EL FASHER, 28 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - On the planning maps of some humanitarian agencies, the remote region around Kabkabiya town in western Sudan's North Darfur State is marked "empty".
Around Kabkabiya, the ruins of destroyed villages lie scattered. They appear deserted, but a closer look reveals that several small, nomadic communities of Arab origin still eke out a living in the region.
The majority consider themselves members of the Riziegat ethnic community - one of the larger groups of Arab pastoralists in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
Amongst the Riziegat are a number of clan-based communities such as the Mahadia, Maharia, and Mahami. These are composed of families. When the nomads are on the move, a group of close families usually travel together under the leadership of a clan head.
The nomads, who aid workers say are in their thousands, have largely been unnoticed by the international community, and Darfur's other residents often equate them with the notorious "Janjawid" - the government allied militia who have been accused of terrorising the region's non-Arab tribes.
The nomads live with the constant fear of being attacked by the rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), who could mistake them for the Janjawid.
"People are calling us Janjawid; it is not secure, we can be attacked at any time," Abdel Haman Duhr, a clan leader from the Mahami community, said.
He was leading a group carrying all their earthly belongings on the backs of their camels from West Darfur, where the rainy season had started, towards Kutum town in North Darfur, where the environment was less humid and healthier for their camels.
According to Duhr, "a lot has changed" for the nomads since a brutal conflict erupted in Darfur in 2003, and many members of his clan had died. Three of his brothers were killed when they went to the market in 2004.
Other community leaders echoed his sentiments. "The nomads are in a desperate situation," Ahmad Saleh Abud, a clan leader from the Mahadia community, said.
"It is impossible to stay in one place because of the insecurity and fighting," he told IRIN, 40 km south of Kabkabiya. "We move to avoid attacks, and because there is no place for us to stay."
According to Duhr, the Darfur conflict had disrupted the age-old relationship between societies.
The conflict pits Sudanese government troops and allied militias like the Janjawid, against rebel forces like the SLM/A and the Justice and Equality Movement who claim they are fighting the marginalisation of their region by Khartoum.
It had particularly disrupted the symbiotic - albeit sometimes rocky - relationship between the nomadic communities and settled farmer, Duhr added.
"All the villages are empty now and we can't get support when we need food or assistance from the village doctor," he said.
Duhr's clan consists of 100 families, with many of the men having up to four wives. He said they had lost between 50 and 60 children over the past year.
Degash Iseri, a clan leader from the Mahami community said: "During the malaria season, from July to October, we lose the most children."
Pneumonia was another important cause of child mortality, he added, as many children slept out in the open without enough blankets to keep them warm.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said the needs of nomadic communities had been underestimated.
"We are transporting basic medicines for 30,000 nomads and displaced semi-nomadic communities in the area of Kabkabiya next week," Dorn Townsend, UNICEF's communications officer, said on 24 July.
The closure of local markets due to insecurity had only exacerbated an already desperate situation.
"If we want to sell something we have to go to Kabkabiya [in North Darfur] or Zalingei [in West Darfur]," Iseri said.
"Before the AU [African Union peacekeepers] came, our animals were being looted on a daily basis; with the presence of the AU, the number of attacks has reduced considerably," he added.
ON THE MOVE
On 22 July, the semi-nomadic clan of families from the Mahadia community, led by Abud, arrived 40 km south of Kabkabiya town. They were, however, planning to shift again in four days' time.
The clan became fully nomadic in 2003 after their village near the town of Kutum in North Darfur was destroyed by SLM/A rebels. They had been on the move ever since.
Abud's family consisted of approximately 30 people - he had two wives but was also looking after 10 of his brothers' wives, each with two or three children.
"Six of my brothers got killed during an SL[M/]A attack on our village in March 2004," Abud said. "One woman lost her husband, five children, and all the animals she had."
The group posts guards armed with Kalashnikov rifles around the settlement at night to protect itself from the rebels.
He added: "When people get ill we can't do anything; when people are wounded, we boil water with salt and put it on the wounds. Before, our children went to school - now, we are moving around all the time and they have no chance to go."
UNICEF said it also planned to support mobile schools in the area to reach out to nomadic children in the region and provide for their specific educational needs.
Abud said if stability returned, they would settle down again so that the wives and children could stay in one place, while the men moved around with the animals.
"The SL[M/]A is stronger than us," Abud said. "They have guns and cars and are well organised. Usually we lose some animals; sometimes people get killed. We lost 20 to 25 camels three days ago near Jebel Marra [an SLM/A stronghold, 80 km south of Kabkabiya town]."
Khatir Idriss, the religious leader of a semi-nomadic clan from the Maharia community, said his clan of almost 1,000 families had been displaced by an SLM/A attack on their village, Gerer, 50 km north of the town of Kutum in North Darfur.
They were staying with relatives in Aramba, 25 km north of Kabkabiya, until the situation normalised.
"We lost everything - our homes, schools, mosques and camels - when the SL[M/]A attacked our village in July 2004," he said. "But we haven't received any support from international organisations so far."
Asked why his clan was not in a camp for internally displaced persons, as is the case with most communities in Darfur, Idriss said they were afraid of losing their culture and customs.
However, he acknowledged that many had felt the need to protect themselves after the conflict started, and some members of his clan had actually joined the Janjawid voluntarily.
"The Janjawid is a looting group - they are not real Arabs, they are made up of thieves from different tribes," he told IRIN.
"Some people want to exploit the situation, but those who know us know we are not Janjawid," Idriss emphasized.
He said some people from purely "African communities" were staying with them at the moment.
Before the Darfur conflict, the "African ethnic communities" in the region included the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. Since the conflict started, Idriss said, the Janjawid had specifically targeted all these communities in a scorched earth campaign.
An assessment report jointly published in April by relief agencies working in the region, said "African communities" constituted the majority of people living in the three states of North Darfur, South Darfur and West Darfur.
The nomads, it added, made up about 20 percent of the population living in the three states.
"Life has changed totally," Idriss remarked. He said because of the shortage of food, housing, water and medicines, around 50 children in his clan got sick every week, mostly of diarrhoea, malaria, and respiratory infections.
The biggest problem, however, remained insecurity. "People still don't feel secure," he said. "We are scattered over a large area, rather than concentrated in one location - if an attack takes place, the others can run."
Wave Abdallah, a chief from the Maharia community, felt the first step towards peace in the region should be to take away the guns from the Janjawid and the rebels.
"We used to mix with other groups," he said. "There was understanding and cooperation and there was no fear - even in school our children were mixed together.
"Now, the whole area is divided into Arab and non-Arab [African] groups; into so-called Janjawid and rebels. And because the rebels and the nomads are both in the field, the nomads suffer," he added.
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