Visit to camp spotlights ordeal of Darfur refugees

MILE REFUGEE CAMP, Chad — Janjaweed militias destroyed his house, killed his animals, took his food, closed his business and pushed him out of the Darfur region in Sudan where he lived.

For the last three years, Tahir — he did not offer his last name — displaced from Darfur, has called home this refugee camp in an isolated section of Chad.

There are very few people and some camels seen on the long, extremely bumpy ride from an airstrip to the camp along a dirt road Saturday. Splashes of greenery punctuate the sandy ground because it is the rainy season.

Mile is one of a string of 12 camps in eastern Chad founded between January 2004 and May 2005 by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to handle Sudanese civilians fleeing the murderous Janjaweed.

The U.S. government calls the conflict a genocide, with the Sudan government backing the Janjaweed. Hundreds of thousands have been killed; about 2.5 million people have been displaced.

The Janjaweed are Arab and Muslims; their victims are black Muslims.

Globetrotting members of Congress rarely stop in this poor central African nation, much less take the long trip to the Darfur refugee camps.

Sen. Barack Obama is the first to visit Chad in more than a year. Saturday, he spent 90 minutes at Mile.

“Salaam alaikum,” Obama told a crowd, using a traditional Arab greeting.

“My name is Barack Obama,” saying it with a bit more emphasis on the B, which is how some Kenyans, including his sister, pronounced his name when he visited there last week.

“I came here,” he told the crowd, “to find out what the people who are in these camps need in terms of security and peace.

“. . . There are many people in America who care very much about being able to make sure that you can return to home.”

There are 15,333 people in this Mile camp, almost all belonging to the ethnic group Zaghawa. They are part of the total of 235,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad.

At Mile, there are many tents seemingly scattered about, but small buildings of sandy brick are being constructed, giving an impression of permanency that concerns the Chad government.

The fate of the men and women in Mile and the other camps is far from clear. They can’t return to Darfur until it is safe.

“When the U.N. forces come and secure Darfur, then I can come back,” the 45-year-old Tahir said in Arabic through translators.

Sudan has been resisting — again as recently as last week — allowing 21,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops to replace an overwhelmed 7,000-member African Union force that has little capacity and no mandate to do more than stand by passively as the killing continues.

Making matters worse, the situation has grown more complicated in past months as Chad rebel groups have crossed into Sudan and Janjaweed militias have attacked in Chad.

Mile has escaped this violence, but Matthew Conway, a spokesman for U.N.H.C.R., said they are “very concerned” the people in the camps could become targets.

Obama came to Chad because, with a population of Sudanese refugees, the nation offers a back door to gain insights regarding the Darfur situation.

Obama originally wanted to go to Sudan, but its government slow-walked his visa, approving it at the last minute after Obama had already changed his plans.

Obama met with leaders of the refugee camp in a small room. As is custom, the men and women sat separately. At the end, Obama summarizes, talking slowly so translators can catch his words.

The exiled of Darfur want a peacekeeping force in Darfur, perpetrators of the genocidal slaughter brought to justice, compensation for their losses, and some media attention about their plight. That, Obama can do. He was traveling with 10 writers, photographers and videographers.

On the first of two plane rides back to N’Djamena, the Chad capital, Obama said he learned that Sudan is far less stable “than I had realized.”

The need for the U.N. to get troops in is immediate.

“If we wait too much longer, I think it is fair to say, the people we have seen today and the people in Darfur will be in an even worse situation than they are right now,” he said.

With world crises flaring in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, Obama said the value of his visit was to remind people not to forget Darfur.

“With all the other stuff going on in the world right now, I may play some small part to remind people that the situation here is not resolved,” Obama said.

“There is a lot of other activity that is competing for the world’s attention. It is important that these folks here are not forgotten.”

Copyright 2006, Digital Chicago Inc.

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