate of their husbands. Only Timan seems to have reconciled herself to the thought that she’ll likely never see her husband again.

“They probably killed him,” Timan says.

Under the trees, too afraid to return home, these women remain in the dark.

Levon Sevunts is a Canadian journalist travelling in Africa.