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Resettling Darfur's Displaced Raises Questions

The blue helmets of UN peacekeepers distinguish them from the many armed groups in Darfur.
The blue helmets of UN peacekeepers distinguish them from the many armed groups in Darfur.

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Elizabeth Arrott

As Sudan's government and Darfur rebels move closer to a final peace, efforts are under way to build housing for some of the estimated 2.7 million people uprooted by the war.  There are concerns the new settlements could make internally displaced people permanently displaced.

There does not seem much to celebrate in this dusty, sun-scorched patch of Sudan, just east of the border with Chad.

But after seven years of devastating conflict, the new village of Habali Canari, and dozens more like it, are giving some people hope.  With the help of the Arab League there is now a mosque, a water station and other signs of basic modern life.

The emphasis is on basic.  There are no roads to the settlement - just tracks through the soft sands of the no-man's land of the desert.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa came to Habila Canari to officially open the project.  He says he hopes the village will help lure people out of the refugee camps where Darfurians sought protection.

"They want to be sure that their children will have a school, they will have some medical care, they will have some commodities, some goods available," he said.  "So that is what we are counting on."

The area saw some of the worst fighting of the conflict, which claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 people and displaced many times more.  

Sudan's government is eager to say the war is over.  In a show of reconciliation, members of the government-backed Janjaweed militia are brought together with farmers at Habila Canari's opening.  The uneasiness is palpable, with farmwomen, targeted by militias for rape and killing, performing for the Arab League delegation, not far from their former tormentors.

The conflict at the southern reaches of the Arab world has many sources.  Some emphasize a conflict between Arabs and Black Africans.  

There are also political machinations and rivalries, and an environmental angle as well.  As desertification pushes nomadic tribes further south, Janjaweed fighters drove farmers from their lands.

Which raises the question of who is it that will live in Habila Canari, and whether the "voluntary return" is a return or a resettlement.

Sudan's Ambassador to the Arab League, Abdel-Rahman Serr al Khetm, says the villages are meant to attract and keep people in "their new places."

"Actually, these places were their original areas," he said.  "They would have been there before the war, or before they were forced to go to the camps."

But the answers of villagers raise doubts about who is here.

One woman told VOA that she is vague about her ties to the area.  At first, she said that she has been here for four years, then she said seven years.  Finally she said that she had always been here, but is from another village.

Several others speaking under the watchful eye of government troops gave similarly circumspect answers.  

For a society without much infrastructure, let alone bureaucratic records even before the war, the questions may never be clearly answered.

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