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Covering Sudan and Darfur's Plight

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Covering Sudan and Darfur's Plight


Covering Sudan and Darfur's Plight

Covering Sudan and Darfur's Plight

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Lydia Polgreen has been covering the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region for The New York Times. She discusses her experiences in Sudan with Melissa Block.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A United Nations team is supposed to arrive in Sudan within days to scope out a possible U.N. peacekeeping role in Darfur. The Security Council has called for the deployment of U.N. troops to try to end the violence there. But the Sudanese government has not yet agreed to allow peacekeepers into the region. So far, they've agreed to allow just this assessment team from the U.N. and the African Union.

At least 200,000 Sudanese have been killed and more than two million displaced by the fighting. New York Times reporter Lydia Polgreen just spent three weeks reporting from Darfur. She describes what you see traveling by helicopter over the area.

LYDIA POLGREEN (The New York Times): You see the remains of village after village after village, just these decapitated huts. There are these rings of adobe. Sometimes the sand and the water have washed them slowly away, so they're almost like ruins and that's really, I think for me, the most enduring images of Darfur and a very powerful symbol of the displacement that has taken place there.

BLOCK: These villages that you're describing, these would be places where the Arab militias have come in, looted, attacked, and the villagers have fled?

Ms. POLGREEN: Exactly. When the uprising against the government started in 2003, it was a group of non-Arab activists who started a rebel movement. Its main principles were to create a sort of secular democratic state in Sudan. But the government chose to deal with this uprising not by using the regular Army, which was largely made up of recruits from the non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur, but turned instead to Arab militias.

So the Arab militias were used as sort of a counterinsurgency force. And these attacks turned out to be quite vicious. Villages were burned to the ground, there were many, many reports of rape, rape being used as a weapon of war.

BLOCK: Has the Sudanese government ever admitted hiring the Janjaweed, being complicit with them in all this?

Ms. POLGREEN: No. The government's position has been that there is a kind of popular defense force, which is an official government militia, which did participate in fighting the rebels in Darfur. But it denies arming Arab civilians to fight against the insurgency.

BLOCK: You've reported on another disturbing trend in Darfur, which is rebel groups fighting each other now, very similar pattern of attacks that were seen with the Arab militias, but in this case it's the rebel groups fighting amongst themselves, and again, civilians getting caught in the middle, victims of murder, looting and raping.

Ms. POLGREEN: Yeah. You know, the conflict in Darfur has often been understood as one between Arabs and Africans and while that's partially true, it's always been a little bit more complicated than that. And what you're seeing now in Darfur, I think, is an overall fragmentation of the security situation and you're also seeing these rebel groups that had fought side by side now turning on each other.

And I think that partly has to do with this peace agreement that was signed. One rebel group signed it and the other faction of the rebel group didn't. So there's this kind of ethnic split between the non-Arab tribes that is a new thing that many people see as a kind of unfortunate and quite troublesome development.

BLOCK: With all of that going on, I wonder whether you met any refugees from Darfur who had any hopes that this ceasefire would bring any meaningful change to their lives?

Ms. POLGREEN: The people that I met in Darfur were by and large just so exhausted by war. This war has taken an enormous toll on people's lives. The disruption, people living in these vast, squalid camps, so they're definitely ready for peace. But, there was a deep, deep skepticism, in part because there have been agreements before. There was a ceasefire in 2004 that no one has really abided by.

As far as the ordinary person living in a displaced persons camp in Darfur, they're very much taking a wait and see approach. And those who support the factions that didn't sign are very angry and there have been quite violent uprisings in some of the camps. So there really is kind of a rising temperature and a great deal of frustration.

BLOCK: Lydia, I'd like to end by talking about a story that you filed from the village of Menowashi(ph) earlier this month, talking about the security situation and the attacks around that village. And I wonder if you could read for us the first paragraph of that story that you wrote.

Ms. POLGREEN: Sure. "It took three months for Fatouma Moussa to collect enough firewood to justify a trip to sell it in the market town of Shangil Tobayi, half a day's drive by truck from here. It took just a few moments on Thursday for the Janjaweed militiamen, making a mockery of the new ceasefire, to steal the $40 she had earned on the trip and rape her."

BLOCK: You go on to describe that attack. She was one of 15 women who were raped, six villagers wounded and one woman killed. And what's so striking is at the end of the story, this woman's mother says, we're going to be back out there on that road selling this wood. We have no choice.

Ms. POLGREEN: Yeah. You know, the people there have to survive. They have to find a way to make a living. And even at the risk of sending her own daughter out, who obviously had already suffered so much. This woman felt she had no other choice. And I felt that this was really a demonstration of just how desperate the situation for so many people in Darfur is, that despite everything, they have to put themselves out there, day after day after day and just do what they can to survive.

BLOCK: Lydia, thanks very much.

Ms. POLGREEN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times just spent three weeks reporting from Darfur, Sudan. She spoke with us from London.

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