By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU
KALMA, Sudan (AP) — U.N. peacekeepers in armored vehicles and pickup trucks whizzed into this refugee camp. A dozen women came to meet them, bringing their donkeys, water rations and homemade axes.
It was time for one of the refugees' most perilous tasks: collecting firewood.
Countless refugee women have been assaulted or raped, mostly by Arab janjaweed militiamen, after leaving the relative safety of their camps to gather wood in the open wilderness of Sudan's Darfur region. Most men don't even leave the camps because they risk being killed.
But one of the first steps taken by U.N. peacekeepers since they launched their mission in Darfur in January is to restore "firewood patrols" to protect women on their forays outside Kalma, home to 90,000 refugees and one of the region's largest camps.
The women walking out of Kalma one morning in late January were smiling and waving hellos as their leader, Khadidja Abdallah, came up to greet the peacekeepers who had come to escort them.
It was a stark contrast to nearly a year ago, in May, when an Associated Press reporter first met Khadidja. Then, the "sheikha," or woman chief, was cowering in a mud hut deep inside Kalma, trying to comfort seven refugee women who had been gang-raped while collecting firewood.
African Union peacekeepers in place then had halted firewood patrols because they felt powerless to stop violence. Khadidja and the woman bitterly complained that the AU force had all but given up on protecting Darfur civilians.
More than 2.5 million people have fled to camps around Darfur in the war between the Arab-dominated Khartoum government and ethnic African rebels. The government is accused of unleashing the janjaweed, who are blamed for widespread atrocities against ethnic African villagers and refugees. Read more >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>