Darfur: A path of scorched earth

© Rasmussen, Espen
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The road between Zalingei and Mornay crosses through the hearts of the villages. The houses alongisde the path have had their iron doors eviscerated and frameworks scorched, and open out onto the raid scenes: shelves overturned, the ground strewn with empty boxes, the remains of a stall or grocery stand. Chairs lie on their sides, stools on crumbled legs, white enamel bowls, decorated with large blue or orange flowers, are scattered through the village lanes; all evidence of the sudden departure of the residents, evidence of the anarchic violence of the attackers. Not one house was spared. The small hedges of wattle or other thorny bushes that ordinarily surround the houses, marking out the gardens, are now nothing more than black rows of ash.

The course winds through the village of Sura which according to its residents, was "incomparable to the others", owing to its wealth, dynamism and beauty of its fields... Today, almost nothing remains of this large town by the roadside. Like the others, this village was destroyed - but perhaps just a bit more precision. As the path bends, a flock of tiny pink and white birds with wings no larger than a butterfly's, is lost in their screeching and the beatinging of their wings. Behind the thorny shrub that serves as their refuge, moving causally at the at the sound of an engine, are five camels.

Although they seem to be the masters ruling over the charred village, their keeper is never far away. In the near distance at the base of the ochre hills and sienna earth, one can glimpse the white patches of herds of sheep and goats, accompanied by young boys. The now abandoned fields serve as pasture for the cattle stolen from the villagers: along with the destruction of the towns was the systematic theft of their cattle. In the camps, the displaced recite the precise number of animals stolen from them: 56 goats, 34 sheep, 11 long-horned cows... This loss comes in each makeshift, roofless home, occupying even the tiniest space of empty land in the cities where they have sought refuge.

Along this path of destruction, the only encounters are with herds of cows, camels, goats and ewes, accompanied by one or two keepers, who are usually children. Intermittently, several of these villages, or what remains of them, are once again set alight to remind those residents who might have the audacity to return, that this would be unthinkable. Few or none of the residents of the villages attacked between November and March have ventured into the deserted lanes to retrieve the few pieces of crockery that escaped the flames. The endeavour would be too dangerous; they would be risking their lives.

The Sudan and Chad border, April 2004

Between two villages are scattered "forests" of majestic mahogany. But like those lining the path, the most beautiful branches of these trees have been mutilated, gashed and left the foot of the trunks, leaves scattered on the ground. Donkeys, horses and camels gather here and eat the green leaves.

Just before arriving at Zalingei, the path levels slightly and becomes less disordered. The trees are more numerous and there is water nearby. There are more signs of life as well: barefooted children in torn clothing with faded colours walk quickly despite the harsh sun, despite the even harsher wind; thin bundles of sticks balanced on their heads. Often they have walked more than six hours to bring these treasures to their parents. These few branches of wood are an valuable for the displaced of Zalingei. Sold at the market, they are their sole source of revenue and also allow the cooking of asida, a millet puree that is the only meal of the day.

The straw they find can be used to patch up the woven straw that serve as walls in the makeshift houses without rooves that, for more than six months, have been their homes.

Every morning, well before dawn, children leave to search for wooden branches or straw. The men cannot go with them, even though they could collect far more, because they would be killed. The women do not go if it can be avoided, and send children or the elderly: if they are seized by the army militia, they will be raped. So falls to the children and the elderly to perform this daily task; they leave a little after midnight since they walk slower. Each time they go a little further to where there is still grass and wood. They 'only' risk being beaten, or whipped. They leave at night, when they can better conceal themselves and the risk of being caught is not as great.

Sudan, region of Darfur

Also crossing this road at the edge of Zalingei are herds of donkeys, so heavily laden with bundles of grass that the animals' ears can barely visible. Beside them are women and children, who with batons in hand, waving big hellos crying, "Khawaja! Khawaja!" (Rich! Rich!). These are the families of the militia and its consorts, who can leave the village without fearing for their lives. It is midday. They will return to the city to sell their harvest at the market to the residents of the devastated villages, who are kept prisoners there.

On returning, the traveller glimpses the riverbed in the distance, at the edge of the last village destroyed, where an ochre-coloured column takes flight and whirls wildly in the blue sky - the sky is always blue, never anything but blue. It is a 'hoboub', a small tornado of sand and harsh wind that crosses the village. But there is nothing more to destroy, upturn or annihilate, except perhaps a stool, a broken mirror, or a tinplated spoon it can blanket in a shroud of white sand.