Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mob Attacked in Darfur: A Personal Account From Isma'il Kushkush

Mob Attacked in Darfur: Personal Account

Darfur's Deteriorating Social Fabric

By Isma’il Kushkush
IOL Correspondent — Sudan

"Was I ready to die, and like this?! Ironically, it was not fear that consumed me but disappointment; would I be killed by those whose plight I came to write about?"

A Nissan pick-up truck drove us through the Abu Shok internally displaced persons' (IDP) camp near the city of El-Fashir in Darfur. Sitting in the front seat, my eyes and mind were lost in a long stare. I recognized the camp's mud and straw buildings and its dusty roads. My mouth went dry. My lips tightened. I stopped breathing for half a minute. It was a frighteningly familiar place; it was only months ago that I was mobbed attacked here at Abu Shok.

I flew out to Darfur from Khartoum last December on the day before the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha. I accompanied an American journalist and photographer as their translator, but I also intended to write about how displaced Darfuris "celebrated" Eid despite their situation.

Early next morning, the first day of Eid, I took a taxi to Abu Shok. I asked several people along the way in the camp where the prayers would take place, and they led me to a straw-made mosque. I spoke with the imam who greeted me warmly and explained to him what I intended to do, and he agreed. When prayer time arrived, I joined the congregation, and when it was done and the imam began the sermon, I stood up, took a few pictures, and sat down again.

Minutes later, a young man approached and asked to speak to me. He introduced himself as one of the camp's shabab (youth) and asked who I was and why I was taking pictures. I told him I was a journalist and that I spoke earlier to the imam, and I showed him my press card. Another young man approached and took my card and refused to return it. I suggested to the first young man that I could make a phone call and clear up any confusion, but he refused and grabbed my cell phone. More young men started to gather around us. My back now was to a mud-made wall as I was continuously questioned by the increasing number of apparently angry young men.

"Who are you!?" they demanded to know. I asked them to call the imam, who came but could not be heard over the shouting voices of the nearly twenty young men who had now gathered around. I showed them every ID card in my wallet but that was useless. I continued to try to negotiate with my main "interrogator" until a few yanked my bag. Unsuccessfully, I tried to hold on to it, and then felt the blow of a large stick to the back of my head. The assault had begun.

I was next hit by a large rock to the left side of my head, followed by a punch to my face. I fell to the ground and kicks, rocks, and sticks followed. At that moment, a thought constructed itself in my mind in a surprisingly calm manner: "There is a good chance I am going to die today."

The following moments unfolded in my mind in slow-motion like the final scenes of a drama. Was I ready to die, and like this?! Ironically, it was not fear that consumed me but disappointment; would I be killed by those whose plight I came to write about? Even more ironic was the fact that I did not feel much physical pain for I was in a total state-of-shock.

I was on the ground and both my nose and mouth were bleeding. Elders stared quietly seeming reluctant to say anything. I could see some in the mob ripping through my prided large black leather bag, the one I bought from a Berkeley Salvation Army store for only ten bucks. I lifted my right finger and said my prayers.

"Criminal! Janjaweed!"

Was I going to be stabbed to death? Was I going to be raped? Who would know if I was murdered today?

Then, my first "interrogator" lifted me up and the assault stopped. He pulled me from my arm and we started to walk along a main dirt road in the camp with the mob behind us. The young man apparently had some authority. I tried again to plea with him, but his reply was: "Be quite or I will let these people have their way with you."

I was taken through a narrow alley to a mud house and put in a room. There, three young men debated among themselves in a local dialect what to do with me. I could not understand, but only the worse thoughts of what could happen to me came to mind. Was I going to be stabbed to death? Was I going to be raped? Who would know if I was murdered today?

I was ordered to sit on a stool. Another young man who appeared to be from the shabab came with others. They seemed well organized. The "leader" had my wallet and sat next to me and demanded my "information." We went through everything in my wallet. The mob of nearly fifty people now was outside and some tried to barge in the room but were prevented from doing so. One of the shabab, seeming frustrated, slapped me hard in the face and I fell off the stool. The young men then walked out of the room and house to speak to the mob outside; except for one.

He seemed calmer than the others; almost sympathetic. He grabbed my hand and took me out of the room and house through a narrow back alley. We made it to a dirt street and I could see the mob outside the house. But beyond them was another group; United Nations and African Union soldiers on patrol, members of UNAMID.

The young man took me to the patrol and the mob followed. The patrol was made up of heavily armed soldiers from Indonesia. After I explained to them in English what had happened, I was asked to hop on their patrol truck and was taken to a UNAMID security station nearby. Young kids from the camp ran by shouting: "Criminal! Janjaweed!" I could not believe it.

At the security station, I was questioned for nearly thirty minutes by UNAMID officials and the Sudanese police. Afterwards, one of the Indonesian soldiers who introduced himself to me as "Eko" gave me a thumbs-up and told me "not to worry." I sat down with another group of soldiers waiting to be taken to the hospital. It was only then that I realized that I had lost two front teeth. The magnitude of what had just happened began to sink in.

