Letter from Darfur

Zainab, a twenty-six-year-old woman, was watering the cattle at the well when the helicopters came to her village in South Darfur. Her eight-year-old son, Aziz, was helping her, and she had left four-year-old Abdulla with her husband in their thatched mud-and-brick house. She had never seen a helicopter before and for a while she wondered what it was. Then she saw the first bombs drop and listened to the cries of the villagers and the shouts of the men on camels as they began shooting people with their Kalashnikovs. As she ran toward the nearby trees, pulling Aziz behind her, she saw flames rising from the burning houses.

Later, when everything was quiet, Zainab and Aziz crept back. The village was absolutely quiet. No house was left standing. There were a few carcasses of cows and sheep, but the herds had vanished, taken by the men, and with them had gone Zainab’s own animals, her fifteen cows, thirty-five horses, and two camels, as well as all the sheep, chickens, and guinea fowl.

It was then that she saw the bodies, though it took her a few minutes to recognize them: the Janjaweed militias, who serve as the Sudanese army’s irregular forces, had hacked the heads off the men with machetes and taken them away, leaving their bodies behind. Her husband’s body was there, and those of her two brothers, her five brothers-in-law, and her father; her six sisters were dead too. Most of the younger boys had not been decapitated but, for no reason that she could understand, her son Abdulla’s head had been hacked off, and his body thrown onto the smoldering remains of their house, where it now lay burning. That day, in December 2003, some 150 people, all related to Zainab, were killed. Only Aziz and herself were left.

For the next five days, Zainab and Aziz hid in the long grass behind the village. Then they set out to find help. They had no shoes. As they walked, heading toward the town of Nyala, forty kilometers to the north, they met survivors of other massacres. They passed other burned-down villages. When they reached Nyala, Zainab found work with a man selling coffee in the market. Six months later, in June 2004, she heard that a camp for people like herself and Aziz was being opened nearby by the Sudan authorities, and she decided that they would be better off with a shelter.

Up to this point, Zainab’s story, atrocious as it is, is much like that of many thousands of people in Darfur, driven from their homes in the past two years by the helicopter gunships of the Sudanese army and the mounted Janjaweed militias in the rocky and inaccessible terrain of Darfur.

What happened next makes her more unfortunate than most. The camp of al-Jir in which she settled soon grew to 30,000 people. The Sudanese authorities suspected that its random collection of shacks harbored rebel fighters. In December …

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