DELEIJ, Sudan, May 18, 2005 -- Once, this was the season when Khartoma Ibrahim prayed for the rains to come. She was a farmer then, before the troubles here in Darfur changed everything, even her prayers.
The rains should come any day now, but this year Ibrahim, 35, has no fields to plant. She, her husband and their six children languish in a refugee camp whose 20,000 residents survive almost entirely on international food aid - aid that will be difficult to deliver once the seasonal rains turn West Darfur's dirt roads into quagmires.
And so, against every instinct, she asks that the rains hold off, inshallah- God willing.
The transformation of rain from blessing to curse illustrates how much life has changed since civil war broke out two years ago, destroying hundreds of farming villages, killing tens of thousands of people, and driving a third of Darfuris into camps like the one here. Darfur, a region usually self-sufficient even in the worst of times, can no longer feed itself. Because of the fighting, last year's harvest was ruined, much of this year's seed destroyed and more than half the farm livestock slaughtered, stolen or run off.
Food prices have doubled, immigrants' remittances have been cut off, and the demand for day labor and homemade handicrafts has collapsed. And now the region enters the annual hungry season -gafaf, they call it - when food from the last harvest runs low and daily meals drop from three to two to one.
It all means that Darfur, so benighted that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan likened it to "hell on earth," faces another curse: famine. A Tufts University study released earlier this year says that because of problems unprecedented even in Darfur's tortured history, "regionwide famine appears inevitable."
If so, the international community - already struggling to reach the 2.6 million of Darfur's 6 million people who need help - may have to feed and shelter even more. And this effort, second only to the tsunami relief operation in South Asia, promises to stretch on for years, until some way is found to put Darfur back together again.
The hunger already is doing its job. Although the exact death toll in Darfur is a matter of intense debate, all agree that violence is no longer the primary killer.
"People are starving and no one is reporting it, because technically they are not starving," says Bir Chandra Mandal, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program emergency director in South Darfur. They die from TB (tuberculosis) or malaria or diarrhea, their immune systems weakened by malnutrition. He calls it an "invisible famine."
Famine can kill people, and it can kill their way of life. This season, in Darfur, it threatens to kill both.
'Devils on horseback'
Darfur may not be the world's worst humanitarian crisis; there are more dead in war-torn Congo, there's greater anarchy in Somalia. But a special poignancy surrounds the plight of a people whose government has armed and empowered their attackers.
Darfur, which means "domain of the Fur tribe," was independent for most of its history; the sultan exchanged gifts with Napoleon when the latter invaded Egypt in 1798. Darfur was forced to become part of Sudan only in the 1920s, under British colonial rule.
Some of its 90-odd tribes, particularly the Arab ones, were nomadic herders. Others, mostly non-Arabs of African stock, were sedentary farmers. Although they competed for land, they also cooperated; nomads were allowed to use farmland for grazing at certain times of year, and their cattle and camels would help clear the fields by eating old sorghum stalks, and fertilize them, to boot.
Despite their long rivalry, members of the two groups - Arab and non-Arab (or African) - are very similar. Both are black, speak Arabic and practice Islam. They also share customs for resolving disputes over land, water and livestock.
But a quarter century of drought strained relations. With less land on which to graze, herders increasingly encroached on farms. The farmers, meanwhile, became distressed with what they claimed to be the indifference of the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum to Darfur's basic needs, such as education and economic development.
The non-Arabs formed an independence movement. In 2003, these rebel forces began attacking government installations, including the airport in North Darfur. The government, already locked in another war with rebels in southern Sudan, mobilized and armed members of the nomadic Arab tribes, who attacked the African farm villages from which the rebels sometimes drew support.
The farmers called the raiders Janjaweed, "devils on horseback."
The attack on Khartoma Ibrahim's village was typical: One morning in January 2004, gunmen swept in on horses, camels and in four-wheel drive vehicles, shooting at anything that moved. They torched homes and seed bins. They killed donkeys and dumped them into the well. They chased down women and girls and raped them.
Ibrahim's family escaped, although some of the older children ran off in opposite directions and only reunited in Deleij days later. Some, she says, arrived without their shoes. Sixteen months later, she's still shaken: "They took our animals. They took our property. They killed our relatives." She says she lost her father and a nephew.
Question of genocide
The pattern was repeated across Darfur, sometimes with air or logistical support from government forces.
Last September, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said there had been genocide in Darfur in which the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government were complicit. A U.N. report cited evidence of "crimes against humanity" and made a confidential list of 51 suspects that has been referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Sudanese officials say they're willing to discuss Darfuri grievances. First Vice President Ali Osman Taha, often described as the government's most powerful official, said in a speech earlier this month that "the only solution to the problem in Darfur is through peace and negotiations. We say to those who are carrying arms amongst us now, and to the world: Our hands are outstretched to you, our hearts are open to you. We don't want war anymore."