My nose and mouth were a bloody mess. My shirt and pants were torn. I lost my bag, camera, digital recorder, wallet, money, passport, and several ID cards. I could have easily been killed. I had to keep my mind off of it or I would've broken down, so I started to joke with the soldiers.

"Can someone please take a picture of me so if I think of coming back, I'll look at it and remember not to?"

A few of them found it funny.

I was asked to accompany the Sudanese police and was taken to a hospital and then to a police-station for questioning and to report my stolen belongings. My colleagues were informed and one of them joined me at the police-station. We returned to our residence near sunset. Ten days later, I was back in Khartoum.

Darfur's Social Fabric

Why was I attacked? And why was I let go? My speculation is that with a mob many with different agendas combine, and the first blow is a green light for all to join the assault. But more importantly, the attack exhibited aspects of changes to Darfur's social fabric caused by the war.

Among those who assaulted me, I imagine, were persons who simply hated journalists. I've been told that many IDPs in Darfur believe that journalists are "banking" on their cause. During my recent visit to Abu Shok, a cameraman with us asked to stop for a few minutes to capture scenes. A security man in our company warned that Abu Shok's residents did not like to be filmed or photographed. I knew that to be true.

Banditry and thuggery may also be blamed. My wallet was stolen despite the fact I was told repeatedly by many that they were not interested in my money. Banditry and thugery have become components of life in unstable Darfur with the absence of stable work. That is most evident in the routine attacks on relief-aid trucks. Last year, there was an attack on relief convoys almost every week, I was told by a UN WFP (UN World Food Program) official.

My own "Arab" features may also have triggered some in the mob to attack me regardless of who I was. It is not a secret that most of the IDP camps in Darfur contain armed and politically organized elements especially among the youth. Most are believed to be tied to one of the main rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) under the leadership of Abd-Alwahid Nur.

When addressing Arabic-speaking audiences, such as those of Aljazeera Channel, Nur speaks about Darfur's underdevelopment and the need for a fair distribution of wealth and power in Sudan; a legitimate complaint and demand. But when addressing Western media outlets, he emphasizes "ethnicity" as the main reason for the conflict. The war in Darfur, he claims, is one of "Africans" against "Arabs". This is a claim repeated over and over by Western media and activist groups. It is an easier way to recruit support, either from "African" youth in Darfur, or globally, in a world that has come in recent years to associate the words "Arab" with "violence" and "terrorism", and "African" with "poverty" and "victim".

The fact is that "African farmers" and "Arab nomads" in Darfur have historically co-existed and have traditionally settled their differences through tribal reconciliation efforts. Those differences were always recognized to be over material issues; water, land, and grazing rights, and never "racialized". But with the escalating rhetoric of "African" against "Arab", some Darfuris and Sudanese are dangerously succumbing to such gross oversimplifications.

Communal Shifts

Communal authority in many IDP camps in Darfur is shifting from tribal chiefs, imams, and elders, to restless politicized youth leaders.

The fact that I was attacked by youth was noticeable. The imam I spoke to before Eid prayer and other elders all had welcomed my presence and the idea of reporting their Eid plans. But they could not stop the assault despite my requests to have one of them confirm that I had spoken to them first. Clearly they were afraid.

Communal authority in many IDP camps in Darfur is shifting from tribal chiefs, imams, and elders, to restless politicized youth leaders. In fact, according to many reports, traditional elder leaders in the camps are routinely threatened, assaulted, or even killed, when expressing views deemed as a "betrayal to the cause" by the youth. That includes negotiating with the government or expressing desire to voluntary return to their home villages when security is present. Or even, speaking to the media without permission.

Another side to the changing social order in Darfur is the clearly growing attachment to everything Western. During my questioning by police and security in El-Fashir after the attack, I was told by one officer: "You should have spoken to them in English, they would have stopped."

"English?" I thought. I was disappointed by that comment. It later struck me, however, that my stolen bag contained my US passport. My wallet had several of my US identification cards. That is why, perhaps, I was released.

War not only takes lives and destroys properties, but can alter a society's order of morals, values, and standards. Darfur is no exception. Ethnicism, tribalism, banditry, thugery, and aid-dependency are rapidly growing features in war-ravaged Darfurian society, especially among IDP youths in camps. Any future political peace agreement must be accompanied with long-term grassroots efforts to address these problems and help re-stitch Darfur's deteriorating social fabric.

"I am very sorry for what happened to you," Ibrahim Al-Khalil told me, Abu Shok's director and a member of the "African" Berti tribe, during my return visit.

An articulate, sincere, and polite man, Al-Khalil has administered the camp for the last five years.

"I hope you will come back again and I will take you to homes and families in the camp who disapproved what happened to you."

"In-sha' Allah," I said.

Isma’il Kamal Kushkush is a Sudanese-American freelance writer currently based in Khartoum, Sudan.


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