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Displaced to Darfur, Dinkas fall victim to 2 Sudan wars

OTASH CAMP, Sudan -- At 3 a.m., Garang Deng awoke to the crack of gunshots and the screams of women. About 300 Sudanese policemen with rifles had surrounded the camp and fired over the heads of the people, scattering them as police Land Cruisers rolled over their huts of sticks and wind-frayed cloth.

The sounds were all too familiar for Deng and other members of the Dinka tribe crowded into this squalid refugee outpost in western Sudan's Darfur region. More than 80,000 from the tribe had fled to Darfur more than a decade ago from southern Sudan to escape the atrocities that plague them now: widespread murder and rape, the looting of harvests and livestock, the burning of villages at the hands of militias backed by the Sudanese Army.

In the assault this fall described by Deng, the Dinkas resisted the police by forming a human chain around their section of the camp, near the town of Nyala. The police commanders, rarely faced with such resistance, eventually gave up and left.

"When the police came here with the voice of the guns, shooting bullets over our tents, many of us didn't become afraid. We are from the south and the voice of guns has become normal for us; we have heard it many times already," said Deng, 49, said in Arabic, wearing the whitish gown, or jalabia, common to this Muslim country. "For us, it was the same picture repeating itself."

The Dinkas are among the growing number of Sudanese trapped by the country's two wars, in the south and west. Their plight raises questions about whether international diplomats should continue separating the two crises, which seem to be overlapping on the ground.

The southern war, pitting the Khartoum government against Sudan's largest rebel group, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, has dragged on for more than two decades, making it Africa's longest-running conflict. It has killed an estimated 2 million people and driven more than 4 million from their ancestral villages and farms.

The Darfur conflict, provoked by a rebel uprising in February of last year, has claimed up to 70,000 lives and left nearly 2 million people homeless. The Bush administration has termed atrocities committed there genocide.

In both conflicts, the vast majority of victims are black Africans, mostly civilians. The two conflicts ignited after African rebel groups, saying they represented huge ethnic blocs shorn of political clout and robbed of their share in the nation's expanding wealth, took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated government.

Still, the southern war and the unfolding crisis in Darfur remain separate issues at the negotiating table. Officials from Darfur's two main rebel groups said they sought to be included in the north-south talks, but the Sudanese government and the SPLA, in the final stages of a peace deal, refused to expand the talks to address the crisis in the west.

"The road to peace in Darfur is through the north-south peace agreement," said Charles R. Snyder, the US envoy to Sudan, who visited Khartoum, Sudan's capital, in September to press for an agreement aimed at ending the civil war in southern Sudan.

Solving the war in southern Sudan would provide a blueprint for solving the conflict in the west, according to Snyder and several Western analysts.

The UN Security Council, at a rare emergency summit last month in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, secured a pledge from Sudan's government and the SPLA to close a peace deal by the end of the year. As part of the agreement, the government pledged to share more of the country's oil wealth, allow more regional autonomy, and abide by a referendum on secession in six years.

For the Dinkas and other African tribes in southern Sudan, the war is far from over.

Last month, government-backed militias reportedly attacked rebel-held villages and farms in Shilluk, a region that opens into rich farmland and the oil fields of the south.

Attacks by similar progovernment militias 16 years ago led Deng to flee with his wife and six children from southern Sudan's Bahr al-Ghazal. They eventually settled in the South Darfurian village of Bul-Bul, where Deng found jobs tending livestock and cultivating farms.

After seven years, the militias struck again. To Deng, the militiamen who attacked Bul-Bul earlier this year were the same men, armed by the same government, who raided his village in Bahr al-Ghazal.

In southern Sudan, the progovernment Arab militias were called Murahaleen. They were predecessors to the Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, who are terrorizing Darfur today.

Michael Garang is a lanky, 42-year-old Dinka who, like Deng, is from Bahr al-Ghazal. He and the other Dinkas who fled to Darfur from southern Sudan survived on jobs as day laborers for the Arabs and the Fur, Darfur's largest tribe. His wife, like most Dinka women, found jobs cleaning houses, doing laundry, or collecting water and firewood.

"When the Janjaweed came to our village, they wanted to kill the Furs and the Dinkas. Even though we were neighbors and friends, the Arabs living among us never raised a gun to protect us," Garang said.

The reason most of the 7,500 Dinkas refused to leave the Otash camp is that few of them had registered for food rations and were forced to remain near Nyala to find jobs to earn enough money to feed themselves. The Dinkas also were protected by the aid workers at the Otash camp, as police and Arab militias rarely harassed residents in their presence.

The camp is crowded with thousands of families squeezed into tiny, fragile huts. They live on the edge of starvation, made worse by the recent upsurge in violence that has halted food relief by the United Nations and many nongovernmental aid agencies. On the other side of Nyala is the Beliel camp, where 5,000 Dinkas have lived since years before the Darfur crisis broke out.

As the aid coming into Beliel fizzled, many of the Dinkas were absorbed by Nyala's labor-intensive job market, spurred by both Arab and African business leaders who have come to depend on the low wages for which the Dinkas are willing to work.

For the more than 1.5 million people forced off their land by the fighting in Darfur, the Dinkas' predicament is an ominous forecast for their own lives in the coming years, especially as the crisis in western Sudan shows signs of escalating.

In much of Africa, where land confers identity and status, Darfurians, like the Dinkas before them, are becoming landless and increasingly vulnerable to attacks by progovernment militias, mostly drawn from nomadic Arab herding tribes with a centuries-old legacy of antagonism toward African farmers.

"The situation here is so miserable that most of us just want to go back home to southern Sudan to be buried on our own land," said Roberto Dimo, a 99-year-old Dinka who lives in a tiny, sand-dusted hut in Otash. "But the Arabs have taken our land, so we can't even do that." 

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