Merchants in Sudan's Darfur have lost everything

In Sudan's poverty-stricken Darfur region, the merchants of Nyala city's Al Malja market were among the elite. But now they, too, have nothing.

The men sit on the ground in front of the ashes of their shops, commiserating with each other after gunmen looted and burned the market during fighting between members of the security forces from July 3-7 in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state.

"I lost everything," says Hussein Mohammed, estimating 150,000 Sudanese pounds ($21,400) worth of his goods were stolen or burned.

"I don't know what to do. And this is Ramadan," he said on Thursday, the second day of the holy Muslim fasting month.

A wholesaler, Mohammed brought clothing from Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman and stocked it in Al Malja for sale to local retailers.

His was one of about 20 shops destroyed in the market during the worst outbreak of urban warfare in Sudan's western region in recent memory.

State officials blamed "differences" among members of the security forces for the battles which killed and wounded about 30 people, according to official media.

The fighting started when security forces allegedly killed a notorious local bandit who also belonged to the paramilitary Central Reserve Police.

Clashes continued off and on for about five days to last Sunday.

"We heard shooting so we closed our shops and ran home," another merchant, Yahya Haroun, told an AFP reporter who is the first journalist from a foreign news agency to visit Nyala after the unrest.

"Then at 7:00 pm I got a call from one of my colleagues who told me that armed men were inside our shops," said the clothes retailer.

"I tried to come and have a look but when I saw them and their weapons, I went back home."

The next day, he returned to find that only the walls of his two shops remained standing, and his entire investment worth about 125,000 pounds was gone.

Now he says he does not know how he will support his family, including an ill daughter.

"I have my own family and I also take care of my sisters and brothers, because my father already died," Haroun said.

Darfuri members of the Central Reserve Police formerly belonged to the Janjaweed, a government-backed militia which shocked the world with atrocities against ethnic minority civilians suspected of supporting rebels in Darfur.

The rebels began their uprising against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime in 2003.

Security problems have more recently been compounded by inter-tribal fighting, kidnappings, carjackings and other crimes, many suspected to be the work of government-linked militia and paramilitary groups.

In February, a UN panel of experts reported "some incidents in which former members of government militias have forcibly expressed their discontent with the current government, especially against the backdrop of rising inflation and unemployment".

Darfur's top official, Eltigani Seisi, said in June that security agencies need a "show of force" against tribal militia violence.

But local police, at least, proved no match for the armed men who raided Al Malja.

"Police were guarding the market but when there was heavy fighting they withdrew," said one merchant who did not want to be identified.

"Even the police station near our market was burned," he said.

The man said he lost his entire stock of sorghum and other traditional commodities worth 162,000 pounds, an investment that helped support his children studying at university.

Now not even the walls of his shop are completely standing.

"I don't know why they did this. We are not a part of their conflict," said the merchant.

He looked at the ground, his eyes filled with sadness.