New Strife in Darfur Leaves Many Seeking Refuge

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ZAM ZAM CAMP, Sudan -- They are the new faces in a place they would rather not be, and the meager scraps sheltering them from the blazing desert sun are a testament to their sudden arrival: tents of scruffy tarpaulin propped up on crooked wood branches no higher than four feet tall.

Bosh Khamis, 75, strolled through the section for newcomers, supporting his hunched body with a thick wooden cane.

"I arrived here 12 days ago," he said. "There was fighting between the government and rebels. I saw people get killed."

A surge in fighting since the beginning of the year in the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur has led to an unnerving increase in civilian upheaval, displacing nearly 300,000 people, more than in the last two years combined, according to the United Nations.

Some of the newly displaced have fled to camps like this one, Zam Zam, which holds more than 100,000 people, outside the town of El Fashir in North Darfur. Over the years, the camp has become such a fixture of the conflict in Darfur that many of its residents have lived here long enough to build permanent cottages of mud and straw.

War in Darfur broke out a decade ago when non-Arab rebels took up arms against the central government in Khartoum, accusing it of neglect and discrimination. The government responded with overwhelming force, using militias that came to be known as the janjaweed.

Only last year, there were some hopeful signs of improvement, with the United Nations reporting that tens of thousands of Darfurians had voluntarily left camps and returned home to rebuild their lives. They represented only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands displaced by years of fighting, but to many officials, the exodus from the camps seemed an indication that the situation could be improving.

But in other parts of Darfur, conflict still raged, undercutting the early signs of progress. Now, the surge of new displacements is worrying officials from the United Nations and the African Union, who say that thousands of civilians fled the towns of Labado and Muhajeria in April when fighting broke out between Sudanese forces and one of three main Darfurian rebel groups that continue to fight the government.

Beyond that, fighting among Arab groups over the ownership of gold mines in the Jebel Amer area this year also displaced thousands.

Mr. Khamis is one of the few men who recently made it to the Zam Zam camp, having fled from Labado. Most of the camp's new arrivals are women and children.

Manahil Adam, 25, who is also from Labado, said, "Our men sent us here on vehicles and said they would catch up later with us by foot and donkeys."

Under a small, blue tarpaulin tent crammed with five of her relatives, Ms. Adam, who arrived in the camp a week ago, blamed militias allied with the Sudanese government for the recent chaos.

"They came, beat us up and took our money; they even whipped my aunt," she said. "Some of our men were killed."

"It was the janjaweed," she added.

The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of the conflict in Darfur, though the government puts the figure at 10,000. Currently, 1.4 million receive humanitarian assistance in 99 camps in Darfur, and Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges.

In 2011, one rebel group, the Liberation and Justice Movement, signed a peace agreement with the government in Doha, Qatar, with international support. But the three other Darfurian rebel groups have refused to sign, aligning themselves with rebels from other volatile parts of Sudan who are seeking to topple the government in Khartoum by force.

Most of the new arrivals to the Zam Zam camp, many of whom literally fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs, complained of a lack of adequate aid. "We want food and water," Mr. Khamis said. "There is not enough."

Others seemed reluctant to criticize the situation in the camps, struggling with their sudden need for help at all.

"Yes, I ate, from the food that I brought with me," one woman said hesitantly when asked if she had anything to eat.

The United Nations is assessing relief operations in Sudan, with Valerie Amos, the body's top humanitarian official, ending a four-day visit to the country on Thursday.

"I am disturbed by what I've seen today," said Ms. Amos, who visited the Zam Zam camp during her tour. "One of the major problems is funding. But we have to make the case for the donors."

Newer, attention-grabbing crises in Syria and Mali have stretched money, United Nations officials said, and many donors have expressed concern over government restrictions on access to needy areas.

Everyone living in the camp feels the impact of less assistance, including those who came when it first opened in 2004.

"There has been a reduction in foodstuff and portions of sugar and oil," one community leader told Ms. Amos.

Ali Adam, an official with the Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Committee, the government agency that oversees relief agencies working here, acknowledged that the situation for displaced people was difficult.

"We understand that there is donor fatigue," he said. "But the humanitarian situation is bigger than what the government can handle."

The recent surge in conflict and the declining situation in Darfur's camps have had a particularly hard impact on women, residents said.

"We are like birds in a cage," one female resident of Zam Zam told Ms. Amos. "We can't leave after sunset; there are rapes; there are challenges to women's health," especially during childbirth.

"The people of Sudan have suffered enough," Ms. Amos said. "Fighting needs to stop, and disputes need to be solved by peaceful means."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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