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Thousands of refugees fleeing fighting in Sudan keep streaming into neighboring Chad

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

The Darfur region in western Sudan is a vast area that's been traumatized by decades of genocidal violence. Now it's suffering again. While Sudan's capital, Khartoum, has been the epicenter of the recent conflict between two warring generals, those fleeing from Darfur have shared accounts of the brutal and underreported fighting there. Thousands of people have made their way over the Sudan border to neighboring Chad. That's where NPR's Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu brought us this report. It's an important listen, but I do want to warn you. It includes some graphic descriptions of violence.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: I've just arrived at Goungour, where about 10,000 refugees have spread around in clusters across a vast area in, essentially, the desert. It's about 110 degrees. It's scorching. People are trying to find shade, making makeshift shelters with branches, sheets of fabric and plastic or clustering under the few trees that still have enough leaves to provide shade. Goungour is just one of several camps that have sprung up along the border in Chad where ordinary life has been destroyed or put on hold for thousands of Sudanese people. When the U.N. first arrived here a few weeks ago, there were only two to three thousand people. Now that number's tripled, and the numbers coming across the border are rising every day. The speed of the refugees coming across the border gives an illustration of just how intense the fighting is in Darfur, the region to the west of Sudan.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

AKINWOTU: And the violence has been brutal. Communication has been scarce with phone networks down, but the accounts of refugees I've spoken to offer a glimpse of it.

AHMAD ISMAEL: (Speaking Masalit).

AKINWOTU: This is Ahmad Ismael, a 55-year-old farmer from Darfur. And while a crowd of refugees gather to listen, he speaks in Masalit and tells me about the loss that led him here. He left Sudan before the conflict reached his town and fled with almost all of his family, everyone except for his 20-year-old son.

ISMAEL: (Speaking Masalit).

AKINWOTU: When someone told him his son was taken by fighters, he took his donkey and rushed back to Darfur. He found him hiding in their abandoned home and was relieved. But then relief turned to horror at what his town had become.

ISMAEL: (Speaking Masalit).

AKINWOTU: Misterei was virtually empty, he tells me. Entire homes had been burnt to the ground or looted. He blames this on who he calls the Arabs or the Janjaweed. That's the name of the militia that evolved to become the Rapid Support Forces who are now at war with Sudan's army.

ISMAEL: (Speaking Masalit).

AKINWOTU: In the space of a few weeks, much of the town had been completely wiped out. They rode by several bodies covered in blood, lay strewn along the roads from Misterei to the Chad border. They had gunshot wounds, and some of them were alive. So he and his son carried three of them onto their cart and took them back to Goungour.

ALI TAHIR MOHAMMED: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: Ali Tahir Mohammed is 55. And, like Ismael, he's from Misterei. When he heard that fighters were approaching, he and 21 members of his family fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. He tells me the Janjaweed were just killing people, anyone - a woman searching for herbs, children fetching water. And etched in his mind are the atrocities he's witnessed in Darfur, not just recently, but over several years.

MOHAMMED: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: "I saw with my own eyes," he tells me, "the killings in my town. In 2021, they came and burned it down and killed about 70 people."

The atrocities in Darfur have a long history, and so do the many actors. The army and the RSF are now at war, but in the early 2000s, they were united, fighting on the same side under the direction of Sudan's former president, Omar al-Bashir, united in a genocidal fight to crush a rebellion in the Darfur region. That conflict and cycles of atrocities since then sparked a huge refugee crisis, and now we're here again.

AISHA YUSUF: (Speaking French).

AKINWOTU: Aisha Yusuf works for the Red Cross, and she tells me in French what she's witnessed in the camps - several cases of trauma, children who escaped alone.

YUSUF: (Through interpreter) So the stories that have really stuck with me are the children without any adults who came by themselves. Yesterday, I met a 1-1/2-year-old who came with her big sister, who's only 13 years old.

AKINWOTU: A queue of refugees line up with buckets and bowls at a water tank brought by the World Food Programme. The help is vital, but not enough. As the number of refugees rises, so does the pressure to support them. Before this conflict, there were already 400,000 refugees from the Darfur war in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world. Now there are almost half a million, and resources are stretched. The U.N. wants to move the refugees from border areas to camps further inside Chad, but it's a slow and difficult process.

(CROSSTALK)

AKINWOTU: And while the new arrivals wait in Goungour, the sound of weeping spreads through the camp. There's no way to call their relatives and loved ones from Darfur, but sometimes the news trickles in. These women have just found out they've lost a father, a grandfather. So they sit under a tree and comfort each other.

From a high slope in the desert sand in Goungour, you can see the milky outline of hills in Darfur. But to return there feels like a distant prospect for many. Ismael says he'll never go back. Everything he built has been lost. He says he's not been able to think about the future since he arrived in Chad, but the most crucial thing is that he's safe.

ISMAEL: (Speaking Masalit).

ISMAEL: He tells me, "Back there, there are a lot of armed groups, armed men. But here, since I arrived two weeks ago, I haven't seen anyone with a gun."

Soon the rains will come, making access to the border more difficult and an exodus for refugees more fraught. And on both sides of the border, history repeats itself. This conflict has left a troubled region in more turmoil, and a new generation of refugees prepare for life in camps just a few kilometers away from home.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Farchana, Chad.

(SOUNDBITE OF KELSEY LU'S "EMPATHY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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