Will there be hell here also? – Darfuris experience endless displacement

By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada, currently in Goz Beida, eastern Chad
“We are safe here in the refugee camp right now. But we believed we were safe every other time we moved to a different village or [internally displaced persons] camp. Something always happens that makes us have to flee again.”
–    Refugee from Darfur, Goz Amir Refugee Camp, eastern Chad, 10 November 2013

We have spent the past two days interviewing Darfuri refugees who fled from Sudan to eastern Chad earlier this year. Most came in April after a surge in fighting and grave human rights abuses in Central Darfur State – some of the worst violence in the region in years. At least 50,000 refugees have arrived in Chad this year, joining 250,000 who have already been here for the past decade. It is the highest refugee exodus out of Darfur since 2006.

Over the coming days we will gather more details about what lies behind this despairing turn for the worse in Darfur. It is already clear that there is a very worrying complexity to the fighting. Notably, two Arab tribes, the Salamat and Misseriya, who were allied in the past, seem now to have become sworn enemies. That adds a particularly volatile dimension to a conflict that was already very fragmented and unpredictable.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Darfur’s agonizing human rights and humanitarian tragedy. How troubling then that not only do lasting solutions to the crisis continue to elude the people of Darfur and the world community but – worse – a new chapter of killings, rape and mass displacement is being written.

Interviewing dozens of refugees at Goz Amir camp, numerous common themes have emerged. Most critically, we’ve documented the eyewitness testimonies from survivors of a massive armed attack on the town of Abu Jeradil and several surrounding villages in early April. Together they tell a story of tremendous chaos and indiscriminate violence.

Particularly haunting, however, was the frequency with which refugees shared with us their long personal and family histories of endless displacement over the past decade. It would be sorrowful enough to have endured the fear and hardship of having fled their homes in April. But for almost everyone, this was just one more instance of fleeing and escaping, in a long line of others going back years.

For many the story begins with a village being attacked and destroyed by Janjaweed fighters back in 2003 or 2004. Many lost loved ones at the time. Homes were burned and everything was lost. Some fled to other towns and villages, only to come under attack again weeks or months later. Many of those we interviewed had arrived in Abu Jeradil after trying to find safety in three or four other villages over many years.

Some – particularly the young men – went as far as moving to Khartoum or other large Sudanese cities where they were later rounded up during mass arrests of Darfuris on suspicion of being involved in armed opposition groups. Once released, they were certainly on the move again.

Large numbers, of course, took shelter in Darfur’s vast network of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where conditions remained precarious and dangerous, particularly for women when they travelled outside camps in search of firewood. And some, therefore, left the IDP sites behind in search of somewhere safer.

Many have been crossing borders frequently in an area that brings together the turbulence of Darfur, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad. Darfuris have fled to CAR, then back to Darfur when chaos and unimaginable violence erupted there. Chadians have fled to Darfur and then back to Chad. Central Africans have fled across both borders to escape the spiralling violence in their own country.

I interviewed one Darfuri refugee who had fled first to CAR, then back to Darfur and now on to Chad. As he put it, “I left hell behind me when I fled Darfur the first time. Then hell found me in Central Africa. But it was still hell in Darfur. What will happen to me now in Chad? Will there be hell here also?

One man, in tears, spoke of his hard work in building a good life for his family only to have it completely destroyed in a Janjaweed attack in 2004, forcing him to flee first to an IDP camp and then eventually to Abu Jeradil. There, he and his brother had worked hard again and were able to open a small shop and provide for their large families – only to see it all go up in smoke when the town was attacked and virtually all buildings destroyed by fire in April of this year. He told me, “they didn’t even steal anything; they just set it all on fire. It was clear they were trying to destroy our lives, not take our things.”

One woman spoke of her son, who she says she has only seen about once every two years as he has fled from one place to another. She worries about the younger generation who, she worries, “do not know what it is to have a place as your home”.

So accustomed are Darfuri refugees to this endless displacement that many expressed doubt that the situation would remain safe for them in the refugee camp. As one man told me, “something always happens that makes us have to flee again”.

It is intolerable that this crisis of human rights abuse, forced displacement and conflict has gone on for a decade. It is impossible to stand by and watch as it gets worse now. We must increase the pressure for real solutions to the Darfur crisis.

Read more:
Why monitoring human rights in Sudan still matters (Blog, 9 September 2013)

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