By Amy Costello
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Amy Costello.
September 16, 2004
The central African nation of Sudan has 50,000 fewer people now than it had about 18 months ago. Attacking planes and marauding militia have killed them all. The ethnic Arab nomads, known as Janjaweed, ride on horseback and camel. They target black farmers, killing the men, raping the women, burning crops and ransacking modest homes. Senator John Kerry has called the ethnic slaughter "genocide," and just this month the Bush administration agreed. But neither Bush nor Kerry is willing to commit U.S. troops to stop the bloodshed.
Some 180,000 Sudanese are so afraid of the Janjaweed that they've
fled their own country and sought safety in neighboring Chad.
I decided to travel to Chad's border to meet with newly arrived
refugees and to get firsthand accounts of the atrocities going
on inside Sudan's Darfur region. I have reported from Africa
for more than three years, and I felt prepared for the journey.
I've covered other refugee crises, food shortages, and the HIV/AIDS
pandemic. None of it prepared me for the wretched conditions
I was to see in eastern Chad.
Review a selection of audio and images from Amy Costello's
reporting in Chad as well as other pieces from PRI
The World's Sudan coverage.
I traveled to the border in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive vehicle. My driver weaved his way slowly through Chad's desert, following faint tracks in the sand. Ahead of us, brown clouds were gathering on the horizon. This area is prone to sandstorms, and it appeared that one was heading our way. As the hours passed, I watched the distant clouds continue to grow. Eventually, the entire horizon was muddied in a thick brown haze.
"Could be the Janjaweed," my driver said, looking over the steering wheel at the haze ahead of us. My heart sank. "The militias cause sand clouds like this," he explained. Darfur was still a few hours from here. Could that dust on the horizon be Darfur? Did the brown clouds mean the Janjaweed were killing again, their horses and camels kicking up a fury of sand so powerful that it would be visible from places as distant as this? I stared at my driver's face, searching for answers. I saw fear.
woman walked for several days through Darfur until she reached
Chad. She fled with her children to escape the Janjaweed,
the militia that is blamed for killing some 50,000 people
Fear of the Janjaweed has driven more than a million people
from their homes. A population nearly the size of Manhattan
is on the run. Many are staying in cramped camps for the displaced
inside Sudan. Others are reportedly hiding in caves around Darfur.
The rest have escaped over the border into Chad. All are survivors
of what's being called a campaign of genocide, a term defined
by the United Nations as a calculated effort to destroy any
group, or part of any group, because of its nationality, ethnicity,
race or religion.
Until recently, President Bush refused to call the violence
genocide. If he used that word, diplomats said, he would be
pressured to take action to end the carnage. That's because
Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention states that members of
the United Nations may be called upon "to take such action ...
as they consider appropriate" to prevent and suppress acts of
But Bush has troops stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's also trying to win over voters who are skeptical about sending American troops into harm's way unless there is a compelling reason. When faced with the slaughter in Darfur, Bush has consistently chosen to pursue diplomatic rather than military solutions to end the crisis.
At the camps I visited in eastern Chad, the refugees weren't
debating whether the violence they had escaped should be called
"genocide" or "gross human rights violations" or, as many are
calling it, "the worst humanitarian crisis on the face of the
Earth." The targets of this killing spree are largely poor and
illiterate; they're peasant farmers. Most had no idea why they
were attacked or raped or driven from their homes. On the sandy
stretch between Chad and Sudan, 180,000 people were merely trying
to stay alive.
man boards a U.N. convoy in Tine, Chad. Five hundred refugees
joined the convoy that moved them to the safety of camps
farther inland. The man on the right, and hundreds of others,
were left behind at the perilous border.
Ten years ago, in 1994, ethnic Hutus in Rwanda began murdering the minority Tutsi population. Documents from the Clinton White House show that soon after the killings began, officials in Washington were privately calling it genocide. They wouldn't admit that publicly, however. Classified documents released this year show that Clinton administration officials were aware of the extent of the slaughter in Rwanda but chose not to act.
The United Nations didn't do any better. A little more than two weeks after the Rwanda genocide began, the U.N. Security Council voted to cut the U.N. force in Rwanda from 2,500 to 270 men. The United States was the leading voice in advocating for that decision. Some 800,000 Rwandans were killed in just 100 days.
And now, ten years after the genocide in Rwanda -- a crisis that the world knew was happening yet turned away from -- the fear is that it's happening all over again in Sudan.
Sudan and the Janjaweed
The bloodshed in Darfur began early last year when rebel groups in western Sudan began attacking government installations. The rebels were seeking autonomy for black African farmers in the region. The Arab-dominated government responded by sending an ethnic Arab militia to attack and destroy the rebels and their supporters. Bush and other world leaders have continued to call on the Sudanese government to reign in the militia. The government, in turn, denies that it's collaborating with the Janjaweed.
But throughout the camps I visited in Chad, refugees I spoke
with said that militia attacks often began with heavy aerial
bombardments, which suggests that the government of Sudan is
playing an important role in the killings.
man couldn't sit up for an interview and begged for a doctor.
