Sudan: Darfur refugees trickle home as AU aids security

By Opheera McDoom

HABILA KONARE, Sudan, March 20 (Reuters) - In a barren Darfuri village in Sudan's remote west there are fresh signs of life. Farmers are trickling back to the homes and plots of land they had abandoned to raiding militias.

They say African Union forces deployed around Habila Konare have restored some of their trust in authorities after three years of conflict during which the line between protector and predator was often blurred.

"Now there is good security and people are back to plant in time for the harvest," said resident Yagoub Mohamed Yahia.

He said since AU forces last visited the village a few months ago around 300 people had returned from squatter camps near the state capital el-Geneina, where they had taken refuge in 2003.

Those who have returned can even leave the village to look for firewood without fear of attack, Yahia added.

That statement in another part of the world might seem insignificant but in Darfur it is a sign of immense progress. For three years Darfuris have been unable to perform even the most basic daily tasks for fear of rape and murder.

Habila Konare is just one of hundreds of deserted or burnt villages in Darfur, where more than 2 million mostly non-Arab Darfuris have fled attacks by marauding Arab militias, known locally as Janjaweed, to miserable makeshift camps in the region the size of France.

The village's inhabitants, of the non-Arab Massaleit tribe, fled during the widespread campaign of violence that Washington has called genocide -- a charge Khartoum denies.

During the height of the conflict, rebels who rose against the government in 2003 accused the government of arming the Janjaweed and orchestrating joint attacks against civilian villages.

Darfuris lost all confidence in the local government, police and army. But now there are signs that trust is being restored.

Neat piles of straw used for building huts and firewood were strewn across the village, and fresh donkey dung covered the dusty soil. "We came back a while ago and things are fine," said smiling mother-of-three Halima Abdallah.

Her three small boys chewed slowly on bread rolls given to them by an armed AU soldier.

Habila Konare is about 24 km south-east of el-Geneina and is surrounded by Arab nomads. Yahia said some nomads near the village had taken part in raids, but relations were now better.

A 7,000-strong AU force is deployed in Darfur to monitor a widely ignored truce between the warring parties. Despite a lack of manpower, funds and equipment they have made an impact.

The AU regularly undertakes confidence-building patrols in the area.

Those on patrol have to tread carefully, trying not to threaten local police or scare the residents. Vehicles approach the heavily guarded police post in Habila Konare slowly and cautiously, flashing their hazard lights.

AU troops have been kidnapped, and even ambushed and killed by renegade armed groups in Darfur. The militias, rebels and the Sudanese army all carry heavier weapons than the peace monitoring force, making them a soft target to those who view them as a threat.

The AU also monitors and advises local police. The local head of police Hassan Saeed Mohamed told them he had set up a 24-hour post in a trouble spot for armed Arab bandit attacks.

"Since then there's been no attacks," he said. He commands about 60 well-armed police, who have set up their headquarters in the old school guarded by large machine guns.

Women gathering straw to sell at the town market waved at AU troops as they passed by on the road. Months before, this and other roads in West Darfur state were unsafe for travel.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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