FATA BORNOÂ (AP) â€” A 10-year-old boy huddled behind African Union soldiers as half a dozen pickup trucks full of armed Arab militiamen screeched through the dusty riverbed outside his North Darfur refugee camp Wednesday.
“These Janjaweed aren’t the most dangerous ones,” Najmaddin Idriss whispered as he stood behind the AU troops. “The ones over there are much more dangerous,” he said, pointing to a dried-out riverbed where dozens of camels belonging to Arab fighters were grazing in a garden planted by refugees.
A small patrol of AU troops, part of a 7,000-strong peacekeeping mission to Darfur, was tugging two of its cars out of a sandy riverbed when the fighters rushed by. The militiamen, known as Janjaweed, pointed automatic rifles and yelled battle cries through scarves concealing their faces. Most of them appeared to be teenagers just a few years older than Idriss. The incident â€” witnessed by an Associated Press reporter â€” shows just how close the two forces often come. The Janjaweed are accused of raping and plundering ethnic African villages across this large swath of western Sudan.
AU troops, understaffed and underfunded, are tasked with monitoring a shaky ceasefire.
Tribal leaders said Wednesday that Janjaweed convoys pass through the Fata Borno refugee camp on a near daily basis, within plain view of AU peacekeepers. But tribal chief Ali Abubakar said the fighters rarely stop to cause trouble. “The real danger comes from the tribes who stay here,” Abubakar said, referring to Arabs who allow their camels to graze near the camp. “My people get killed, raped and looted all the time.” Arab nomads have long roamed the barren expanses of North Darfur, and African villagers said they lived at peace with them for generations.
“They only became nasty at the beginning of the war, when the government gave them weapons,” Abubakar said.
Sudan’s government is accused of unleashing the Janjaweed on Darfur in 2003, to help put down an uprising by ethnic African villagers. The militiamen are believed to still maintain training camps in North Darfur.
Khartoum has said it employs several paramilitary groups to reinforce its own army in Darfur, but it dismisses any non-uniformed fighters as bandits it doesn’t control.
The fighters are accused of some of the worst atrocities against civilians in three years of violence. Some 200,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million forced to flee their homes in Darfur.
Fertile lands within a kilometre of the Fata Borno camp were now off limits.
“Anyone who goes beyond that point is risking his life,” resident Sheikh Ibrahim Abdallah said, pointing at trees a few hundred metres away.
He said to avoid looting at night, refugees tie their animals close to the AU outpost alongside the camp. “But even there, under the lights of the peacekeepers, donkeys get stolen,” he said. UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland on Wednesday warned that the Janjaweed were becoming even more dangerous because of new equipment they were apparently receiving from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
The militias “are more brutal than ever,” Egeland told reporters in Geneva. “The nightmare we are seeing in Darfur is continuing.”