The countryside in Darfur was beautiful, lush and mountainous — not at all what my colleagues and I expected. It was hard to imagine that horrific attacks on villagers were taking place in what appeared to be such a peaceful area. This changed the minute we saw the ruins of the abandoned villages.
An old, Russian military helicopter flew us to some of the destroyed villages in Darfur, a remote area in western Sudan where 50,000 black Africans have been killed in the last 18 months by the government-supported Arab Janjaweed militia.
In less than an hour, our helicopter flew over six destroyed and abandoned villages. From the air we saw small mud huts where black Africans lived before the Arab militia killed them and drove all survivors away.
I could almost visualize panicked villagers trying to escape chaos when their attackers rode into town.
The attacks themselves are right out of the Middle Ages — the Janjaweed ride into town on horses and camels murdering people with guns and knives, setting their huts on fire and stealing their livestock. Survivors escape only by fleeing to the mountains.
We hovered hundreds of feet above the villages and could clearly see inside each abandoned home. The huts still stand, but the thatch roofs are gone, burned away by the attackers. The walls of each hut were black, scorched from fire. Clay cooking pots were strewn about the ground as though everyone quickly fled. Our aerial vantage point allowed us to see the scope of the brutal attacks that have claimed so many lives and maimed many survivors.
The black Africans mostly worked as farmers in the fertile area considered the “fruit basket” of Sudan. It’s a region made up of different tribes, but they all share the same Muslim faith and Arabic language.
Since 2003, the villagers, or Darfurians, have been attacked by the nomadic Janjaweed who share the same Muslim faith. The difference between the two is the color of their skin: the villagers are black Africans and the Janjaweed are Arab. One Sudanese official said to me, “They think we are just black Africans and Arab blood is more pure than ours.” The United States has labeled the killings genocide.
The Janjaweed are part opportunist, part militia-for-hire. As nomadic herders they hunt for untouched, fertile land for their livestock. Seizing land and cattle is just part of what the Janjaweed do, but over the last 18 months, the Janjaweed have been empowered to do more.
According to U.S. and human rights groups in Darfur, the Janjaweed are supported by the Sudanese government. Villagers report that the government of Sudan has taken part in some of the attacks by providing helicopters to “soften up” targets so the Janjaweed can easily pick off survivors. As payment, the Janjaweed get the land and cattle they need. Some Darfurians and opponents of the Islamic fundamentalist government believe the government of Sudan wants to eliminate black African Muslims.
We landed in the town of Debinayah in western Darfur to see some of the destruction up close. According to locals and aid groups, the town had been attacked by the Janjaweed and Sudan’s military one year ago. Villagers say their livestock were loaded on trucks before they were attacked. Eight villagers were killed, 20 wounded in the fighting. Their huts were set on fire to ensure that no one would return. Survivors fled to the mountains and many eventually made their way to some of the more than 100 refugee camps positioned throughout Darfur.
Debinayah was abandoned until an international aid group set up camp just a few months ago after international attention turned to the problems in Darfur, causing the Janjaweed to curtail its attacks. According to aid workers, their presence reassured some villagers to leave the refugee camps and return home. The burned shells of buildings are still there as a reminder of what happened, but the villagers are returning and rebuilding.
On the day we were there, women and girls filled the field to welcome us. Hundreds of them sang, chanted and reached their arms out to touch us. It was a celebratory welcome that later in the trip we all began to understand — villagers saw our visit as a sign that they are safe again and that the world now knows of the atrocities taking place in their remote region.