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Darfur nomads face adversity in isolation

10/19/2005 9:01pm

© Derk Segaar/IRIN
KABKABIYA, 19 Oct 2005 (IRIN) - Still energetic at the age of 65, Mahmud Mohamed Masar guides a small herd of camels across a windswept plain near Eid El Nabak. Although life had always been difficult for his clan, it has never been as hard as in the past two years, when he lost three sons and 10 relatives.

Mohamed Masar is a clan leader of the 10,000-strong Riziegat-Jalul Arab nomadic community. They had temporarily set up camp approximately 40 km east of Kabkabiya town in North Darfur, where the scattered ruins of villages bear witness to the destruction that took place in this region.

As large numbers of villages were levelled or abandoned in a government-led campaign that started in 2003, the region's economy was destroyed, markets were closed and nomads were cut off from their traditional sources of food and medical assistance.

"Since the war, we lost many of our people and a lot of animals. We also lost our clinics and markets," explained Mohamed Masar.

Agricultural communities of African descent, such as the Fur, also fled the countryside. While these groups found a certain measure of relief from humanitarian agencies in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the main towns, most nomadic communities stayed out in the field, fending for themselves in a highly volatile and insecure environment.

Due to the increasingly polarised political atmosphere, many of Darfur's residents equate Arab nomads with the notorious "Janjawid" - government-allied militiamen who have been accused of terrorising the region's non-Arab tribes.

As a result, nomads - which make up an estimated 20 percent of Darfur’s 6 million population - rarely come to IDP camps to ask for assistance. Besides being reluctant to give up their lifestyle and freedom, they fear being lynched by the predominantly African IDP community.

Around Kabkabiya, the majority of nomads consider themselves members of the Riziegat ethnic community - one of the larger groups of Arab pastoralists in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. The Riziegat are comprised of smaller groups or sections - the Maharia, Jalul and Aregat.

Each of these sections consists of a number of clans that typically contain between 150 and 200 families, numbering between 10 and 15 people each. When the nomads are on the move, a group of families usually travels together under the direction of a clan leader.

"Why has the international community been giving the Fur oil and food and clothing for three years, and nothing to us?" asked Umsabal Adam Bashir, a 35-year old Aregat woman sitting in front of her tent near Eid El Nabak and tending to four of her children. "We might be hard to find, and we are on the move, but there are many of us and we suffer."

Diseases take their toll

Umsabal Adam Bashir, a 35-year old woman near Eid El Nabak, North Darfur.

Izzedine Zeroual, a health officer for the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF) in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State, said that nomadic leaders claimed they had lost up to 30 percent of their community through disease and violence since the war began.

He noted that between June 2004 and October 2005 in North Darfur alone outbreaks of polio, measles, whooping cough, hepatitis E, jaundice, bloody diarrhoea, as well as the most virulent form of meningitis, W-135, had been recorded.

"We don't have any data on how these outbreaks affected the nomadic communities, but they didn't have access to immunisation for four years and 14 clinics in the Kabkabiya area were destroyed during the conflict. I'm sure many of them died," Zeroual said.

The spread of parasites at the beginning of 2005, he added, also had depleted livestock herds. A substantial number of camels had died, as no veterinary support was available.

"The most important issue now is medicines -- both for our people and our animals," urged Jalul clan leader Mohamed Masar. He estimated that around 10 percent of his clan had died since the beginning of the war, while 20 percent had lost all their animals.

"Between 300 and 400 children died from diseases over the past two years -- much more than before the war," he added. "There are no clinics now and doctors don't come to our camps anymore to sell medicines."

Umsabal Adam Bashir added: "Every month, two or three women die in childbirth."

In a Maharia community of 7,000 people in Fagu, 30 km north of Kabkabiya, Fatima Assad reported that more than 20 women had died in childbirth in 2005. Around 70 children had succumbed to preventable diseases, such as malaria and hasba fever.

The semi-nomadic Maharia lost most of their animals and became IDPs after their hometown of Gerer, 50 km north of Kutum, was destroyed during a fight between the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and government forces in June 2003.

"We used to have a hospital, but it was destroyed, together with a school, a mosque and around 500 houses," explained Assad, a local teacher.

An aid worker said that the problem of the Janjawid had discouraged many humanitarian agencies from operating in nomadic areas.

"They don't go to these areas for security reasons and because of the reputation of the Janjawid in the region. People confuse the nomads with the Janjawid. They are considered the same -- the same entity -- but they're not," he noted.

"When UNICEF started its Darfur emergency campaign in November 2003, our priority was to bring relief assistance to the IDPs who had fled their villages, had lost everything, and were stranded around the main towns," Zeroual explained.

Following a measles vaccination campaign in June 2004, however, humanitarian agencies realised there was a big gap in coverage, since the areas controlled by the rebel SLM/A were inaccessible to the Sudanese health ministry.

