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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Darfur Graves Unearth Evidence of Atrocities

MUKJAR, Sudan -- Uncovered by a restless wind, skulls and bones poke above the thin dirt in this corner of Darfur, lying surrounded by half-buried, rotting clothes.

A short, bearded man named Ibrahim, 42, scratched through the sand. He was quiet and serious, close to tears. There are other, bigger grave sites elsewhere, he said, but the bones he was looking at were those of 25 people who he was sure were his friends and fellow villagers. Some of them were dragged from the prison where he was held and were axed to death, he says.

Ibrahim was showing the burial ground to the first Western journalists to visit this town in more than a year. Western Sudan is about to enter a new phase in its four-year conflict -- one that villagers fear may encourage more killing.

Sudan's government recently agreed to let in 3,000 United Nations peacekeepers, a fraction of the 22,000 mandated by the UN Security Council last August. The deployment could still take months, and villagers here fear the government will want to get rid of all witnesses to atrocities before peacekeepers move in. "We need them to come as fast as possible, because we're all in danger," said Ibrahim.

Aid workers and UN personnel say the burial site is just one of three dozen mass graves around Mukjar, a town at ground zero of the Darfur calamity, holding evidence at the heart of the international community's case against Sudanese leaders for war atrocities.

Ibrahim and others interviewed insisted their full names be withheld because they feared reprisals.

Some of what the witnesses say matches up with what a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague has documented: at least 51 cases of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Mukjar area -- mass executions, torture and rapes of civilians.

Mukjar offers a sobering look at the results of a government victory: Impoverished and frightened ethnic Africans huddle in refugee camps where they survive on humanitarian aid, while Arab nomads control the hinterland, threatening any farmer who tries to return.

Aid workers say the town is like a security bubble, where refugees can live in relative safety as long as they don't venture more than a mile or so into the countryside.