The forgotten mountain people of Darfur

Friday September 16 2016

Women and children at the Marrah Mountains in Darfur. PHOTO | ADRIANE OHANESIAN

Thanks to technology and social media, an average person today sees dozens of pictures daily without giving much thought to them. I was flipping through pictures online a few months ago when one image stopped my finger in midair.

It is of a cave full of people in a mountain side, with light beaming in from the cave entrance revealing smouldering red coal from cooking fires.

The image is by Nairobi-based American photojournalist Adriane Ohanesian.

“I wanted to be there when the people were waking up,” said Ohanesian of the haunting picture.

She took the picture deep in the Marrah Mountains in the heart of Darfur, a conflict region in western Sudan, the land of the Fur people. “Dar” means “land” in Arabic and “fur” is the name of the ethnic group inhabiting the land.

“It’s an area nobody can get to easily.” Yet she did.


For years, no United Nations agency or international journalist had been granted permission by the government in Khartoum to visit the region. It has remained volatile and off the tourist map for almost a decade.

“What is known is Darfur from 10 years ago,” she said, referring to the “Save Darfur” movement in the US a decade ago when she first heard of Darfur. Back then the main concern was modern day slavery. There were stories of the dark-skinned Fur people being captured and “sold” into slavery by pro-government Arab militia.

“A lot of people thought that the conflict had ended but the truth is that it had escalated,” she explained, adding, “I knew I wanted to get to these mountains because nobody had been there in the past five years. There was no information coming out and I wanted to know what was happening.”

It took three years of planning with a Dutch journalist to figure out how to get to the rebel-controlled area. A dangerous journey by no means. “It was about making the right connections. The rebel group Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) controls the mountains that I was trying to get to.”

Daring into Darfur

Ohanesian’s curiosity about Darfur and the conflict there was stirred by young Sudanese students she met in Cairo in 2010 while visiting her friend in the city.

“They were inviting and hospitable. It was such a big contrast between the kindness of the Darfurians and the image I had of the conflict there and how the Sudanese government was intent on setting communities against each other.

The cycle of violence in Darfur has been described as “the Arab apartheid” with the pro-government Arab communities attacking the “dark-skinned” communities.

Ohanesian’s opinion is that “It’s a strategy to create conflict and keep the people occupied through fighting. It’s about control of resources by suppressing people.”

In the course of planning her journey into Darfur’s Marrah Mountains, Ohanesian had a rendezvous with Abdul Wahid Mohamed el-Nur, the SLA rebel leader and an ethnic Fur.

Educated at the University of Khartoum, Wahid graduated in 1995 with a law degree and worked as a lawyer. In June 1992, he and others, while still at the University of Khartoum, created the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and took up arms against Khartoum.

After three years of planning, Ohanesian and the Dutch journalist flew to Chad in 2015 where the plan was to cross into Darfur.

“The rebel group led by Wahid held the area at this time, and we had the support of his forces.” Ohanesian said this was the most frightening part of the journey — crossing the border into Darfur. The government was bombing the area day and night.

“We drove up in an old beat-up car before dark and into the desert. The next morning we were picked up by the rebel forces.


Photojournalist Adriane Ohanesian at the Marrah Mountains in Sudan’s Darfur region with Sudan Liberation Movement rebel fighters. PHOTO | ADRIANE OHANESIAN

“There’s just sand everywhere, no roads and only water from riverbeds. We were driving in the desert through abandoned farms, ruins of villages that had been attacked and you could tell the more recent attacks because of the burnt possessions — clothes, frames of beds, human and animal bones, smashed pottery and bullet cases.”

Of the collection of pictures of the journey, she points out one of a lifeless hand, fingers partially curled – effects of rigor mortis — lying in the sand. “That hand was of a government soldier. The rebels won’t bury the enemy but carry their dead away for burial,” she was told by the SLM/A forces.

Their destination was the Marrah Mountains which she said, “was the only area under the control of rebel fighters, so it was where civilians had fled to for safety.”

It was a long and dangerous journey. At some point, the group was forced to wait under a tree for a week until it was safe to continue. Communication with cellphones is impossible since the government has cut the signal off, unless of course, one has a satellite phone.

