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Survivors say Arab militias targeting Darfur schools

Tell of slayings of black teachers

KALMA CAMP, Sudan -- The walls of the school at Kailek village were made of straw and sticks, so the bullets went right through them.

As the children studied one morning about six months ago, armed Arabs on camels and horses attacked the village in Sudan's Darfur region and surrounded the school. They raised their weapons and fired again and again, gunning down the trapped children and teachers.

The most haunting memory of that terrible day is the sound of children screaming and weeping.

''I saw the Janjaweed shooting the children with Kalashnikovs and students shouting and crying," said Ibrahim Abdullah, 37, referring to the Arab militias. Three of his children were at the school.

He tried to run to the school with other parents, but there were too many horsemen, too many bullets. ''We had no chance to help them. We stopped from a distance to watch, and then we ran."

His son Adam Ibrahim Abdullah, 9, and an adopted nephew, Haroun Sherif, 13, died in the hail of bullets. Two daughters, 8 and 12, escaped. Six teachers and 36 children were killed, Abdullah said.

Afterward, the attackers burned the schoolbooks.

It was the third time in two years that the Kailek school had been set upon. Two months before the final attack, two teachers and seven students were slain, Abdullah said.

The assaults on Kailek were not isolated events. In many villages across Darfur, schools have been targeted by the marauding militias. Some have even been bombed.

World opinion is divided on whether the campaign of attacks on indigenous African tribes by Arab militias in Darfur amounts to genocide. US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused the Sudanese government and progovernment Janjaweed militias of genocide. Sudanese authorities -- dismissing the charge as an attempt to win African-American votes in the US presidential election -- portray the Darfur crisis as part of the tribal conflict over land between Arab herders and African farmers going back a decade.

But for many victims, the school attacks and killings of teachers seem far from random. In the villages of Shataya and Bindis, locals say they have evidence of premeditation, maintaining that Arab teachers left several days before the carnage.

''They don't want our people and our children to learn anything," said Abdullah, who now lives in this refugee camp near the town of Nyala.

Although it is impossible to determine whether there was a policy of exterminating educated people in a campaign that has left as many as 50,000 dead, the leaders of Darfur's black African tribes say the attacks fit into a continuum of discrimination by authorities in the capital, Khartoum.

That fierce sense of injustice led to a rebellion by two black African groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, which took up arms early last year seeking a greater share of the country's resources. And it underscores the deep reservoir of ethnic mistrust and hatred that must be overcome before peace is possible.

The government, for its part, distributed a booklet to international journalists saying it had expanded services in Darfur, such as schools and medical clinics, since seizing power in a 1989 coup.

The chief of the Fur people in Nyala, Ahmed Abdul Rahman Rijal, said in an interview at his home that the government has always failed to protect Africans from Arab attacks.

''The government is steadfast in its policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing, using airplanes to bombard villages," Rijal said. He described the rebels as ''our boys. They raised arms to protect our people."

Rijal, who recounted that in 1956 he became the first person from Darfur to graduate from Khartoum University, said the level of education among his people had since fallen.

''The policies of the government since independence [in 1956] were pro-Arab," he said. ''We felt the government was backing the Arab tribes over the African tribes, giving them more chances to learn while the African tribes were kept as they were. This feeling of segregation between African and Arab tribes became very prominent under the present regime."

He said Arabs filled most of the government, police, and security posts, while the level of education among African tribes was low.

A State Department report in September that was based on more than 1,100 interviews with Darfur refugees in Chad, said the Sudanese government had encouraged an Arab alliance in Darfur to keep non-Arab groups in check. It disarmed non-Arabs but allowed Arabs to keep their weapons. In the early 1990s, Arab militias destroyed 600 non-Arab villages and killed 3,000 people, the report said.

The report found a consistent pattern of atrocities, killings, and rapes in Darfur. It said more than 400 villages were destroyed, at least 100 were bombed, and Janjaweed and government military activity was closely coordinated.

Jemera Rone, a Human Rights Watch researcher who recently visited western Darfur, believes that Arab militias attacked whatever service infrastructure they found in villages, including schools, mosques, and clinics.

''We saw a number of [schools] that were destroyed, thoroughly trashed and vandalized. Sometimes they were burned," she said. The victims saw it as the Janjaweed's drive to ''destroy everything good that they had, everything that belonged to them."

Although many villagers see the school attacks as part of a broader effort to wipe out as many people as possible, others believe the schools were specifically targeted.

Abdulkarim Juma Hamiz, 40, said the five non-Arab teachers at the Shataya secondary school were shot in their beds when militias attacked at 6 a.m. one day in September 2003. Arab teachers had left several days before.

He saw the attack as an effort to stop black indigenous people from being educated. ''I think the teachers were killed because of the government. It was the government's hand to stop learning and education."

So deep is African tribes' resentment against Arabs in Darfur that any Arab is seen as a potential attacker. One sheik in the Otash refugee camp, Abdulkarim Adam Eeka, 37, said his people did not trust the medicine at a clinic there because the doctors were Arab.

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