He's living with his family in a tent on the outskirts of
a U.N. camp in eastern Chad. Thousands of "spontaneous arrivals"
live outside the gates of U.N. camps, sometimes waiting
months for U.N. assistance and protection.
At the Touloum refugee camp in eastern Chad, refugee Dabohi Mahmosari described the first assault on her village as something that came thundering out of the sky. She imitated the sound of the bombardment, letting loose with "Buh, buh, buh, buh" in rapid-fire succession. Mahmosari's village was raided at night, and she said the aerial assault continued for hours. "And early in the morning, the Janjaweed came with their horses, and they started killing all those people who'd survived."
Mahmosari's husband was one of the many who were killed. After the sky was clear of fighter planes and the Janjaweed had left, she said the wives went around and used their own clothing to cover the bodies of their dead husbands. "We didn't have time to bury them," she said. "And I don't know what happened to my husband's body after I left. If we tried to go back and bury our dead, the airplanes would've returned and killed us too."
Human Rights Watch has reported that the Sudanese government
has used aircraft to attack villages before sending in Janjaweed
ground assaults. Government supply planes have been seen dropping
bombs on villages; helicopter gunships and jet fighters have
also been used. "They give them uniforms. They train them, they
arm them," said Jemera Rone, a Sudan researcher with Human Rights
Watch. She contends that the government also provides Janjaweed
leaders with satellite phones and land cruisers and that the
government and the Janjaweed perform joint operations. (View
the full report.)
Bracing for More Refugees
I thought that Chad would be a haven for the thousands of people
who'd fled the violence in Sudan. I expected to experience the
border as refuge, a merciful dividing line between violent insecurity
and relative peace. Instead, I found that hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of people were deteriorating with each additional
day they spent as refugees in Chad.
Amy Costello interviews Chadians near the border with Sudan.
Locals complain that prices have been rising since refugees
began arriving in their country. Chad is one of the poorest
countries in the world, and now it's struggling with the
responsibility of hosting some 200,000 refugees from Sudan.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for the refugees' welfare and safety. But the agency has grossly underestimated the scope of the crisis from the tragedy's beginning some 18 months ago.
Jennifer Clark, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Geneva, said that planning for a refugee emergency is a complicated process. "We don't have a crystal ball. It's always difficult in a refugee situation to predict how many people will flee. ... We do the best we can with the limited information we have available."
The UNHCR has already moved some 140,000 refugees to safer camps deeper inside Chad. They've had to arrange convoys over terrible roads and cope with floods that sometimes make routes impassable. "We have been racing against the clock," Clark said.
The U.N. camps I visited were literally bursting with people, and many had received no U.N. assistance. Camps designed for 6,000 people were holding three times that number. Thousands of people had begun to make their way to the camps on their own even though the United Nations hadn't officially processed them. The UNHCR calls these unregistered families at their camps "spontaneous arrivals."
As the violence continues unbridled in Darfur, and with no plans for international intervention in the foreseeable future, the United Nations in Chad is bracing for as many as 100,000 more refugees to come pouring over the border.
and children fetch water from a well near the Iridimi refugee
camp in eastern Chad. The well was designed to provide drinking
water for animals, but refugees were drinking from it too.
Many have become sick as a result.
One aid worker took me to a spot near the U.N. camp of Iridimi. It was a muddy, stinking place. All day long, camels and horses came here to eat and defecate. Next to them, a dozen donkey carcasses were rotting in the sun. The stench was overpowering; a couple of visitors quietly excused themselves and walked away. But in the center of the odor was an enormous pit, some 30 feet deep, surrounded by children. Barefoot girls and boys had plastic jugs attached to long ropes. They would lean over the edge of the hole, drop their buckets down, then haul their heavy pails of water back up again. The area around the pit was muddy and incredibly slippery. As I got nearer to where the children were standing, I was afraid I'd fall right in.
Vincent Dupont was standing there, watching the scene. He was working in Chad with a group called Norwegian Church Aid, trying to find clean sources of water for the refugees. "This is the main well they used to give water to the animals," he said. "But now we can see some refugees coming to get water for their own purposes. We are really concerned about this well. We can't use this water for drinking purposes. For animals, maybe it's OK, but for human beings it's really dangerous."
The World Health Organization has reported that from 6,000 to 10,000 people in Darfur are dying every month; many of them are aged 5 and under. The children are dying from diarrhea because they're drinking unsafe water and living in unsanitary conditions.
It was the same story in Chad. There, I discovered that contaminated water supplies were beginning to make the youngest refugees very sick.
Children at Risk
child being weighed at a Doctors Without Borders clinic
in eastern Chad. The United Nations is supposed to protect
and feed refugees, but a doctor at this clinic said children
are deteriorating inside U.N. camps.
Dozens of infants and children were lying listless inside a tent at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in the town of Abeche. Their rail-thin arms were punctured by intravenous drips. Most of the children weren't fresh arrivals from war-torn Sudan -- they had been in Chad for months. The children had become severely malnourished while staying inside U.N. camps.
Health worker Ann Decoster said she hadn't expected to see refugees wasting away while under the care of the United Nations. "I think you have to be surprised. Because they're supposed to be guarded, they're supposed to get the correct ration of food. And if you get all this, you're not supposed to deteriorate like this."
