Outside camp walls, life still treacherous for Darfur refugees

Rachia Bakr Mohammad lies under a mosquito net, tended to by her sister. Two months ago, Ms. Mohammad says, she left the confines of this refugee camp to collect firewood and was whipped by an Arab from the militia known as the Janjaweed.

But that did not stop her. This week she was out again, climbing a tree, reaching to the farthest branches when a man approached. She was pulled down and raped.

When asked if she wants to go home, she replies softly: "Go home? How? I cannot even go outside."

Sudanese President Omar El Bashir insists that security in western Sudan is improving. "There are large numbers of people now leading normal lives," he told reporters in Khartoum, adding that he had heard no reports of the Janjaweed terrorizing people.

But Mohammad's sobering story and other evidence contradict the president's assertions. Starting Thursday the United Nations will begin reconciling these conflicting realities, determining whether the Sudanese government has fulfilled its promise to secure the Darfur region so the 1.4 mil- lion refugees can return home. Right now the continued presence of the Janjaweed, the realization that there is nothing left back in their villages, and the relative comfort of the camps is holding people in place, leading to a growing dependence on outside aid. If Darfur can't be made safe soon, say aid workers, what the UN calls the world's biggest humanitarian crisis may become an intractable one.

After 18 months of brutal conflict, reports of killings and mass burning of homes by the Janjaweed are indeed becoming rare. Still, African Union monitors confirmed claims that the Sudanese military bombarded a village just this past weekend.

According to a report released last week by Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international monitoring body, the Janjaweed, far from being disarmed by the government, are roaming free, precariously close to the camps housing those they have already terrorized. The report says the Janjaweed maintain at least 16 military camps in Darfur.

"Even more ominous," says the report, "the Sudanese government has incorporated members of the Janjaweed militia and its leaders into the police and the Sudanese army."

Nothing to return to

When she returned from the forest, barefoot and without her shirt or axe, Mohammad was taken to the Sisi clinic. A midwife examined her and prescribed an aspirin for the pain. Hers was the second reported rape this month and the eighth since aid organizations working here asked Ahmed Abdullah Isaac, a medic, to keep track three months ago. But many others, says Zainab Khatir, a protection officer for Save the Children-USA, never report "because of shame."

According to the HRW report, these rapes are often accompanied by dehumanizing epithets, stressing the ethnic nature of the deed. "The rapists use the terms 'slaves' and 'black slaves' to refer to the women," says the report.

Besides the insecurity, many internally displaced people, or IDPs, say they won't go home because they have no homes to return to - their huts burned, animals stolen, and their loved ones' graves desecrated. Mr. Isaac claims that 68 people were killed by the Janjaweed in Nur, his village. The community buried the bodies, but the attackers took them out of the ground and burned them, he says. "They don't want us to yearn for the graves of our families," he explains.

Others tell of bodies being exhumed and thrown in wells to contaminate the water. "Who wants to go back to a poisoned well?" asks Khadoch Osman Ali, who fled her village, Orbe, after her husband was killed.

And there are other factors at play when it comes to a voluntary return. The growing reliance on aid is also taking it toll, as it so often does in such emergency situations. Sisi residents, many of them here for six months or more, look like they are getting used to the food handouts, schooling, clean water, and more provided here - things they never had back in their villages.

"We have many programs here," muses Ms. Ali. "At home, we did not have such things."

And finally, with the dislocation and the break up of traditional social structures, new leaders are arising, some of whom might have an added interest in staying put, pressuring the community.

"Who wants to go home?" bellows Sisi's camp commander, a former wrestling champ known by all as Khamis, as he shows guests into the makeshift classroom filled with pupils. "No one! That's right!" he cheers. "We will never go back."

Khamis's appointment is new, and its process unclear. But for now, his status elevated, he spends his days helping organize food distributions and unofficially advising international aid organizations.

The older sheikhs, left without herds, land, or any real role have receded into the background. At meetings they sit at Khamis's feet. "There is no one in this world that does not feel attached to his land," admits Nur Ishmael Baraka, the sheikh of Nur, who once owned 100 sheep and 50 cows. "But for security we are willing to give up land and dignity."

Where are the people?

Two miles out of Sisi camp policemen on patrol call out to some visitors.

"Come see," they cry, "the villagers are going home." Five families from Sisi have voluntarily returned to their village of Jajake, they claim. Khamis has heard these stories and says it's all a big trick.

"The government lured them with promises they could till the land," he explains, "but when they arrived they were held by force."

Before setting out to see the returned IDPs, the policemen take the visitors to their base, offering dates and tea. One has a twin brother living in Chicago and wants to practice his English. Another is curious for news about the Olympics.

Finally, the policemen set off, leading the way to the returnees. The country looks empty, and the dirt road twists and turns. Several Janjaweed are grazing their camels here. But still the policemen drive.

Finally, they suggest coming back another day. Where are the returnees? What about the policemen's story? What about Khamis's story? These questions are left, like many other matters here, unclear.

But what is clear is that in the place where the returnees cannot be found, hidden among the high grass, are charred black circles where huts once stood. Remains of lives interrupted lie scattered: a broken cooking pot, a charred bracelet, a battery, and a padlock still clinging tight to a piece of tin - all that's left, it seems, of someone's front door. Baby melons are growing here, their vines rampaging through the ruins, and lizards peep curiously from under tumbled mud walls.

"I suppose, one day, I would like to see the land around my home," remarks Mohammad in her bed back at the camp. "But I don't think that time will come soon." Her sister pats her head and asks the visitors if they might like some tea. There is wood today, for a small fire.

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