Villagers in Sudan flee wave of violence

A million are displaced from vast western region, United Nations estimates


NYALA, Sudan - Hawa Muhammad, 15, lost almost everything when the men on horseback came.

They took her family's horses, donkeys and small herd of goats and sheep. They took her cooking pots and her clothing. They took her mother and her father, too.

"The men on horses killed my parents," she said, referring to the Janjaweed, loose bands of Arab fighters. "Then the planes came."

Now it is she to whom her six younger sisters turn when their bellies rumble. She recounted her tale as if in a trance.

Leaving on the run

Hawa left her village on the run and settled with thousands of others at the camp in Kalma, outside Nyala, part of a tide of a million people that the United Nations and others say has been displaced in this vast region of western Sudan.

The government in Khartoum has closed the region to outsiders for much of the past year.

Hawa's account of how the attack unfolded is the same as those heard in camp after camp across Darfur, as well as the settlements in the desert of eastern Chad, where the United Nations estimates another 100,000 villagers have streamed.

For 20 years, rebels in southern Sudan have sought to topple the Arab-dominated government in the north.

About 2 million people died in that larger conflict, and a peace agreement is considered near.

But since early last year, two rebel groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms to wrest concessions of their own from the government, complaining that the people of Darfur, especially the black Africans here, were being marginalized.

The tensions have pitted Arab nomads and herders against black African farmers and have been worsened by droughts in the north of Darfur and the slow creep of the desert toward the south.

Guns settle differences

Guns, which are smuggled into Darfur from neighboring countries, settle disputes.

The rebels scored some early victories, and the government responded with a fury, angering countries that thought it was moving toward peace.

The army has used helicopter gunships and old Russian-made Antonov planes loaded with bombs. But the Arab-African rivalry has long festered here, and the most ruthless weapon has been the mounted Janjaweed fighters, who know no rules of war.

Human rights groups charge that the Janjaweed have been used as a tool of the government to pursue a scorched-earth policy resembling the "ethnic cleansing" carried out in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The United Nations, which conducted a tour of Darfur last week, said the crisis in western Sudan would last another 18 months - if the government managed to disarm the men on horseback soon.

But it remains to be seen whether the lawlessness can be tamed.

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