Hay Al Jebel neighbourhood is “a ghost town” in Ag Geneina
Driving through the Hay Al Jabal neighbourhood of Ag Geneina town is like driving through a ghost town. There is a sense of surreal tranquillity, with almost complete lack of residents in most parts and many houses or traditional huts called rakubas torched. The burnt and cracked remains of earthen pots are silent witnesses of the calamity that had befallen the area.
It has been about a month since a wave of inter-communal violence engulfed parts of Ag Geneina, including Hay Al Jabal, with people fleeing violence, firefights in the streets, houses torched and looted. “When the fighting started near our house, we all fled to Abuzar camp, with our children, and only our clothes on and some small things. We ran for our lives as there was a heavy shooting,” Sarah (not her real name), a 25-year old resident of Hay Al Jabal neighbourhood, said near her torched house.
“We lost everything, everything was burned down, the sacks of millet and other food we had, even our kitchen utensils were either taken or burned,” Sarah said.
Sarah and her family arrived in the area in 2003 when the conflict started in Darfur. They were displaced from an area outside of Ag Geneina. After 18 years, they are now displaced again. She and her seven children, and her parents are now sheltering in the nearby Abuzar camp.
Her house is in a part of the neighbourhood inhabited mainly by members of Massalit, Zaghawa and Bargo tribes. She used to sell some groceries and other supplies in the market to make a living. Now she is trying to make a meagre income by washing clothes for other people or cleaning their houses. “Whatever money I manage to make we buy food,” Sarah said, adding her husband is now unemployed.
The parts of the neighbourhood where people of Arab descent live were also affected by fighting. “An RPG rocket landed just near our house and bullets were flying around, while we tried to keep the children and women deeper inside the house,” said Muntasir (not his real name), the father of five who has over 10 people, including his five grandchildren, in his household.
“When the people with arms came over, we managed to hide our Massalit neighbours and protect them,” he said. “We have been living here for more than 20 years with our Massalit, Zaghawa and Bargo neighbours without any problems, but now our area looks like a war zone.”
His extended family is staying at home and schools are closed or occupied by people displaced by conflict. Muntasir’s elder son cannot go to work as the areas he needs to go to may not be safe for him.
Following the recent wave of violence in Ag Geneina, there is a deep polarization and increased apprehension. People of visibly Massalit appearance do not go to areas inhabited by Arabs and vice versa, Arabs do not go to Massalit areas for fear of being targeted.
Meanwhile, all parts of Hay Al Jabal are suffering from lack of water and electricity. During the violence in early April, the water pumps and generators powering the electricity and water systems were damaged, and the people who were operating them fled.
“We just came back to try and salvage whatever we can, but as you see nothing is left, only ashes,” said Sarah. "How can we live here, without water and with no roof over our heads? We don’t even have a kas [cup] to drink from.”
Muntasir echoed Sarah’s sentiments. “We have not had running water for almost a month. We buy one and a half of barrels of water delivered by water cart sellers for 3,000 SDG [about US$7.7], which lasts for only one day as we are more than 10 people in the household. We have to buy bottled water for drinking as the water delivered by water carts is too salty.”
The neighbourhood did not have power for about two weeks. “When there is no electricity, there is no water,” Safia, Sarah’s sister said.
Sarah and her extended family approached the Abuzar camp officials for help, but they were told that they are not IDPs registered in the camp and that aid workers would come and assist them in their neighbourhoods. “So far, nobody has come and asked us what we need, nor how we are surviving,” she said.
While there is police presence in various parts of the neighbourhood, mainly the Central Reserve Police deployed from Khartoum, some residents are still not convinced it is safe to return to their homes. “We want to be sure of our safety before we return, that is the first thing. Then what do we return to? There is nothing left, no food, nothing to cook in and keep supplies, not even a sareer [traditional bedframe] to sleep on. We need help so that we can start going back,” Khadija, another resident in her 30s, said with frustration in her voice.
While the security situation remains tense and unpredictable in Ag Geneina, humanitarian organisations have been scaling up response to meet the needs of people affected. About 124,400 people received food assistance, over 51,000 can access healthcare services and about 30,000 people have access to safe water.
However, there are various challenges that the aid agencies face. Diminishing funding is a major issues, which may result in many people like Sarah not receiving the assistance they desperately need. “We are glad that we are living and able to eat, what can we do? Allah Kareem [God is gracious],” said Sarah referring to the expression used by Sudanese for hope.