Finally they arrived at the mountains, and they had to leave the vehicles and walk for two days, 10-12 hours a day, into the depths of the mountains. “Most of the walking was at night because it is cooler while the days are scorching hot.

“The cave was in the centre of the mountains. We had walked for 10 hours to the base of the mountain but to reach the cave was another three-hour climb up a cliff. It’s the most physically demanding thing I have ever done,” she recalled.

At 3.30am on March 2, 2015 they headed up to the cave. “I wanted to be there when the people were waking up in the morning, lighting fires, preparing breakfast. There were 200 to 300 people in the cave.”

The haunting picture of the people in the cave was taken on that first day. Some had not seen a foreign person in five years, some never.


The haunting picture of a cave in the Marrah Mountains where the Fur people now live. PHOTO | ADRIANE OHANESIAN

There were mostly women and girls; some had been raped by government soldiers and had fled to shelter in the cave because the government had also bombed their villages in the valleys. The men were away fighting the infamous pro-government militia, the janjaweed.

Ohanesian spent the morning in the cave. “The people couldn’t go out much because of the bombings. The valleys in the mountains are green and the people grow food like potatoes to sustain themselves.

“The mountains are beautiful. One old man told us of the trade the communities used to do with the closest main towns. They were farmers and kept livestock. They took their produce to town and the old man remembered the first time he saw road blocks. It was in 2003.”

It was the start of the Darfur war.

Ohanesian said “The people of the mountains had among them soldiers who had obviously seen too much war and killings, children who made army tanks and Antonov bombers out of clay. Children who could barely walk knew the sounds of fighter jets and guns.”

Attention to the Darfur genocide began with reports by Amnesty International and International Crisis Group in 2003. But the widespread media coverage only followed when the outgoing United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, called Darfur the “world’s greatest humanitarian crisis” in March 2004.

Fighting for a cause

The rebel groups in Darfur are not fighting for independence unlike was the case in South Sudan. They want representation in the government and to be treated as equal citizens in Sudan, with basic human rights and dignity.

There is no government-developed infrastructure in western Sudan, where the Darfur region is. No healthcare, no schools, no water supply. They are neglected by the government. According to Ohanesian, there are few options for the internally displaced in Darfur.

They can stay where they are and get killed; flee to a refugee camp in Chad — which is a hostile country — or go to a refugee camp in government-controlled areas — which is basically going to live under the control of people who attacked you in the first place.

“Some of the older men living in the mountains have been fighting for a decade for what they deem is their right. The younger soldiers were in their 20s when the fighting broke out in Darfur and they remember government forces burning their villages. I met one young man who grew up in refugee camps and then joined the rebel group,” Ohanesian said of the Darfur fighters.

“I wanted to bring out information from a place where nobody had been to in many years,” she said. Her journey into Darfur was motivated by the drive to seek the truth and as a photojournalist, to document and provide information on the conflict there.

Her pictures and story of Darfur have appeared in Time and in British, Dutch, French and German media.

“Since January 2016, most of the places I was in have been taken over by government forces. Many villages have been burned, and the people have moved farther into the mountains and many more just don’t know where they are,” she said.

About Adriane Ohanesian

Ohanesian is a New York born freelance photojournalist. She graduated with a BA in cultural anthropology and conflict resolution from Colorado College, and later graduated from the International Centre of Photography’s photojournalism and documentary photography programme in 2010.

She is currently based in Nairobi and in 2012, began covering the news in South Sudan for Reuters. She documents the civil war in South Sudan, fighting in Somalia, clashes in Burundi, and most recently the conflict in Darfur.

Until now she had used her old Canon camera. “Photography isn’t about just the camera. Most of the photography is about sitting with people and speaking with them,” she said of her work.

When you meet for the first time you cannot fail to notice how young and petite she is.

Then you realise that her physical stature has not stopped her from working in war-torn countries.

In 2015, she was selected as one of Getty Image Emerging Photographers, and in 2016, she won a World Press Photo award for her work in Darfur. Her photographs have been published by Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, the New Yorker, and Time.

She has also been recognised as one of Magnum Photo’s “Top 30 under 30” and received LensCulture’s Emerging Talent award her photographs of women soldiers in rebel-controlled Kachin in Myanmar.