First Person: ‘We had to avoid stepping on the bodies in the streets’ in Darfur

Food is distributed to Sudanese refugees in Koufron, Chad.
© WFP/Jacques David
Food is distributed to Sudanese refugees in Koufron, Chad.
  • UN News

Sudan, and Darfur in particular, are facing a humanitarian and security crisis after a war broke out in April 2023 between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), although ethnic conflicts in Darfur date back more than two decades.

Fatima*, a resident of the city of El Geneina in West Darfur state, where thousands of people have been reportedly killed, escaped with her family across the border as rival militias battled for control of her city.

“We were trapped inside our house for more than 57 days while militias systematically targeted and killed people based on their ethnicity. They did not spare women, children or elders.

Thousands of people have been displaced by over 20 years of conflict in Darfur and many move regularly between camps and El Geneina, especially at the beginning of the year or during Ramadan when killings, displacement and destruction occur.

Life is disrupted during this time, and markets, schools and government institutions are closed. Then, when the attacks stop, people try to resume their normal lives. When the last war broke out last April, we thought it would be the same, but, unfortunately, it was different.

I saw armed men, some of whom were foreigners, who surrounded the city from four sides. As a journalist, I went to an elevated area to take photographs and the neighbours were all watching through their windows. The militiamen were shooting and shouting about doomsday, saying they would bring destruction and death to Earth.

We were trapped inside houses and had to hide under beds; stray ammunition was everywhere, and I could hear people screaming in the streets and exchanging fire.

The war lasted for 57 days in the southern part of El Geneina, and whole neighborhoods were wiped out. The militiamen worked in a systematic way, going from house to house killing people. Snipers were also hiding on the rooftops and were targeting everyone they saw. There was death in a way I can’t describe.

There were two teams, one killing, one looting

The militiamen worked in two teams, one focused on killing people and the other on looting their property. Some of the gunmen didn’t speak Arabic and threatened to kill us if we didn’t give them gold and money.

Masked people entered my house and one of them who seemed to know me said to me ‘you are a journalist; you used to write reports in the past, but you can’t now.’ They took my phone and computer and destroyed them in front of my eyes, telling me they were watching my every move and that if I wrote anything, they would kill me.

My husband told me to leave the house and head towards the northern neighborhoods. I took my baby and went with my neighbour who had given birth two days before. She carried the baby wrapped in a cloth and brought the rest of her children.

We came across bodies lying in the streets. A whole family, women and children, lay in front of their house. There were so many bodies in the streets that it was hard to walk, and we had to avoid stepping on the bodies.

A woman holds gun shells discharged in fighting in West Darfur.
© UNOCHA/Mohamed Khalil
A woman holds gun shells discharged in fighting in West Darfur.

Burning the bodies of the dead

We arrived at a quiet place and thought it was safe. We thought we smelled a barbecue, only to discover that it was hundreds of burned corpses. One of the gunmen was smoking a cigarette while watching the smouldering bodies.

We were scared and later could hear the neighbours repeating loudly the shahada [an Islamic declaration of faith in God] in preparation for death. I heard a man shouting for help, and then shortly after I heard the sound of gunfire and then his voice disappeared.

There is a tree in El Geneina that the militants called the ‘tree of the dead’, to which they used to bring people for execution by firing squad. The men refused to bury the bodies, and no one else was allowed to do so or even ask about the missing.

When the situation calmed down and people started looking for their missing relatives, they would tell them to go to the tree. Women were not allowed to go; only men were allowed.

A Sudanese mother and her children take refuge in a town in Chad across the border from Darfur in Sudan.
© UNICEF/Annadjib Ramadane Maha
A Sudanese mother and her children take refuge in a town in Chad across the border from Darfur in Sudan.

Fleeing to Chad

I fled home in a hurry and left all my money, valuables and gold, so I borrowed money and rented a car to drive my son and family members to Adré, a town in Chad. On the first day, we turned back because it was too dangerous, and the next day when we attempted the journey again armed men stopped the car and stole our possessions.

We eventually made it to the refugee camp in Adré, but many people were killed on the way; many children lost their parents. The Chadian army helped transport many of the refugees and some of the wounded from El Geneina to the camps and provided them with water and food.

The suffering in the camps in Chad is great, but it is less than what we experienced in war. I was in a very bad psychological condition. I couldn’t concentrate on who was talking to me, and I lost track of the days and time, but now I have recovered, thanks to God.

My husband who stayed behind in El Geneina arrived at the camp two weeks ago.

I have lost everything I ever owned. The militias looted our house and took everything, even the doors. We heard that they started demolishing it and taking away the bricks, and I’m afraid that when we come back, we will find nothing but barren land."

* Not her real name to protect her identity

© UN News (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: UN News