Sudan: Tension still high in Kutum town

from IRIN
Published on 20 Feb 2006
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
KUTUM, 20 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - At the Monday market in Kutum town, North Darfur, heavily armed Janjawid militia openly stroll between the fruit and vegetable stalls, closely watched by Sudanese soldiers.

It is the first day the market is open again after a week of unrest. Unease and fear are palpable.

On 1 February, rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) killed a lieutenant of the Sudanese military in the town. In retaliation, the Janjawid militia took over the town's streets for a week, culminating in a violent assault on the local population on 6 February.

"Between 2 and 6 February, the whole town was full of Janjawid," a local political analyst said. "The town was completely deserted, with not a single man outside and only a few women.

"The Arab militia was calling for revenge, calling the whole town Tora Bora [local term for SLM/A rebels]," he said.

On 2 February, just north of Kutum, at Kassab camp for internally displaced people, the militias sealed off the area and detained various people. The same day, the analyst said, Arab militia entered Kutum market and randomly started beating people and putting them into trucks to take them away.

On 6 February, violence escalated in the market, resulting in a shoot-out between the Arab militia and the Sudanese armed forces, which moved everybody out and closed the market.

"Although the Arab militia are collaborating with the Sudanese military, in Kutum it sometimes looks as if the militia are the ones in charge," the analyst noted.

"At the end of the afternoon, the militia started looting and harassing and beating people in the market," a town resident noted. "Then the shooting started, and everybody was running."

As the militia withdrew, they attacked people and stole their animals and other belongings at the outskirts of Kutum and in the nearby village of Sungir. Six people were shot. African Union peacekeepers picked up and treated the wounded, but two people died of their injuries.

Tensions building up

Kutum is a government-controlled town of 45,000, 120 km northwest of El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State. The town's stability is fragile, however, as the Sudanese authorities suspect its predominantly Fur, Tunjur and Berti inhabitants support the Darfur rebels.

"On top of the rising tensions, the civilian authority has been severely weakened after previous commissioners were replaced in quick succession, leaving only a relatively new deputy in office," the analyst observed. "The military and national security are running this town at the moment."

It is a delicate balancing act, with the SLM/A rebels only 10 km away - largely controlling the area northeast of Kutum - and large concentrations of Arab militias to the south and west of the town.

The situation is compounded by Kutum's location on one of the traditional nomadic migration routes. Many Arab nomads were stuck in the region after their passage to the north was blocked following a clash between them and the SLM/A in May-June 2005 near Um Shidiq.

"The problem is that you have all the armed groups together in a very small area," the analyst explained. "It is inherently unstable."

Over the past four months, tensions have risen steadily as the SLM/A started hijacking vehicles belonging to the government and aid organisations. In the latest hijacking on 1 February, a military officer was killed.

Following the clashes, the military commander of El Fasher came to Kutum to reinforce authority. Traders in the market were reportedly given the guarantee that the military would protect them.

According to the analyst, the strong government response was crucial, as many feared that the next step of an unchecked Arab militia would be a wholesale attack on Kutum or on one of the two nearby camps for displaced people, Kassab and Fatta Borno.

"The authorities know how sensitive the situation is. If the Arab militia would attack Kutum or the IDP [internally displaced persons? camps, the SLM/A would definitely step in to protect their people, resulting in a major escalation of the conflict," he said.

Fatta Borno

Before the Darfur conflict, nine seminomadic Arab settlements, called "damrads", co-existed without significant problems with African agricultural villages in the vicinity of Kutum. According to the analyst, the sheikhs and leaders of the "damrads" were very clear focal points for the resolution of local disputes.

In early 2004, both the agricultural villages and the "damrads" came under attack by both sides to the conflict, and now there are only four "damrads" left - Masri, Al Sheikh Abdal Bagi, Um Sagalla and Por Saeed. Most of the African villages were destroyed and are now deserted.

With the influx of Arab nomads who had been blocked from moving to the north the channels for conflict resolution have become increasingly limited.

Four thousand inhabitants of the African villages, predominantly Fur and Zaghawa, are now staying in Fatta Borno camp, 20 km southwest of Kutum and surrounded by the remaining damrads.

Initially, most of them would return to their nearby villages to cultivate their vegetable gardens. With the arrival of Arab nomads, however, security deteriorated significantly, and people stopped tending their gardens. Still, displaced populations - which could have moved to the nearby and more secure camp of Kassab - stayed at Fatta Borno, as they were afraid they would lose their land if they left.

"The geography of Fatta Borno camp is its biggest problem," a resident of Fatta Borno town said. "This conflict is about the land, and this area has some of the best lands in the region."

Displaced people have tried to restart their vegetable gardens on the outskirts of the camp, but generators for their water pumps were stolen, their tools looted, and the gardens trampled. They have now almost completely withdrawn into the camp and depend on African Union escorts to take them to Kutum market twice a week.

A staff member of a nearby clinic said the people from Fatta Borno camp were subject to "low to mid-level intimidation", including regular beatings, looting of animals, denial of access to their gardens and "approximately one rape every six weeks". Just before Christmas, four residents were killed when Arab militia entered the camp and started shooting indiscriminately.

"We are suffering from only one thing: insecurity," a local sheikh said. "All our belongings were taken, our villages burned. Since we came to the camp, a lot of people died."

An aid worker said apart from insecurity, sanitation had become the biggest problem in the camp.

"IDPs have their belongings, their little gardens and their animals, all concentrated in their little compounds, leading to very unsanitary conditions," she said. "And no organisation is working in sanitation right now."

Kassab camp

In contrast, aid workers in Kassab camp, where 23,500 displaced people from 64 Fur villages to the north of Kutum currently live, noted that the regular attacks on women collecting firewood outside the camp had all but ceased since African Union patrols started accompanying them.

Other problems had surfaced, however, in part because humanitarian organisations had scaled back their operations because of funding cuts. The Sudanese Water and Environmental Sanitation Department (WES), supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), had to curtail its hygiene-promotion activities since the beginning of January. The number of people checking and chlorinating the water sources in Kutum town and Kassab camp has been cut by half.

With regard to health, Patricia Escolano, Kassab's humanitarian camp coordinator for the Spanish Red Cross, noted that there were good primary healthcare clinics in the camp, but no permanent Sudanese doctors to receive referrals of patients with medical complications.

"The main problem of the lack of doctors is the lack of treatment for women and for the many wounded people of various clashes who need assistance," Escolano said.

In one month, five women had died because of complications during childbirth, she said. A staff member in one of the clinics echoed Escolano's concern, noting that complications in delivery were very common - in particular with new mothers - because of the prevalence of female genital mutilation.

Although the authorities were receiving support from humanitarian organisations, most of the money was allocated to schools in Kutum town itself.

As a result, 1,700 children in Kassab camp were not attending school, 5,000 were cramped into one location within the camp, and many others had to walk approximately 10 km a day to attend school in Kutum.

Most displaced people in Kassab, however, said security was their greatest concern.

"We don't feel secure here. People come at night and threaten IDPs and take things," said Sheikh Abdul Shafi, camp secretary for Kassab camp.

A local resident who requested anonymity said she was glad to have come to Kassab because the situation was better than in her village. However, she, too, was afraid. "People sometimes come at night. They threaten and beat people."