Hundreds killed in daily air raids on Darfur villages

Daily bombing raids on villages in Darfur, western Sudan, are killing hundreds of civilians and causing thousands more to flee across the border into neighbouring Chad only to find themselves part of a spiralling humanitarian crisis.

"Between 50 and 100 are arriving every day from Tine [Sudan] and the surrounding villages," Barout Margui Sawa, a local official in charge of the refugees in Tine Chad, told IRIN. "The Antonov planes circle every night from 01:00 to 02:00 GMT. They drop bombs on the Sudanese side, so people are scared."

Since 9 January, Antonov aircraft were dropping bombs every day across the border in Sudan, circling over Chadian airspace above the border town of Tine Chad, said Abubakar Mohammed Chaib of the Chadian Red Cross. Before that, the aircraft had been coming only every second or third day. "They [the refugees] are coming because of the aircraft bombing. There is nowhere safe in Sudan," he said. On 29 December two bombs had been dropped on the Chadian side of the border, inside Tine, he added.

Since July, local authorities estimate that 35,000 people have fled on foot, donkeys and camels into Tine Chad, which is separated from neighbouring Tine Sudan only by a dry watercourse, or wadi. The entire population of Tine Sudan of about 6,000 has fled, with only a few crossing back and forth across the border to collect animals or belongings.

By Tuesday, an estimated 7,000 people were camped with their meagre belongings in the wadi between the two towns, with nothing in this desert region but bramble, straw and bits of plastic or cloth to shelter under. The remaining thousands - reportedly including many of the families of Darfur's two rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) - are camped in makeshift huts in and around the town.

On Wednesday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - which has so far been unable to confirm the numbers of arrivals - began counting and registering the refugees in preparation for delivering food and blankets. So far, UNHCR estimates that over 100,000 people have fled into Chad from fighting, militia attacks and bombing raids, and are now scattered along the 600-km border between the two countries.

But the daily threat of aircraft overhead and the sound and smoke from the bombs - steel drums full of explosives - being dropped nearby is scaring many of them away, according to Nuria Serra, a field coordinator with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). She said an increasing number were fleeing inland from the border town, as the crisis in Tine heightened by the day.

Staff in the only hospital in the area, run by MSF, treat between 75 and 150 patients a day, about 40 of whom are war-wounded. On Tuesday by 11:30 a.m. local time, 54 had already arrived for treatment.

An MSF doctor, Louis Karudji, who performs amputations, removes shrapnel and stitches up perforated intestines in an operating tent, said he had been "overwhelmed" by the numbers of wounded. On the night of 20-21 January he had worked until 06:00 next day to treat 23 new arrivals with war injuries.

Meanwhile, many of the wounded in the hospital told IRIN that the bombing campaign in Darfur was targeting innocent civilians. Harun Uthman, a man from a village outside Nyala, southern Darfur, said he had been at home on 15 January when an aircraft circling overhead dropped its bombs. "I lost six men and two girls in my family, my father, my brothers, my grandparents, my wife, and my son."

Bakhit Abdullah Khamis, whose leg had been amputated from the knee at the MSF hospital, said a bomb had been dropped on his village outside Karnoi on 19 January. "I was at the well with my cows when the plane came. There were eight of us, four are dead."

Ibrahim Da'ud Djimet, lying next to him on the MSF tent floor, said: "We're farmers with our herds. If there are rebels, they're not in the villages, they're in the bush. If the government wants the rebels, I don't know why they bomb the villages."

However, a haggard old woman, Ambakar Khatir Sa'id, who had travelled 45 km to arrive in Tine Chad on Monday evening, admitted that her four sons had been rebels. "The aircraft bombed us. My two oldest sons were killed, one was taken prisoner by the government, the other is still in Sudan," she said.

Local people in Tine Chad, who, like many of Darfur's rebels and refugees, are ethnic Zaghawah, have been helping out with food and shelter, but they say time is running out. "People organised themselves so they could provide food for the refugees, but a lot more are arriving now. The population is overwhelmed, they can't keep providing food," said a local official.

Robbie Tomson, a consultant with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told journalists that the refugees were "among the toughest people on earth", but that they were reaching the end of their coping skills. "These people survive and forage in the bush where you and I wouldn't last two minutes," he said.

The JEM rebels, who control areas around Tine Sudan, say they are ready to negotiate with the Sudanese government, but only if international monitors are present at peace talks and are allowed to monitor a ceasefire, a JEM spokesman, Abu Bakr Hamid Nur, told IRIN in Tine Chad.

The Sudanese government had negotiated a ceasefire with the region's second main rebel group, the SLA, but broke down in mid-December after only three months, after which fighting escalated.

Both rebel groups say they are fighting for political and economic equality. JEM was demanding a dialogue with the Sudanese government in order to reach a political settlement, similar to the talks in Kenya sponsored by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army, said Abu Bakr Hamid. "We want a dialogue on how to rule Sudan. But they think they can defeat us militarily."

He added that the movement was in ongoing talks with the SLA to form a single armed movement. "We are fighting together in the field, and we are going to unite politically," he said.