Thousands of Sudanese refugees watched as first aid workers reached a village in Chad days after escaping their embattled country. Mothers cared for toddlers, while men listed their most pressing needs: water, vaccines, sails for the approaching rainy season.
The fighting that broke out in the Sudanese capital last month has ricocheted well beyond the city limits, exacerbating instability in the restive western region of Darfur and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing to neighboring countries, including Chad in central Africa.
While villages in western Sudan are emptying, villages in eastern Chad are filling up: camps have sprung up, sometimes within days, with thousands of tents made of colorful sheets mounted on branches, forming a fragile patchwork of uncertainty.
The swelling conflict in Darfur is the latest test for a region traumatized by two decades of genocidal violence. It has also deepened a humanitarian crisis in Chad, where hundreds of thousands of Darfur displaced people have already taken refuge.
The United Nations Refugee Agency said last week that 60,000 Sudanese had entered Chad since the start of the conflict – doubling a previous estimate, with 25,000 refugees recently registered in the Chadian village of Borota alone. Most had fled from Kango Haraza, a village on the other side of the border in Darfur.
Two DailyExpertNews journalists last week accompanied the UN agency to Borota, where tens of thousands of refugees were without food, water and other essential items.
With Sudan’s most powerful groups, the army and the RSF, fighting for control in the capital, Khartoum, the volatile situation in Darfur has evolved into further violence.
According to aid workers, doctors and local activists, militias, mainly made up of Arab fighters, have exploited the power vacuum to rampage through towns, loot households and kill an unknown number of civilians. In response, some citizens have begun to arm themselves and non-Arab groups have also retaliated against militias on a small scale.
Along with Khartoum and the two neighboring cities on the other side of the Nile, the cities of Darfur have been hardest hit by the fighting between the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces. Hospitals have been looted and markets have been set on fire.
But while Khartoum was a peaceful city before April, Darfur has been torn apart by decades of violence.
More than 300,000 people were killed in Darfur in the 2000s when Sudan’s former dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir ordered militias, commonly known as the Janjaweed, to quell an uprising among non-Arab groups. A popular uprising in 2019 led to the ousting of Mr al-Bashir, but the situation in Darfur has continued to deteriorate in recent years, including through ethnically motivated attacks.
The latest influx of refugees is also increasing pressure on Chad, a landlocked, sprawling Central African country that shares 1,400 kilometers of border with Sudan and is one of the poorest countries in the world. In the eastern, semi-arid and isolated region, more than 400,000 refugees from Darfur are already living in 13 camps, which are now filled with new arrivals aided by the UN refugee agency.
About 90 percent of the Darfur refugees recently registered in Chad by the United Nations are women and children. Returning to Sudan is out of the question for most families.
“Back to what, and where?” said Khadija Abubakar, a mother of five young children who said she fled Kango Haraza with her husband this month. “As long as there is no security, we will stay.”
Violence in Darfur does not appear to be abating. In El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur and 24 kilometers from Chad, armed groups have looted healthcare facilities and set fire to refugee camps. Hospitals are out of order and humanitarian workers have fled the city for Chad, leaving thousands in distress and trapped amid the fighting.
At least 280 people have died in El Geneina alone in recent days, according to the Sudanese Doctors’ Union. Aid workers and Chadian officials now expect a lull in fighting there could prompt tens of thousands to flee to Chad.
In Borota, six kilometers from the Sudanese border, many refugees had fled previous outbreaks of violence in Darfur, according to Jean-Paul Habamungu, the UN agency’s coordinator of operations in eastern Chad.
He was one of the first humanitarian workers to reach Borota, arriving on May 11. What he saw amazed him: hundreds of children, most of whom had arrived in the previous days, lined up in front of him, so many people that it surprised local authorities and aid organizations.
The refugee camp is at least four hours from the nearest aid station in the region, and some parts of the sandy and bumpy trails that crisscross the area will soon be flooded in the rainy season. As we crossed some parched wadis or rivers on our way to Borota, raindrops appeared and puddles began to form.
Ms. Abubakar, the mother of five, has spent her days waiting for her husband to find food in a nearby village. While trying to get two toddlers to play in the nearby dust, she said she also needed soap and water.
Other Sudanese repeated similar requests. “We need vaccinations for the kids, we need tarpaulin in case it rains,” said Adoum Ahmad Issa, a 43-year-old father of four who said he arrived in Chad in early May.
In nearby tents, children in rags dozed on their mothers’ laps while other parents made madeeda hilba, a thick porridge, and grilled little locusts in the 100-degree heat. Most seemed to have fled with little more than cooking utensils, sheets and mats and, in some cases, a donkey.
Mr Issa and nearly two dozen other refugees interviewed this month said the violence in Darfur preceded the fighting in Khartoum. But many said the new conflict had only made things worse.
It is unclear how many people died in Darfur, but it is estimated to be in the hundreds. At least 822 civilians have been killed and more than 3,200 injured in the months-long conflict, the doctors’ union said.
Aid agencies are rushing to help refugees gathered in Chad, often in locations miles apart. In some areas, such as the Chadian border village of Koufroune, refugees have managed to take furniture, mattresses and bed frames with them.
On a recent morning, some men and teenagers on horse-drawn carts crossed a dried up river bed – the border between the two countries – traveling back and forth between Koufroune and the Sudanese village of Tendelti, just on the other side. Some villagers said they fled under gunfire in the early days of the conflict. Tendelti is now vacant of most residents.
A few Chadian soldiers stood guard by the riverbed, shaded by mango trees that bent under the weight of ripe fruit.
“Tendelti is here now, in Chad,” said Fatima Douldoum, a 50-year-old mother of five who said she fled in late March. Relatives crossed in April to collect their beds.
“It’s the first time that so many people have brought everything they can with them,” said Aleksandra Roulet-Cimpric, the country director of the International Rescue Committee, a relief organization that provides health services in Koufroune. “It’s also the first time so many of them say, ‘We’re not coming back.'”
Kango Haraza, too, is now largely empty and in recent days people have reached Borota from other Sudanese communities, said Habamungu of the UN agency.
Visiting the site last week, Habamungu said a Chadian official had told him the war in Darfur had only just begun. “That got me thinking and wondering,” Mr. Habamungu said. “How are we going to handle it?”