Darfur's Translator

June 26, 2008

Darfur's Translator

Summer 2008

Darfur's Translator

By Daoud Hari

Daoud Hari with scoolchildren in the Djabal refugee camp in Eastern Chad
Daoud Hari with schoolchildren in the Djabal refugee camp in Eastern Chad.
© Megan McKenna

Daoud Hari left Darfur for North Africa and the Middle East as a young man in search of better wages and life experience. He returned home in 2003, in time to witness the government’s scorchedearth tactics in Darfur and join a mass exodus of refugees to Chad. After serving as a translator for international news organizations and landing in prison, he was eventually granted refugee status in the United States, where he penned his personal account of the crisis in Darfur.

The approach to my sister’s village lay along a dry river. Wells and small pools—the water points of the village— were pocked with bomb craters. The normal rush of village children toward a visiting vehicle was absent. The outlying clusters of huts were burned, though many were still standing.

After my sister Halima recovered from seeing the man her baby brother had grown to be, she made a small joke that I was always doing things backward, that a Hari should not come home to roost in the middle of a war. Our family name, Hari, means “eagle.” Birds are famous for leaving a village before a battle, not for arriving during one.

Her husband was away somewhere with a group of men. They were perhaps moving the animals to safety or preparing to defend the village. The women were busy hiding caches of food out in the wadis [dry streambeds] to the west, should a hasty escape be necessary. Halima told me of the prior bombings in the village, which had killed seven people.

In the evening, when the children had finished their chores with the animals and gardens, I talked to them under a tree in a slight rain. “Tell me what happened,” I said to the eldest boy, who was perhaps fourteen and would surely be among the resistance troops in a few days or weeks. “All the birds flew up and away. This is the first thing we noticed,” he said. Then he mimicked the noise of a bomber as it cruised high over the village. “We could not see it,” he said. The others nodded.

“But our mothers knew it was the Antonov [aircraft] as soon as they saw the birds leave, and they yelled at us to go hide in the wadi and take some animals, quickly. It was coming lower, and we could see it coming. It dropped a big bomb on each of the water points along the wadi to destroy the wells and maybe to poison them with this . . .”

“The bombs sent balls of fire and sharp metal everywhere. The metal came down like rain—ting, ting, ting, ting—for a long time. Some trees and huts were on fi re when we came running back to fi nd our mothers and grandparents.”

Seven people were dead, but the toll would have been much higher if not for the vigilance of the women. The smell of the chemical was still heavy on the village. It made everyone, especially the children, suffer diarrhea and vomiting for several days. Many had diffi culty breathing, particularly the very young and old. The birds that drank from the water points began to die. Fifty or more camels and other animals that had trusted the water soon lay dead at the wells.

Junked appliances and other scrap metal had been packed around the huge bombs dropped by the Sudanese government, creating a million fl ying daggers with each explosion. I had heard that this was happening but did not believe it until I saw the pieces of junk stuck in the trunks of trees. Most of those killed by the bombs were buried in several pieces.

The women, normally dressed in bright colors or in the white robes of mourning, were now all in dark browns to make themselves less visible in the desert. They had poured sand in their hair, which is a custom of grieving for the dead, and they had begun to look like the earth itself. The children were in the darkest colors their mothers could fi nd for them. All the bright color of the village, except a sad sprinkling of dead songbirds, was now gone.

“Daoud is returned,” I heard some men say days later as I walked by groups that were gathered here and there in my parents’ village. I nodded to them, but it did not seem to be a time for smiles and joyful greetings. I walked into the family enclosure where a donkey, several goats and some chickens watched my arrival. My father was on the far side of the village with some other men, as were my brothers. Mother looked very old now. Her hair was matted with the earth of grieving. She wore dark clothing, a dark shawl over her old head. She saw me and wept into her hands, as if it were even sadder for her to think that my homecoming had to be at such a time.

“Fatah,” she managed to say, which is what you say when you greet someone in a time of grieving.

“Fatah,” I replied. We did not touch or embrace, following custom. She would try to speak, but then begin to cry again into her hands and her shawl. We had lost perhaps twenty cousins in the previous days, and each had been like a son or daughter to her.

