The UN refugee agency says abandoned villages in West Darfur are being burned by Janjaweed militias, apparently in an attempt to prevent displaced people from returning home. Nevertheless, the UNHCR says some 20,000 Sudanese have left camps in Chad and Darfur to return to their villages. Some view the move as either brave or foolhardy.
Kitty McKenzie is a spokesperson for the UN agency and was in Darfur just a few days ago, where she witnessed the burned villages. From Khartoum, she spoke to English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about what she saw.
She says, “Just last Friday I went to a village in West Darfur called Seraf, which had been burned four days earlier. And there’s absolutely nothing left in the entire village, except some blackened pots and the mud bricks of the homes. The thatched roofs that used to stand on top of the houses were completely burned and the ground is scorched and blackened.”
Ms. McKenzie believes the burned villages stood as a warning. She says, “We went back with a man who used to live in that particular village of Seraf and his interpretation is that it’s a message from the Janjaweed not to try to go back home because it’s coming close to the rainy season and people ordinarily would like to plant some crops…Sometimes people get tired and disgusted with living as displaced people and think that no matter how bad it is, they want to go home to their villages.”
Between last October and November about 55 villages were burned in Masteri, some 50 kilometers south of the West Darfur capital of El Geneina. It now appears the burning has resumed.
Despite that, 20,000 are returning home. The UNHCR spokesperson says, “They are extremely concerned. Security is their top concern…and up over a million prefer to remain in these camps for displaced people. So, I don’t want to overstate the case. There are about 20,000 who have decided to go home. And quite often these are elderly women, for example, who have seen their entire lives and social structures disrupted. And the way of life of these people is totally changing. The men cannot farm anymore; they cannot support their families. The women are being raped. They’ve had to give up all their cultural activities. They can’t celebrate their religious festivals. So, some of the elderly people just see this as too much trauma and too much disruption of their lives. And I think perhaps their unwritten idea or unspoken idea is that they want to go home and die in their villages rather than die in a camp for displaced people. So, I would not say that it’s an extremely optimistic signal.”
There is some good news, though, African Union troops have been escorting women who been leaving the camps to collect firewood and that protection has reduced the number of rapes.