An Attack on the Will to Learn
The walls of the school at Kailek village were made of straw and sticks, so the bullets went right through them.
As the children studied one morning about six months ago, armed Arabs on camels and horses attacked the village in Sudan’s Darfur region and surrounded the school. They raised their weapons and fired again and again, gunning down the trapped children and teachers.
The most haunting memory of that terrible day is the sound of children screaming and weeping.
“I saw the janjaweed shooting the children with Kalashnikovs and students shouting and crying,” said Ibrahim Abdullah, 37, referring to the Arab militias. Three of his children were at the school.
He tried to run to the school with other parents, but there were too many horsemen, too many bullets. “We had no chance to help them. We stopped from a distance to watch, and then we ran.”
His son Adam Ibrahim Abdullah, 9, and an adopted nephew, Haroun Sherif, 13, died in the hail of bullets. Two daughters, 8 and 12, escaped. Six teachers and 36 children were killed, Abdullah said.
Afterward, the attackers burned the schoolbooks.
It was the third time in two years that the Kailek school had been set upon. Two months before the final attack, two teachers and seven students were slain, Abdullah said.
The assaults on Kailek were not isolated incidents. In many villages across Darfur, schools have been targeted by the marauding militias. Some have even been bombed.
World opinion is divided on whether the campaign of attacks on indigenous African tribes by Arab militias in Darfur amounts to genocide. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell this month accused the Sudanese government and pro-government Arab militias of genocide. Sudanese authorities -- dismissing the charge as an attempt to win African American votes in the U.S. presidential election -- portray the Darfur crisis as part of the tribal conflict over land between Arab herders and African farmers going back a decade.
But for many victims, the school attacks and killings of teachers seem far from random. In the villages of Shataya and Bindis, locals say they have evidence of premeditation, maintaining that Arab teachers left several days before the carnage.
“They don’t want our people and our children to learn anything,” said Abdullah, who now lives in this refugee camp near the town of Nyala.
Although it is impossible to determine whether there was a policy of exterminating educated people in a campaign that has left as many as 50,000 dead, the leaders of Darfur’s black African tribes say the attacks fit into a continuum of discrimination by authorities in the capital, Khartoum.
That fierce sense of injustice led to a rebellion by two black African groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, which took up arms early last year seeking a greater share of the country’s resources. And it underscores the deep reservoir of ethnic mistrust and hatred that must be overcome before peace is possible.
The government, for its part, distributed a booklet to international journalists saying it had expanded services such as schools and medical clinics in Darfur since seizing power in a 1989 coup.
The chief of the Fur people in Nyala, Ahmed Abdul Rahman Rijal, said in an interview at his home there that the government has always failed to protect Africans from Arab attacks.
“The government is steadfast in its policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing, using airplanes to bombard villages,” Rijal said. He described the rebels as “our boys. They raised arms to protect our people.”
Rijal, who recounted that in 1956 he became the first person from Darfur to graduate from Khartoum University, said the level of education among his people had since fallen.
“The policies of the government since independence [in 1956] were pro-Arab,” he said. “We felt the government was backing the Arab tribes over the African tribes, giving them more chances to learn while the African tribes were kept as they were. This feeling of segregation between African and Arab tribes became very prominent under the present regime.”
He said most of the government, police and security posts were filled by Arabs while the level of education among African tribes was low.
A State Department report released this month that was based on more than 1,100 interviews with Darfur refugees in Chad said the Sudanese government had encouraged an Arab alliance in Darfur to keep non-Arab groups in check. It disarmed non-Arabs but allowed Arabs to keep their weapons. In the early 1990s, Arab militias destroyed 600 non-Arab villages and killed 3,000 people, the report said.
The report found a consistent pattern of atrocities, killings and rapes currently in Darfur. It said more than 400 villages had been destroyed and at least 100 bombed, and that Arab militia and government military activity was closely coordinated.
Jemera Rone, a Human Rights Watch researcher who recently visited western Darfur, believes that Arab militias attacked whatever service infrastructure they found in villages, including schools, mosques, clinics and water towers.
“We saw a number of [schools] that were destroyed, thoroughly trashed and vandalized. Sometimes they were burned,” she said. The victims saw it as the militias’ drive to “destroy everything good that they had, everything that belonged to them.”
Although many villagers see the school attacks as part of a broader effort to wipe out as many people as possible, others believe the schools were specifically targeted.
Abdulkarim Juma Hamiz, 40, said the five non-Arab teachers at the Shataya secondary school were shot in their beds when militias attacked at 6 in the morning last September. Arab teachers had left several days before.
“We found five bodies,” he said. “No one had a chance to run.”
He saw the attack as an effort to stop black indigenous people from being educated. “I think the teachers were killed because of the government. It was the government’s hand to stop learning and education.”
In an attack on the village of Bindis in August of last year, Arab militiamen invaded the secondary school and shot four teachers, including headmaster Hassan Mohammed Nour, 56. As he lay dying, he brushed aside the water someone offered. He begged his son, a teacher named Khalid Hassan Mohammed, to leave him to die and escape to safety.
“They shot him in the head and in the stomach,” said Mohammed, 26. “When he fell, I went to him. He said, ‘Run to save yourself because now I am dying.’ My brother, Abdul Gadir, was killed trying to help my father.” Mohammed’s last memory of his father is his final struggle to speak and the last, weak gesture of his hand, urging his son to run.
“After a few minutes, the janjaweed came again, running from all sides, and I ran away to the mountains on the other side of the village, “ Mohammed recalled.
“They killed any black person who was a teacher. The purpose was to get rid of black African people with qualifications.” Blacks working in government offices were killed too, he said.
In Mershing, in south Darfur, 15-year-old Zubaida Abdullah saw her brother, Jamar Abdul Ibrahim, 50, a teacher, shot down by militias. She said four other teachers were slain by militia gunmen in the school office.
Dozens of students and teachers were killed by bombs that hit schools in Shataya, Bindis, Kailek, Kaitinyara and Mershing, according to witnesses.
So deep is African tribes’ resentment against Arabs in Darfur that any Arab is seen as a potential attacker. One sheik in the Otash refugee camp, Abdulkarim Adam Eeka, 37, said his people did not trust the doctors or medicine at a clinic there because the doctors were Arab.
“We cannot believe their medicine or their help,” he said. “Maybe we’ll die of disease, hunger or whatever, but we don’t need any Arab help at all.”
A student and former shopkeeper from Kuja, Hafiz Arabi Mohammado, claimed that 27 members of his extended family had been killed by Arab militias since 2000, including his father and brother.
The attackers “came to kill all the people in an area because the purpose was to get rid of all black people,” he said.
“God cannot save them. A dog cannot do such bad deeds as this.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.