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Monday, September 25, 2006

Bombs rain down on Darfur villages

The Times: ON the day Sudan was telling the United Nations security council this month in New York that it was committed to the search for "lasting peace", the village of Tabre in north Darfur was under attack.

"Government planes flew over our village dropping bombs," Hosna Abdurahman said, her blue-patterned shawl flapping around her teenage face. "Everyone ran to save their lives."

The Sudanese government wants the world to believe it is moving to solve Darfur’s conflict. It has rejected the hoped-for presence of UN troops and praised the work of African Union peacekeepers.

But in the nearby town of Tawilla there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. It used to be home to 40,000, but it has been ransacked so often by the government-backed Janjaweed militia that its dusty streets now lie empty.

After a bombing raid on September 11, many inhabitants moved to the African Union base on the outskirts, where 200 Rwandan peacekeepers are stationed. All around the barbed wire perimeter fence are makeshift homes built with dried grass and plastic tarpaulins.

More than 20,000 people live by the base and more arrive seeking refuge every day.

Hassania Abubakar was in the nearby village of Tina when it was attacked. “We were farming as the children played in the water hole,” she said, surrounded by her four children. Suddenly Russian-built Antonov bombers used by the Sudanese government to attack villages appeared.

"We grabbed our children and ran,” Abubakar said.

Two other children were wounded in the explosions that day. Their parents carried them six miles to the African Union base, from where they were taken to hospital. According to the peacekeepers, Sudanese troops then moved into the emptied village. Everything left behind was looted.

The Sudanese government has denied undertaking the continuing bombing raids and claims its military actions are in self-defence against rebels who will not sign last May’s peace deal.

The government of President Omar al-Bashir is refusing to admit 20,000 UN peacekeepers who were intended to replace the African Union’s contingent of 7,000 troops by the end of this week.

Amid fears of a potential bloodbath, the African Union’s mandate has been extended until the end of the year.

“The best that can be said about the presence of the African Union is that they are witnesses,” said Roberta Cohen, an expert on Darfur at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Their mandate is so weak that all they can do is monitor and report the violence.”

At the UN on Friday, Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, warned that time was running out. “The violence in Darfur is not subsiding, it is getting worse,” she said.

If Sudan continued to bar UN troops, the international body had to “find a way to act” without its consent, Rice said. It was an echo of President George W Bush’s warning last week that UN peacekeepers could be forced on Sudan in order to prevent “genocide”.

Bashir seems intent on calling America’s bluff. “I don’t believe anybody in Washington actually believes it is possible to send in a force against the consent of the Sudanese. American and British troops are tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Cohen said. The best hope would be for negotiations to reopen between rebel factions and Khartoum.

The overstretched African Union force used to provide a modicum of protection, but its soldiers have retreated under attack. Rebel forces as well as the government have made life difficult.

Relief agencies have also been threatened by rebel forces and 12 aid workers killed. Tawilla used to have a clinic run by Relief International, but it has been closed for a month. With no healthcare or sanitation, disease is now rampant.

A small bundle wrapped in a white plastic sack was lowered into the ground last week near the African Union base and covered with red dirt. Hawa Adam was two and her body was frail and withered. Her father, Adam Abdel Majid, said she never saw a doctor. “I tried everything to get her medicine but there is nothing here,” he said.

Next to Hawa’s grave were 11 other piles of dirt, some decorated with thorns, marking the graves of those who had died since the last rains a fortnight ago. After a brief ceremony, mourners walked back down the hill and into camp. That night a storm swept away all signs of Hawa’s grave and the 11 next to it.
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