The United Nations has confirmed that children are deteriorating inside its camps in eastern Chad. A nutrition survey conducted in June found high levels of malnutrition among refugee children in three camps. The United Nations has launched a supplementary feeding program in its camps and says that it's working to improve water supplies and that it's deploying more health and nutrition experts into the field.
"They Killed Everybody in My Village"
During my stay in eastern Chad, the sand blew viciously. Every time the wind picked up, it felt as though someone had released a barrage of needles into the air. The sand stung my eyes and pierced my skin. Many refugees had red, puffy eyes from the relentless onslaught of sand. When the wind began to howl, the women would unfurl their headscarves and use the extra fabric to protect their faces from the sand. The colors they wore were bold. Everywhere the women gathered, shocks of magenta, aqua and yellow blazed in the sand.
Later, I realized that the women of Darfur stood out for another reason. There were hardly any men in the camps.
According to the International Federation of the Red Cross,
80 percent of the refugees in Chad are women and children. During
a sandstorm at the Touloum camp, I asked Mahmosari where all
the men were. The two of us were holed up inside a tent, the
wind slapping against the canvas walls. "In my village, no men
are saved. Only the women," she explained. She stuttered as
she spoke and her jaw trembled. "They killed everybody in my
village! They killed all the people of our tribe! Even the little
severely malnourished child is being treated at a Doctors
Without Border clinic near Chad's border with Sudan. Many
refugee children are becoming malnourished after crossing
to the relative safety of Chad. The United Nations says
that it is overwhelmed.
The death toll in neighboring Darfur was rising. The day I spoke to Mahmosari, the estimates were 30,000 dead. Later, it rose to 40,000 dead. Now the United Nations estimates that there are as many as 50,000 dead. After Mahmosari's husband was killed in the attack on her village, she fled. She said that she and 50 other new widows and their children traveled day and night. Mahmosari said planes continued to fire on them, chasing them farther and farther from their homes and their country. "Morning, night, the plane shooting us, firing on us," she said. According to Mahmosari, the planes never let up until she and the others had crossed the border into Chad.
Kerry Versus Bush
Senator Kerry has chided the Bush administration for not doing more to stop the violence in Darfur. Earlier this month, Kerry attacked his Republican opponent at a campaign stop in New Orleans. "We simply cannot accept another Rwanda," Kerry told the crowd. "The United States should ensure the immediate deployment of an effective international force to disarm militia, protect civilians and facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance in Darfur." Then he added, "If I were president, I would act now. ... I would not sit idly by."
On September 9, 2004, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated for the first time that "genocide" is taking place in the Darfur region and that the government of Sudan in Khartoum and the government-sponsored Arab militia "bear responsibility."
Powell's use of the word "genocide" came in the wake of a State Department report. U.S. investigators had traveled to the refugee camps of Chad and interviewed more than 1,000 people. The State Department found a "consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities committed against non-Arab villagers."
Bush has proposed sending in more African forces to restore peace to Darfur. "It is clear that only outside action can stop the killing," Bush said. "My government is seeking a new Security Council resolution to authorize an expanded African Union security force to prevent further bloodshed."
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has also called for an expanded international peacekeeping force. Right now, the African Union has about 80 military observers in Darfur, protected by about 300 soldiers. They're supposed to be monitoring an area the size of Iraq.
Just this past weekend, September 18, the UN Security Council adopted
a resolution threatening sanctions against Sudan, if the government
does not halt the ethnic killing in Darfur. The U.S.-drafted
resolution originally proposed sanctions against Sudan's oil industry,
but it was watered down to appease China, which imports oil from Sudan
and had threatened to veto the resolution. The vote was 11-0 with
China, Russia, Algeria and Pakistan abstaining. The resolution also
will establish a U.N. commission to determine if Sudan's government
and the Arab militias are committing genocide.
Meanwhile, peace talks in Nigeria between Sudan and the rebels in Darfur collapsed last week -- with Sudan's top negotiator blaming Powell and the United States for raising the charge of genocide.
Sticks in the Sand
The conditions in Chad were the worst I've seen in all my travels in Africa. Here, four sticks in the ground often constituted "home." In better conditions, the sticks would be supporting four walls, or at least a roof. But there was nothing in the desert to fashion into a shelter. The land was barren. So the refugees continued to live, sometimes for months at a time, sitting between a few sticks.
Some of the families tried to make a roof or a lean-to by draping fabric or garments over the sticks. On a still and sunny day, a piece of cloth fixed overhead could provide a family with a bit of shade and a few hours of relief from the unrelenting heat. But whenever the wind picked up, as it often did during my visit, their fabric roofs went soaring. Families would patiently harness the cloth to one of the sticks to keep it from flying away. As I passed family after family living like this, the thin pieces of fabric billowing in the desert started to look a lot like flags of surrender.
Amy Costello is a FRONTLINE/World
correspondent and a reporter for PRI's The
World. A graduate of Columbia University's graduate
school of journalism, she has traveled widely in Africa, covering
politics, child soldiers, famine and AIDS. She is based in Cape
Town, South Africa.
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