Commentary

Inside a Darfur refugee camp

Updated:

KASS, Sudan — Hundreds of Darfuris fled violence in their home villages to seek shelter in Kass, a camp for displaced people. But they found little peace.

In February, gunmen riding horses and camels invaded the village of approximately 80,000 inhabitants, raiding the thatched huts and seizing people without explanation, according to the displaced residents. The invaders beat people, tied them up and pushed them in the gutters while making their way through the camps.

Eighteen residents of the camp were taken captive, including Sheik Sidig, the chief of the attacked camps. The prisoners were ordered to pay “diya,” also known as blood money, for a Sudanese police officer who was killed at the camp two days earlier.

According to the locals, blood money often plays a significant role as a form of compensation to solve intertribal issues, particularly murder cases like this.

“When I got out of my place, I found the streets filled with gunmen. I ran into a man, who said to me, ‘Your people killed someone and we want you to pay the blood money,’” said Sheik Sidig.

The sheik protested that the camp should not have to pay blood money, because the policeman had been shot and no one in the camp had a gun.

The attacker’s response was clear: “If you don’t pay, your camps will be destroyed.”

The camp leaders reported to the police that the gunmen killed two people and injured five by gunfire and 84 by being beaten with sticks.

The militia group stormed into the market and set fire to numerous shops. Within 10 minutes, the nearly 1,000-square-meter souk was engulfed in flames and more than 350 stalls and stands were burned down.

Three days later this problem was presented to the United Nations when a convoy of 18 vehicles from the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) pulled over to check up on the village as part of its five-day road trip, which was conducted to examine the security situation in Darfur’s remote areas. The fleet, carrying more than 60 UNAMID staff members, had departed from its headquarters in El Fasher, north Darfur, stayed overnight in Nyala, south Darfur, and was on its way to the final destination of Zalingei in west Darfur.

Spearheading this 310-mile patrol was Micheal Fryer, UNAMID’s police commissioner, who was welcomed by more than 40 turbaned men in white robes representing the Albatery Internally Displaced Persons camp in Kass.

According to UNAMID’s investigation report, the murdered policeman belonged to the same tribe that assaulted the IDP camps. Eventually the UNAMID force helped resolve the problem of blood money with the sheiks and local authorities making restitution.

Through the dialog, however, the diplaced peoples' lack of faith in the Sudanese local government was obvious. This lack of respect for the authorities deterred many of the camp residents from participating in last month's national elections, Sudan’s first multi-party ballot in 24 years.

Out of the 7.5 million people in Darfur, 3.6 million were considered eligible to vote in the elections, according to the Sudanese election committee. Out of 3.6 million, 2.4 million or 67 percent of the total qualified voters registered. Meanwhile, the majority of unregistered voters consists of the internally displaced people.

Some of the camp’s occupants didn’t register due to instructions from rebel groups while others were simply uninformed of the process.

Darfur, whose population is mostly black African in an Arab-dominated country, has been in conflict since black African rebel groups started fighting against the government and Arab militia in 2003. The United Nations reports about 300,000 people have died from the combined effects of war, famine and disease.

More than 200 camps for displaced people are dotted throughout Darfur, a region the size of France, and security remains the imminent concern of the occupants. To improve the security situation in more vulnerable camps such as ones in Kass, the AU-U.N. mission has been training local police officers and constructing community-policing centers near the camps.

Aid groups working in the camps include: Care International Switzerland, Greater Family Organization, Water Environmental and Sanitation, World Vision International and the Sudan Ministry of Health.

Commissioner Fryer conveyed his determination not only to increase the number of police and military patrols to protect civilians from future attacks, but also to enforce around-the-clock police presence in Kass.

Fryer pledged that the UNAMID force would protect the camp residents even if the force had to risk the loss of life of its own officers, "We will continue to protect you as far as we can.”

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to correct a spelling error.