I heard running and then saw my older brother Ahmed come through the enclosure. He was, despite the mourning custom and his own intentions, smiling somewhat as he grasped my arm in a great handshake.

“Daoud,” he said. “Fatah. So it’s all true—you have come back.”

“Fatah,” I replied, trying not to smile also.

Ahmed looked older but excellent. He now took care of several entire families whose men had died. “Let me take you to Father,” he said.

We approached a group of old men talking under an old tree.

“Fatah,” I said to the eldest of them. My father was in his eighties, which is unusually old for this land. He stood with the help of his herding stick, opened his arms, and gave me a long embrace.

“Fatah,” Father whispered into my hair. “So, you have come back from all your adventures,” he said.

The other men stood to shake my hand and embrace me. We visited an hour before I went to look for Ahmed and found him in front of his family enclosure, talking to more than twenty men, mostly thirty-fi ve to forty-fi ve years old. They were planning to move the old people and young children in the next two days. Because they also talked about preparing their guns, I later asked Ahmed what else this group was going to do. “We are the village defenders,” he said. “We will stay behind to slow the attack if it comes before everyone has left. It is what we are trained to do, and you are not.”

At about nine the next morning I walked through the village to see how everyone was doing. It was a morning of good weather at the end of the rain time. The birds were singing, which I took to mean we were safe at least another hour. But suddenly there was a thumping like a great drum, then more and very rapid thumps of this drum. Through the trees, I saw two green helicopters turning sharply into our narrow wadi. The thumping was their engines as they turned—then the thumping of their guns shook the air. I did not know which way to run, so I stood there crazy for a moment and watched the dirt of the village spraying up from the bullets.

I saw Ahmed run from his enclosure with his gun. Our brother Juma was with him. They were headed to the mouth of the little valley where the ground attackers would have to enter. Their running also drew the helicopters away from the huts. Other defenders were now running up to the hills on both sides of the village, but mostly to the east to intercept the attackers as far down the valley as they could manage.

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” they shouted to one another over the steady kata-tata of the machine guns, and everything in the village began to move in a swirl of dust and noise. The animals were wild-eyed with fear, and the donkeys screamed and brayed. I did not see where the bullets were going, but little songbirds flew down from the trees, confused and worried. They perched on my shoulders and then hid in the folds of my robes and shawl. Then I saw they were falling dead from me, their hearts broken by this noise.

I ran to my mother’s hut. She and my sister and her children were already leaving, quickly moving between the huts to the safety of the trees and the rocky wadi west of the village. Let’s go let’s go, she called to her grandbabies as they ran toward the safety of the trees. I found myself with other men carrying a child here, boosting some children onto donkeys, finding children and sometimes their mothers standing and crying hysterically, pleading with them to move along.

“You can cry, but you must move also, let’s go. You must get your children behind those trees and keep going—go, go, go!”

Daoud Hari
Daoud Haribr /> © Megan McKenna

One hundred people had wisely left the village in the days before the attack; we were now struggling with the remaining 150. The older people needed the most help; we were constantly going back to help this person and again for the next person, with the bullets cracking in the trees and RPG [anti-tank weaponry] rounds exploding in the center of the village and setting huts on fire. We were checking flaming huts and carrying the people who could not run. There was a sort of slow dreaminess to all this. I am dead, I am dead, this is how I died, it is not so bad, I was thinking, afraid to look down at my body because too many bullets were flying around for me still to be okay. I kept moving, moving, carrying the people to the trees and up into the rocky ravine, looking back and hoping to see no one else needing help, but seeing them and going back.

The small, camouflage-painted Land Cruisers of the attackers were now visible at the lower part of the village. Behind us, the defenders held the attackers, and we heard their firing dwindle over the hour. Finally, it was silent. We kept moving through all that day and all that night. People cried as they walked, thinking of what they had left behind, and they cried for the defenders and some of the old people who had chosen to stay.

Some of us returned to the village a few days later to find 60 or so scorched black spots that marked where a whole world once celebrated life. The nunus of millet, many mattresses and blankets, mounds of trees, and parts of huts were still smoking. Thirteen bodies were on the ground, mostly near the eastern side of the village where the defense was made. The Sudanese troops and Janjaweed had of course removed their own dead, so these 13 were the defenders of the village and some who had come to help.

