As violence continues in Darfur, children go missing and families are torn apart

© UNICEF video
Hundreds of children are reportedly missing in the wake of militia attacks on villages in Sudan’s West Darfur region.

SIRBA, Sudan, 22 February 2008 – Hundreds of children are unaccounted for, following militia attacks on villages in Sudan's West Darfur region.

“There are an unknown number of children aged 12 to 18 who are missing, especially boys. Nobody knows what has happened to these children,” said UNICEF’s Head of Office for West Darfur, Naqibullah Safi.

UNICEF and its UN partners sent an assessment mission to the towns of Sirba and Abu Surouj following government-backed militia attacks in West Darfur’s northern corridor earlier this month. The team found that thousands of residents had fled their homes in the towns after multiple buildings were burned in the attacks.

Protecting ‘community assets’

When residents returned to comb through what was left after the attack on Sirba and other communities in the area, they reported that more than 40 children had gone missing or become separated from their families. It is not clear what has happened to the children, but it appears that some have been killed and some may have fled across the border to Chad.

© UNICEF video
Children in Sirba, where more than 40 of their peers are unaccounted for, while many more remain displaced.

“Part of our family are here and part are in Chad,” said Abu Bakr Eissa, 24, a displaced student. “We want, at least, security. If there were [international] forces here, security should be 100 per cent, so then we would stay,” he added.

“As different forces fight, whether it’s JEM [the Justice and Equality Movement] or the government – or anybody else involved in the fighting – they should protect things like health centres, schools, water points, and also avoid anything that allows children to be separated from their families,” said UNICEF Representative in Sudan Ted Chaiban.

“Schools should be safe havens,” he continued. “Civilian populations should be able to hide and to protect themselves by going to a school and be safe from the fighting.” Such “community assets,” said Mr. Chaiban, “must be respected by the different parties.”

A deteriorating situation

The government attacks in West Darfur were mounted to reclaim areas that had been captured by JEM forces late last year. The security situation has deteriorated so sharply in the past two months that the UN has called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and warned that the region needs many more peacekeepers.

© UNICEF video
UNICEF Representative in Sudan Ted Chaiban called upon all parties in the Darfur conflict to respect “safe havens” for children.

The UN also says that its efforts to bring humanitarian relief to those in need are being severely undermined due to continued attacks on populations in Darfur – part of an ongoing conflict that has pitted rebels against government forces and allied militias since 2003.

More than 200,000 people have been killed and at least 2.2 million others have been forced to flee their homes in the Darfur conflict.

‘Feeling so insecure and vulnerable’

Khamisa Abdallah, a mother of seven whose husband was killed two years ago, cried as she told a visitor that six of her children were missing following the recent attacks.

“Coming up here is when reality hits, and it's talking to women who’ve lost their children or people who don’t have food, who are feeling so insecure and venerable,” said Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan Ameera Haq. “So you understand what the needs are and what the gaps are.”

There have been continued bombardments in West Darfur – the most recent in Jebel Moun, where attacks this week affected an estimated 20,000 people who are now in need of humanitarian assistance. As long as the violence continues, children are at ever more risk – and there is a danger that the children who are unaccounted for will be lost forever.




22 February 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Amy Bennett reports on recent violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, which has left many children missing.
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