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Frustration Boils Over in Sudan Refugee Camp

12/14/2005 7:48am

By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer

KALMA REFUGEE CAMP, Sudan — Aid worker Hadi Ismail came to this teeming camp for the displaced to help refugees.

Kambal Abdul Karim, a displaced farmer, decided it was time for the refugees to help themselves.

Their mutual concern for the plight of 90,000 people living in limbo in the camp in southern Darfur should have made the men natural allies. Instead, they found themselves at opposite ends of a violent standoff that shocked aid workers, blurred the line between victim and offender, and underscored the challenges ahead in restoring peace to the troubled region.

"I just wanted to save people," Ismail, 32, said, recalling his fear and sense of betrayal when hundreds of angry refugees armed with sticks and knives seized control of a cluster of huts used by relief teams, taking Ismail and about three dozen other aid workers hostage.

On the other side of the siege was Karim, 38, a father of five who says he was driven to desperate measures by the government's neglect of this camp where gunshots echo in the night and reports of robbery and killings are growing. "We are fed up," he said.

The spasm of violence at Kalma this fall was only the latest episode of renewed fighting in Darfur, where an estimated 180,000 people have already died and 2 million others have been displaced. After a lull in bloodshed during the first half of the year, battles between rebel groups and government troops have resumed, and rebel groups are fighting among themselves in a struggle for power.

With the conflict that began in February 2003 showing no signs of ending, refugees in Kalma are increasingly impatient. They fear that international attention is waning and accuse the Sudanese government of trying to shut down the camp and force refugees home.

"The camp is a pressure cooker," said Bob Kitchen, field coordinator for International Rescue Committee, an aid group working at Kalma.

The hostage crisis capped months of distrust and deteriorating relations between refugees and Sudanese officials.

In May, refugees chased police out of the camp and burned down a government-run humanitarian office. The riot broke out after an officer stole a pack of cigarettes from a refugee's kiosk, but camp residents had complained about police abuse and arbitrary arrests even before the incident. As a result, Sudan's largest refugee camp remains a virtual no-go zone for government security officers, who relocated a mile away and dare enter only in heavily armed convoys.

The withdrawal has caused a security vacuum in the city-sized camp that stretches 3 miles long and houses thousands of families. The camp is protected by fewer than a dozen African Union peacekeepers, most of whom are unarmed and live off-site.

Sudanese government officials make no secret of their desire to dismantle Kalma, which they worry has grown too large and unwieldy. They're nervous about 90,000 angry refugees living less than 10 miles from Nyala, the largest city in Darfur. And they fear that rebels have infiltrated the camp, recruiting fighters and smuggling food and supplies. A year ago, 11 police officers were shot and killed inside the camp in a suspected rebel ambush, police say.

After refugees chased the police away, the government imposed a blockade on the camp, cutting off trade and traffic with Nyala.

No longer could refugees travel to town to swap oil, grain and homemade crafts for soap, clothing and cooking pots. Bus service ceased, forcing refugees to walk to town or hire donkey carts. Prices for sugar, fruit and other supplies in the camp soared.

Living conditions deteriorated. Huts are pieced together with sticks and scraps of plastic. Some stretches of the sandy soil around the camp are so depleted from overcrowding that there's barely a blade of grass or tree branch left.

Government officials defend the blockade, saying refugees were engaging in trade of luxury goods, such as TVs and radios. "There shouldn't be commerce inside the camp," said Ibrahim Siddiq Mohammed, finance minister in Nyala. "Everything they need they get from the [aid groups] and the government."

But refugees talk of frequent shortages of food and water. They have rejected efforts to close Kalma or relocate to smaller camps, suspecting a government trick to divide and control them. They say smaller camps would also be more vulnerable to attacks by bandits and the Arab-dominated militias known as the janjaweed that are believed to be backed by the government.

"It's not safe to leave," said Karim, whose family walked 13 days to reach Kalma after his village was bombed by government helicopters a year ago. "I won't go back home until I see U.S. Marines with guns on their backs protecting us."

Rather than weaken their resolve, the government crackdown appears to have further radicalized refugees. "We are ready to fight if the government tries to enter," said Maajub Adam Rabbi, 35, another displaced farmer. "We will die fighting."

Such frustrations have fueled the rise of camp leaders such as Sheik Suleiman Abubakr Taha, whose arrest sparked the October riot. Government officials accused Taha of illegal wood-cutting, but refugees and African Union observers say he embarrassed the government by openly complaining to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan during his May visit to the camp.

A heavily armed security force was dispatched to arrest the leader. When mobs of refugees tried to intervene, government agents opened fire, wounding at least nine.

After his arrest, refugees turned their anger toward the only target within their reach: aid groups inside the camp.


"I was furious," Karim recalled. "This was my sheik. We had to do something."

Inside the Spanish Red Cross facility at Kalma, Ismail, a medical assistant who volunteered to relocate to the camp a year earlier, was getting ready to go home when he heard the commotion outside. As one of the few Arabs working inside the facility, he feared for his life, particularly when attackers vowed that hostages would be killed if the sheik were not released unharmed.

"I was terrified," he recalled. "I thought I would be beaten or stabbed."

In the adjacent hut, the mob attacked a government-run water and sanitation agency, beating one employee with a stick, slashing car tires and hiding hostages in different locations to hinder rescue attempts, witnesses recalled.

At the height of the chaos and confusion, refugees who were wounded during the sheik's arrest stumbled back to the center of camp. With no place else to go, they turned to the beleaguered Spanish Red Cross clinic. The mobs cleared a pathway and carried in a 15-year-old girl with a gunshot wound to the stomach and a 2-year-old boy shot in the foot.

Pushing aside his fear, Ismail and other hostages treated the wounded. "We did what we could here and arranged to have them transferred to the hospital in Nyala," he said.

Their efforts defused the refugees' anger. "After that, I tried to reassure him that we wouldn't hurt him," Karim said. He brought Ismail some water for a shower. They passed the time playing cards.

The next morning, Ismail and many other humanitarian workers were released. Three days later, the last aid workers were also freed. The sheik was also released but later rearrested. He remains in government custody.

Ismail returned to work the next day, but the aid group is considering moving its clinic from the center of camp to the edge, making an escape easier in case of another attack. "But we can't stay afraid," Ismail said. "We have to continue our work."

Karim said he had no regrets.

"If we hadn't done that, the sheik would have been killed," he said. "We needed to grab the attention of the world. People have been saying that things in Darfur are OK, but it's not true. We are still in danger."

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