Yesterday, 200 displaced people left Kalma camp near Nyala, the provincial capital of South Darfur, on 20 trucks provided by the Sudanese government. They are part of the total 30,000 displaced people (or 6,000 families) the government plans to return to their areas of origin in West Darfur.
With a population of 110,000, Kalma camp is one of the world's biggest camps for displaced people. Its inhabitants had fled attacks on their villages in 2003 and 2004 and walked for days before reaching what they felt was a safer place in South Darfur. The camp was visited by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan two weeks ago.
UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration are carefully monitoring the return movements and are conducting interviews with the displaced people this week to make sure that they are returning to West Darfur on a voluntary basis. As of today, the agencies had interviewed 1,450 people (or 250 families).
"Their reasons for returning are varied," explains a UNHCR staff member in South Darfur. "Some people tell us that they want to go back to be reunited with their families who stayed behind, especially widows who lost their husbands during the conflict. They feel lonely here and just want to see their loved ones again after months and months of separation."
Hassan fled his village in the Waddi Saleh area of West Darfur a year and half ago after it was attacked by the Janjaweed militia who burned down all the houses and completely flattened the area. Hassan's cousin was shot dead; the rest of the family escaped and eventually reached Nyala. Hassan, his mother, wife and three children are now on the waiting list to go back to West Darfur.
"I want to go back now, just before the rainy season starts, to be able to plant sorghum and peanuts, which is what I used to plant before the conflict," explains Hassan. Like most people who have opted for return, he will stay with his family in a camp for displaced people in the Waddi Saleh area, "because it is safe to remain in a camp," he says. He plans to go back to his fields in the daytime to plant and later harvest, but will go back to the camp to spend the night.
"I leave my life in the hands of God," says Hassan. "It is important for us to cultivate now, we just want to get back to our land."
Several displaced people say that upon return, if they feel that the security situation in West Darfur has not improved, they will go back to South Darfur after the three-month cultivation period. They say they will sell part of their harvest to pay for public transport and return again to Kalma camp. But all hope that they will be able to remain safely in West Darfur.
Mohammed is from the same village as Hassan, but when the attack took place, he and his family fled west to Garsila in West Darfur. His brother and mother were killed during the attack.
"There were 6,000 people in the village and surroundings. Everyone fled, there is absolutely no one there now. The whole village is completely destroyed," says Mohammed. His food reserves were stolen: "199 bags of sorghum, millet, everything is gone. They also stole from me 64 cows, 36 goats, eight donkeys and one horse. The cart the horse used to pull was also stolen. I found it here in Garsila. But I was afraid to file a case for it, I was afraid of being killed."
Still, Mohamed feels that if the security situation improves, he is ready to go back to his village and rebuild his house. "I have a mango garden and a cane garden, I need to take care of them."
From South Darfur, it will take the displaced people several days to reach their final destinations in West Darfur's Zalinge, Garsila, Mornei, Bindisi and Mukjar towns. Teams from UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies in West Darfur will be closely monitoring their arrival.
"If people freely want to go back, the international community has a duty to provide them with assistance in their villages of origin," said Jean-Marie Fakhouri, UNHCR's Director of the Sudan and Chad Operation. "However, in view of continued concern over insecurity in some areas, we would rely on the human and logistic capacity of the African Union to be more present in areas of origin."
The conflict in Darfur has caused almost two million people to flee their homes for camps in the volatile region of western Sudan. Another 213,000 Sudanese refugees have escaped to neighbouring Chad where they are receiving assistance in 12 UNHCR camps.
By Helene Caux