After the death of her three sons, a heavily pregnant radio host fled war on foot in Sudan’s Darfur region and gave birth to a baby boy at the border crossing with Chad.
“I delivered him on the road. There were no midwives and no one to support me. Everyone was thinking for themselves. Everyone was running for their lives
“The baby came out, I wrapped it. I didn’t think of anything else. I kept walking towards Adre,” Arafa Adoum said when I met her in a refugee camp of tens of thousands on the outskirts of the Chadian city.
The 38-year-old said she walked 25km (15 miles) in the hot sun from her hometown of El Geneina with her four daughters, while her husband – for his own safety – took a longer and more strenuous route to reach the camp.
“When I arrived at the border, I found myself devastated and exhausted until I delivered the baby,” Ms Adoum said, pointing out that she had named her son Mohamed, after the Prophet of Islam.
She left behind the unburied corpses of her other boys – aged three, seven and nine – after she said they were killed by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied Arab militiamen at the center of the war that has been raging in Sudan since April.
Darfur is the worst affected area, with the RSF and militias accused of trying to establish Arab supremacy in the region by “cleansing” it of black Africans – including those from Ms Adoum’s Massalit community.
Unsurprisingly, the battle for El Geneina – historically a symbol of black African power in Darfur and the traditional capital of the Massalit kingdom – has been vicious.
“We tried to defend ourselves, but they were using very big weapons,” said Sheikh Mohammed Yagoub, an influential Muslim cleric and Massalit leader, who also became a refugee in Adre.
“In our region in one day we lost 82 [people] within three hours,” he added.
The RSF denied any involvement in the fighting, but said Darfur was witnessing the resurgence of an old conflict between Arab groups and the Massalit.
Giving her version, Ms Adoum said her three sons were killed at El Geneina University – where they were taking refuge – after it was shelled and set on fire by the RSF and the Janjaweed, as Arab militias are known.
“The three children were hit by the shells and lost their lives in the same place,” Ms Adoum said.
Several members of her extended family were also killed, she said, including her stepfather, who had both his legs “smashed”, one of his ears cut off, and then “they fired bullets, finishing him off”.
Mrs Adoum and her husband then fled with their four daughters, but he took to the roads again to avoid passing through the roadblocks manned by the RSF because the paramilitaries were – according to many refugees – killing Massalit men and boys, sometimes by dozing them with petrol and setting them on fire.
The couple reunited at the refugee camp, where her husband first cradled Mohamed – a child they consider a blessing after the loss of three sons.
The sheikh’s wife, Rakhiya Adum Abdelkarim, told me she was also pregnant, but lost her baby the day after reaching Adré – a walk that left her hungry, exhausted and weak.
“I started bleeding. Then I started having headaches, and all the while the blood was flowing. Then at dawn the fetus came,” she said.
A field hospital was set up in Adré by a charity, but Ms. Abdelkarim was unable to get there for treatment.
The hospital is overflowing with patients – mostly women, babies and children, some of whom have gunshot wounds.
One of the patients, Naima Ali, said she and her nine-month-old son were shot dead by an RSF sniper as they fled their village.
The boy was tied on his back, when a bullet hit him in the leg, and “me in the side, just missing my kidney”.
“We were both bleeding and no one was helping us,” she said, pointing out that she too continued to flee on foot until she reached the camp.
To end the atrocities, four East African states have called for the deployment of a regional peacekeeping force in Sudan, with Kenyan President William Ruto fearing the country is “destroyed” and there are “already signs of genocide” in Darfur.
A joint United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) peacekeeping force withdrew from Darfur in 2021, some 18 years after the conflict, which has claimed around 300,000 lives, first broke out in the region.
The conflict had sparked global outrage, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicting then-Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, which he denied.
When the peacekeepers withdrew, the UN said the decision was to “empower the Sudanese government to take over the maintenance of peace in the region”.
But since their withdrawal, Sudan has been hit by a coup and plunged into civil war in mid-April after its two most powerful generals – army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti – fell out.
Their feud reignited the conflict in Darfur, forcing more than 160,000 people from the Massalit community to flee to Chad. It is not known how many people were killed in the area, with the lowest estimate of the death toll in El Geneina being 5,000.
According to the Association of Professional Pharmacists of Sudan, the number is higher. It says 11,000 bodies were buried in mass graves in the city, while some refugees told the BBC they had seen corpses thrown into a river.
The RSF also ransacked the town of Zalingei, home to the Fur community, and surrounded the two largest towns in the region, Fasher and Nyala.
Many Darfurians fear it is the culmination of a long-standing plan to turn the ethnically mixed region into an Arab-ruled domain.
They say El Geneina – along with many other towns and villages – have been emptied of most of their inhabitants, with buildings and infrastructure – including hospitals and water stations – destroyed.
“What is happening is worse than what happened in 2003,” the sheikh said, pointing out that the most famous figures of the Massalit people – including doctors and lawyers – have been killed.
Ms. Adoum, host of the now silent Radio El Geneina, was lucky to survive when the RSF stormed the broadcaster’s premises at the start of the war.
“They came in and destroyed all the equipment and looted what they could,” she said.
Now Mrs. Adoum lives in a hut, built with sticks and pieces of clothing, not knowing if she will ever be able to return home.
“We came as refugees. Many died along the way. But we had to keep going,” she said as she held her three-week-old baby in her arms.
Another refugee ruled out returning, saying, “Who should I go back to? I’ve been here for weeks and the smell of rotting corpses in the streets of El Geneina has refused to leave my nose.”