Refugees dream remains out of reach – Business Day/Opendemocracy



Life in Darfur's camps is rudimentary. Cooking is done over a fire, but gathering firewood puts women at risk (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

HARIAN, a mother of five, smiles and chats as nutrition staff from the Dublin-based charity Goal wrap a measuring tape around 14-month-old Insaf’s arm. Harian takes the indicator cards entitling her family to supplementary feeding at the nearby clinic at the Fata Borno camp for conflict-displaced people in north Darfur. Insaf is underweight and the whole family is technically malnourished. This camp has been their home for two-and-a-half years.

On May 5 this year, the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudanese government and one faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLA), led by Minni Minawi. That faction is militarily more potent than the rest of the SLA, but is itself splintering in the wake of the peace agreement.

The more popular faction of the SLA, led by Abdul Wahid Mohamed Nur, remains outside the agreement. So too does the Justice and Equality Movement, militarily powerless and lacking grassroots support in Darfur, but with a pan-Sudanese agenda and links to opposition forces in other regions of the country.

The Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir is more aware than most of the structural flaws in the agreement. It recently ordered a suspension of the work of the United Nations (UN) in Darfur after protesting that a dissident commander of Minawi’s SLA, Suleiman Jamous, was transported in a UN helicopter. Al-Bashir reinforced the message this week when he voiced opposition to the planned replacement of the 7000 African Union (AU) forces currently working in Darfur with UN peacekeepers.

It is another of the peace agreement’s telling gaps that it makes no provision for the handover from the AU to the UN. The agreement does mandate the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed militias who have wreaked havoc on the people of Darfur.

However, the Khartoum government has insisted it has no involvement with the gangs responsible for much of the death, sexual violence and displacement in Darfur, so it is unclear how it can oversee their demobilisation. In any case, people in this region do not trust the government to do so.

The AU Peace and Security Council voted on March 10 to extend its mission in Darfur until September 30 this year and to “support in principle” its transformation into a UN force. The position of al-Bashir that a UN mission will not be allowed into Darfur raises doubts about whether this is attainable.

None of this bodes well for Harian, Insaf and the hundreds of displaced people in Fata Borno camp — part of an estimated total number of 1,8-million people displaced by the conflict.

The cramped Fata Borno camp sits on a sun-baked plateau a few miles from a lush wadi (riverbed). Before the outbreak of fighting in 2003, camp-dwellers were mostly farmers, growing sorghum, onions and fruit.

Such camps are supposedly safe havens, but members of the Janjaweed prowl outside — and sometimes inside. The Arab militia is accused of being the vanguard of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has seen one-third of Darfur’s population driven from their homes.

Harian’s father Abdullah says: “It is not safe to go outside the camp — even though there is firewood just a two-minute walk away, and our farms are only an hour’s walk from here.”

On market day in Kutum, people from the camps try to get to the town to buy essential items, while those with access to their farms go to sell their produce. However, as Abdullah reminds me, “We need an AU escort to go to Kutum. It is not safe otherwise.”

If security is not improved, the displaced will be increasingly vulnerable to the direct effects of the fighting, as well as insecurity regarding food and health care.

One consequence of the peace accord has been increased military fragmentation on the ground and a decrease in aid agencies’ ability to reach the vulnerable. As long as insecurity prevails, food cannot be delivered.

The combined effects of three factors — the defective peace agreement, UN troops a minimum of six months away and an unstable situation on the ground — spell potentially even greater tragedy for Darfur.

Just 200m from the edge of the camp, a row of bare trees marks the borderline Abdullah refers to. “We see Janjaweed there every day, yet we cannot do anything but look beyond those trees. Our future is there,” he says.

The villages and farms of the people staying at Fata Borno are close by, but the distance to the future Abdullah speaks of still seems immense.

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