I found Ahmed. The effects of largecaliber weapons and perhaps an RPG round were such that I barely recognized his body. I dug a grave as we do, so that he would rest on his right side with his face to the east. I knelt down there for a long time instead of helping the others. It was raining a little.

After we retrieved some hidden supplies and packed them on our camels, we prepared to leave. Mixed deep in the ashes of the smoldering huts were the bones of the old people who had refused to leave, but we could do nothing for them now until the rains would reveal them. The wild animals would have no use for these fired bones.

A few birds were singing in the trees. Not many, but a few. Well, I thought to myself, they will come back in time, like the people. But for now it was ashes and graves. This had been a good village.

When we caught up with our people, we men stayed mostly with the wounded defenders, going back and forth to the women for the food and traditional medicine and teas they would prepare. Our village, though now a moving line in the desert, was still the same people helping one another. The people of other villages joined us here and there, until we were a great mass of people moving across the land. Every morning we would bury several of the wounded who had died in the night.

On the fifth day we came to a remote and grassy valley, and some of those with animals to sustain them decided they would hide there and make a temporary life. Those with no animals had no choice but to continue on to Chad. My mother and sister were among those who stayed—they would go no farther. My father would keep moving with some of the animals and the other people while they needed him. The camels provided wonderful milk and rides for the children, who were suffering. He would come back to Mother with our animals when he could. In this way, my mother and sister became what the world calls IDPs, which means internally displaced persons—refugees within their home country. And in this way, too, the other people continued on for seven more days, walking toward Chad, marking their way with graves.

Six of my old friends and I began to scout ahead on our camels near the Chad border. We would bring water to the people from the water points we knew. This was becoming critical, because the rain time was over and the little wet spots in the desert quickly dried. We began to find other groups in the desert who needed water, and you must of course help everyone you can. We helped many people to move along, to find one another, to find the safe routes. We brought food from Chad to those on the other side of the border who had run out of everything.

We became lost in this work for three months, sleeping in the bush and watching for the white airplanes, the government troops and the Janjaweed. We buried men, women and children who could not finish the trip. Many other groups of men were doing this as well. And in Chad, camps were forming all along the border. Everyone was helping one another, since the world had not come to help yet.

We moved through a landscape of pain, saving as many as we could and burying others. We came upon a lone tree not far from the Chad border where a woman and two of her three children were dead. The third child died in our arms. The skin of these little children was like delicate brown paper, so wrinkled. You have seen pictures of children who are dying of hunger and thirst, their little bones showing and their heads so big against their withered bodies. You will think this takes a long time to happen to a child, but it takes only a few days.

The mother was about thirty years old. I learned later that when her village had been attacked by the Janjaweed she and her two daughters and son—the eldest was six years old—were held for a week. The mother was raped repeatedly. They released her and her children in the desert far from any villages, which was probably cheaper than using bullets on them, or else they wanted their seeds to grow inside her. She had walked for five days in the desert, carrying her children without food or water, and when she couldn’t carry them anymore, she sat under a tree. There was nothing she could do except watch her children die. She took her shawl and tied it to a high branch to end her life. We found her that same day, a few hours too late, and gently took her down and buried her beside her children.

After three months, we began to see white trucks over on the Chad side of the wadi; the aid groups that respond to crises were beginning to arrive. We could see them in the distance over the hot desert— sometimes great lines of them.

My six friends and I had tea over a dinner fire. I told them we should go into Chad and see what these groups could do now. We could help them.

“You go ahead, Daoud, and help your friends in the groups; you speak English, and so that is what you were meant to do,” the eldest of my friends said. Perhaps because we knew we were about to part, we tossed a little animal bone around in the moonlight, just as we had done as children but a little slower. In the game called Anashel, you have two teams of eight people each. We had three against four that night, but no one cared. Someone throws the bone far away into the sand. Everyone runs for it. If you are the one to find it, you try to run it back to the goal area without being caught and wrestled down, although you can throw it to your teammates. Someone finally got the Anashel bone to the goal and that was it for us forever.

On that last morning together, we shook hands warmly and embraced one another. While the sun had yet to rise in a very red sky, they rode east toward El Fasher on their camels, and I rode west. ai