Sudan: Plight of Darfur's displaced worse than ever

TAWILA, 21 October 2008 (IRIN) - As Sudan lobbies the international community for support in its fight to ward off looming charges of genocide against its president, arguing they would endanger the "great strides" the government is making towards peace, people displaced by more than five years of fighting in Darfur tell a different story.

"Since 2004 until today, there has been no resolution. The problems have only gotten worse," said a sheikh at a camp for displaced people in Tawila, 50km west of El-Fasher, state capital of North Darfur. At the beginning of the conflict, he told IRIN, attacks - if intense - were few and far between. "But now, weekly, there is a problem here. Weekly, janjaweed [government-sponsored militias], weapons, rape, looting."

The UN/African Union hybrid peacekeeping mission's base in Tawila is a prime example. A metre-wide gap in its barbed razor wire is a constant reminder of the day in May when the ruined town and the nearby camp that houses most of Tawila's residents came under attack. Desperate residents forced their way onto the base's buffer zone, seeking the UN's protection.

Police at Tawila camp deny any involvement and insist they are there for the protection of the displaced. The government blames the continuation of the conflict on rebels who refuse to negotiate.

While analysts describe the current conflict as "low-level", many displaced people say it is worse now than it has ever been.

Fighting between government and rebel troops in September saw attacks on villages reminiscent of the type of fighting that took place at the height of the conflict in 2003-4. In villages near Tabit town in North Darfur, burned houses, craters from bombs, and gun casings along the road are just some indications. Some 300,000 are estimated to have been newly displaced this year alone, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"The situation in Darfur is deteriorating," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told journalists at a press conference on 7 October.

"People who have been here a long time say this conflict is as bad now as it has ever been," one UN official added.

In another camp for displaced people in Zamzam, south of El-Fasher, residents are still reeling from an attack on their camp on 10 September, when government police entered the camp, shot people and looted the market.

"They pushed us out of our homes, and now they are coming after us again," said Mohamed Ramadan, a resident at the camp. "Before, you had some warning. You would hear the shooting early on, from far. Now, there is no warning. They say peace has come; there is security. Then all of a sudden, they enter."

Still, some say there is no comparison to 2003-4 when most of the 2.5 million displaced people fled their homes after widespread attacks on civilian villages. "But what has deteriorated," one aid worker told IRIN, "is access of the humanitarian agencies to the people in need. So the people's situation has deteriorated. People are more scared. They don't trust anyone anymore."

Loss of Hope

But the displaced are not the only ones losing hope.

Humanitarian workers and international peacekeepers are increasingly being directly targeted. On 6 October, a UN peacekeeper was killed after an ambush on a peacekeeping patrol. He is the ninth peacekeeper to die in Dafur in three months, according to the UN. This year, 170 humanitarian workers have been kidnapped or abducted - 41 of them are still missing. In September, 17 humanitarian vehicles were hijacked and 21 aid compounds were broken-into or attacked by armed men.

"At some point, there may need to be a line drawn, saying we've had enough," Alex Gregory, head of OCHA in North Darfur state, told IRIN. "It doesn't bode well that everyone has put so much effort and we're still in the situation that we are in Darfur four years [after] the conflict began.

"At some point, you just can't take anymore. Where are we going with this?"

According to several UN sources, the humanitarian community in Darfur is currently discussing what its pain threshold is and when to walk away.

"We need to know where the line is. Until now, it's been a line in the sand," said one senior UN official.

Still, he insisted that while the conflict continues, "there have been amazing results in this aid operation.People are not suffering unnecessarily because of a lack of relief."

But despite billions of dollars in aid and development funding, the introduction of a 13,000-strong peacekeeping force and the threat of an international arrest warrant against Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, there seem to be few signs of progress.

Humanitarians worry that with the end of the rainy season, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, increased government troop movement, the tactical unification of rebel groups and a looming decision by the International Criminal Court on whether to grant the arrest warrant against Bashir, things will only get worse.

And if and when the conflict does end, many wonder what the impact will be on Sudan's social, ethnic and tribal structure. Strong hatred has been created among tribal lines, traditional leaders have lost their authority, and young people have become accustomed to life in towns and large camps, making a return to their small villages unlikely.

"We've certainly not seen the end of it even if ever the situation normalises," the aid worker said.