"In North Darfur, 30 percent of children under five live in SLM/A areas, so we started to establish primary healthcare facilities in areas under rebel control to bridge the gap," Zeroual said.

"In what you could call the third [humanitarian assistance] phase, NGOs have brought it to our attention that the nomadic communities had no access to health services in either IDP camps or SLM/A areas. We have now started a programme that is targeting them," he added.

By supporting a local nomadic NGO, El Masar, UNICEF’s first mobile clinics had been set up to provide medical assistance to pastoral communities.

"It's a learning process for us, too. We have to learn their habits, their specific needs and diseases. We need to better understand them," Zeroual noted.

Chronic insecurity

A group of Riziegat Aregat nomads east of Kabkabiya, North Darfur.

In addition to being cut off from most sources of income and support, many nomads live in constant fear of being attacked by SLM/A rebels -- called Tora Bora by the nomads -- who could mistake them for the Janjawid.

"Since the beginning of the war we have been attacked more than 20 times," Umsabal Adam Bashir said. "We are afraid of the Tora Bora. They can attack us any time. We feel as if we are in prison."

In Eid El Nabak, few people had been spared considerable losses over the last two years.

Abdul Hamar Matar's 19-year-old daughter was killed during a raid when 26 of his cows were taken. Jajah Ahmud lost his brother and two uncles while 200 camels were stolen. Al Haq Mohamed Tahl's brother was also killed when bandits took his 55 camels.

"Over 200 of our people - mostly women and children - have died [of disease] since the beginning of the war and we lost around 300 to violence," said Abdul Abasar Soror, wakir or deputy chief of the Riziegat-Aregat, whose community numbers between 7,000 and 8,000 nomads.

"Ninety percent of North Darfur, especially the countryside, is controlled by the SLM/A," a local observer noted, "so there is very little freedom for nomads to move around and they are frequently being attacked."

Soror indicated that there were many reasons why the SLM/A attacked nomadic communities so often: "They take our animals to feed their war and they clear us from the land so that they can control it."

"They also see us as the Janjawid, as killers, rapists and people who abduct women and children," he continued. "And we are seen as supporters of the government and are therefore denied access to grazing grounds and water, which leads to fighting.

"We have groups of young people who take care of the defence of our community," Soror added. "We don't depend on the government. We have our guns to protect ourselves."

He stressed, however, that there was no relation between the nomadic defence groups and the Janjawid, as the latter were mere bandits who attacked farmers and nomads, alike.

"The Aregat have been attacked by the Janjawid many times. They are thieves. They don't differentiate between the tribes. When they see the opportunity to steal, they will," he said.

Soror did acknowledge, however, that some Aregat youth had joined the Sudanese armed forces and could have been engaged in military operations in the region.

"We must move south for our camels. We will try not to come too close to the Tora Bora, but we are concerned. If we feel an area is unsafe, we come closer together and move in a big group, while giving more attention to defence," Soror explained.

The local observer pointed out that nomads were often forced into a fight. "When you touch their animals, you touch them. When they get attacked, they will put up a fierce fight," he noted.

"Most of us are fully nomadic," Soror added. "We move all our people, including old men, women and children. That's why we are afraid of war, because when war happens, we will lose all our family."

Hoping for peace

According to the local observer, any solution to the conflict in Darfur - from the nomadic perspective - has to include an agreement on designated north-south migration corridors, the opportunity for semi-nomadic groups to have some sort of homeland with basic services, and sustained reconciliation efforts to restore the trust between nomadic and farming communities.

"The Fur and Zaghawa have been trying to push us off the land since 2000 by closing areas, building farms and blocking us from moving our animals from the north to the south," Mohamed Masar complained. "We just want water and grass."

UNICEF doctor Zeroual found that a number of Fur agricultural communities were still living in and cultivating nomad-dominated areas around Kabkabiya. "They have known the people [the nomads] for a long time. They knew each other from previous migrations and agreed among themselves that there would be peace," Zeroual noted.

The local observer acknowledged that although this was true in certain cases, it also occured that such local deals were involuntary and included the understanding that agricultural communities had to pay for their protection.

"We are afraid of this tough life. We are moving all the time and there is no education for us or our children," Umsabal Adam Bashir said.

Before the war the many nomadic women and children would stay in one place while the men migrated with their camels. "We would cultivate millet and share markets, schools and clinics with the Fur villages," Adam Bashir added.

Mohamed Masar agreed that relations between the Jalul and the Fur had been good before the war. "When we meet in the market [of Kabkabiya], everything is normal. We talk and eat together," he explained. "But if we ask them to come back, they say they don't trust the situation. There is no peace.

"We would be very happy if the Fur would return to their villages, because we miss them. We miss our cooperation," he said.

"I hope that we can sit together with other tribes and no longer differentiate between Fur and Zaghawa and nomads and Africans and Arabs," the clan leader noted.


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