Darfur is less violent than a year ago. The government hasn't launched an offensive against the rebels in months. Last week, the rebels promised to observe a cease-fire. Janjaweed attacks are fewer. Banditry is growing, but bandits have always plagued Darfur.
An agreement that ended Sudan's 20-year civil war in the south has inspired hope that the former rebels who will join a new national coalition government this summer will insist on a negotiated settlement in Darfur, as well.
The African Union, which has about 2,400 military personnel and 240 civilian police trying to help restore peace in Darfur, last month agreed to increase the force to 6,171 soldiers and 1,560 police by the end of September.
Food now may be a bigger problem than violence. Last spring, some farmers risked staying in the countryside to plant crops such as sorghum, ground nut and sesame. But danger prevented many from returning to harvest. The crops were stolen, eaten by nomads' livestock or left to rot. As a result, the harvest was reduced by 60%.
This year, most experts expect a smaller harvest. Darfur's roads are still so unsafe that a farmer would have trouble getting a crop to market. "Under those conditions, I'd only plant what I could eat myself," says Arif Hussain, head of the World Food Program's Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping unit.
That leaves international assistance, which last month fed about 1.7 million Darfuris. But Darfur's fragile food pipeline could be cut by a number of factors, especially for hundreds of thousands living outside the camps and towns served by aid agencies - the people who are most likely to die.
•Rain: In the spring Darfur's dry riverbeds become torrents, its roads turn into streams. A drive that usually takes four hours might take two days. So food trucks must reach Darfur before the rains. The World Food Program says it has pre-positioned enough food; if not, it will have to rely on costly airlifts that would compound its financial problems. Keith McKenzie, UNICEF's special representative for Darfur, says: "The food pipeline is in a terrible situation."
•Security: The rebels, the Janjaweed and the bandits remain armed and at large, posing a threat to the aid effort in general and the food pipeline in particular. WFP trucks repeatedly have been hijacked (11 are still missing) and their drivers beaten or kidnapped. Two drivers were killed May 8 in separate incidents east of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. In March, banditry in West Darfur forced the United Nations to withdraw all personnel to the state capital of El Geneina at a time when WFP was trying to pre-position 25,000 tons of food. If violence forces humanitarian agencies to pull out, deaths could rise to 100,000 a month, according to Jan Egeland, head of the U.N. office for humanitarian affairs.
•Donor fatigue: Until the United States made an emergency donation of 15.4 metric tons of non-cereals (such as vegetable oil), WFP was about to cut rations this month. The food agency says its Darfur operation is "severely under-funded" and has received only $281 million (84% from the United States) of the $467 million it needs for 2005. But as many as 3.25 million Darfuris may need to be fed this summer - twice the current number - as the rains begin and Darfuris' food stores run out.
"How many times can the international community bail a country out?" asks Adam Koons of Save the Children USA.
Add to that the other relief programs around the world that are draining resources - and also failing to meet their goals. The United Nations reported Monday that only $2.5 billion of the $6.5 billion pledged for tsunami relief in South Asia had been received.
In Darfur, even if there is not mass starvation, famine might mean something just as bad: the consignment of some of Africa's most self-reliant people to the global bread line.
A bitter rainy season
Unlike Deleij's refugee camp, Kalma refugee camp is next to a rail line and within sight of planes approaching Nyala International Airport. Few of its inhabitants face imminent starvation. But famine haunts the camp nonetheless.
Muhajer Abdul Rahman, 40, thinks about how in his village of Sora, the onset of the rains meant frenetic activity for his entire family - clearing, fencing, plowing, sowing. But this year the rains will only remind him of everything he lost when the Janjaweed attacked his village in early 2004 - his farm, his animals, his tools, his oldest son. Hazma was shot to death inside the family's hut. He was 14.
"I feel as if I should be planting," the father says, stooping to trace the irregular rectangular outline of his field in the dirt. At Kalma, though, farming is out of the question: as many as 130,000 people pack three square miles.
"You only have enough land for your tent," he says.
Rahman worries about his six surviving children. Normally, he'd be showing them how to farm - to harness and lead a donkey, to know when the soil is moist enough for planting, to tell from its color and texture when sorghum is ready for harvest. There is so much to teach: How to hide next year's seed in the ground so no one will eat it before the next planting, how to soak a poisonous berry for three days to remove the toxins before it's eaten.
He says that although Islam teaches patience, his is wearing thin: "All the time we are thinking about how to solve this problem. But we have no hope."
As he's talking, there's a noise nearby. It's food distribution day, and a group of men chant as they unload 110-lb. bags of sorghum from a WFP truck.
"So-see!" they grunt in unison. "So-see!" "Let's go!"
Other men stand around, cheering and clapping time, as the bags hit the ground with big puffs of dust. One of the workers is Mohammed Adam, 24, who a year ago was preparing his land for planting. These days his food comes off the back of a truck. He gets $2.40 a day to unload it.
It's spring in Darfur. The rituals of sowing and reaping have been replaced by those of registration and distribution, and the wait is not for rain, but for 33 pounds of sorghum, per person per month.