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Darfurians Could Lose Land They Fled

Obscure Law, if Applied, Would Let Sudan Seize Acreage Abandoned for a Year

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page A16

NYALA, Sudan -- The name "Darfur" comes from the Arabic word "dar," meaning home, and "Fur," the largest African tribe in this war-ravaged region.

But more than a million Darfurians, driven from their ancestral homelands by government-backed Arab militias, could lose their land if authorities invoke a little-known law that allows the government to take over land abandoned for one year, relief officials and human rights groups said.

Government-backed militiamen have pushed more than a million Darfurians off their farmland, which now may be imperiled by a Sudanese tenure law. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Refugees in Darfur A Continuing Crisis: Saida Koomis Idris, 16, is treated by nurse Hasanea Ahmed for wounds she received when Sudanese policemen moved internally displaced people to a new camp.
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Ambassador to Leave U.N. Job Next Month (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
For a Small Girl in Darfur, A Year of Fear and Flight (The Washington Post, Nov 26, 2004)
New Pilgrims, Familiar Dreams (The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2004)
Violence Fractures Cease-Fire In Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
Violence in Darfur Inspires Surge In Student Activism (The Washington Post, Nov 23, 2004)

For centuries, Darfur residents have been allowed to own and distribute their land according to tribal customs. The rest of Sudan, however, is governed by the 1984 Sudan land tenure law. If imposed on Darfur, it would have dire implications for 1.7 million displaced inhabitants now living in squalid camps in Sudan or neighboring Chad. As tens of thousands of Darfurians approach the anniversary of fleeing their villages, there is growing suspicion among U.N. observers and international human rights groups that the Sudanese government plans to use the obscure law to keep the displaced -- mostly African farmers -- from reclaiming their land.

With government and rebel attacks continuing in the countryside, many families in the refugee camps are still afraid to go home. Most are unaware of the law, which states that after one year their land can be immediately taken over by new owners, who could legally claim the property in court after living on it for 10 consecutive years.

In recent weeks, tense conversations have been held between the government and U.N. and relief officials, who say they fear the outcome of land seizures could be tragic. International organizations said they would negotiate to have the law suspended.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has called for a forum on the issue, saying that if the law is applied and the international community does not pressure the government to suspend it, the result could be an endless cycle of anger and bloodshed in Darfur, where land is the primary form of wealth.

"There has to be a lot of pressure . . . to send a clear message: Don't do this," said Tony Hall, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. World Food Program, who visited Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, last week. "The effects of this could be horrendous. Even if you get the displaced to go home, they would not own their land anymore. They might have to rent it or be forever homeless. I think we would then see a conflict and death toll that would be horrifying."

The law cuts to the heart of the conflict in the rugged farm region of Darfur, where increasingly long droughts and the gradual advance of the Sahara Desert over the last two decades -- at six miles a year -- have sent Arab herders south onto largely African tribal land.

There have been periodic clashes over land, including a three-year war in the 1990s when the governor in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, decided to give some land to a group of Arabs. The land belonged to the African Masalit tribe, and the results were violent: 312 Masalits and 220 Arabs dead; 606 Masalit huts and 902 Arab huts burned. As this type of tension continued to grow, farmers, students and political activists from three of Darfur's African tribes started a rebellion in February 2003 against the government, complaining that the Arab ruling elite had failed to develop the area.

Arab nomads, called on by the government to help put down the rebellion, responded by burning farms and villages, looting livestock, destroying wells and pillaging stored grain. The government also bombed villages, leaving roofless huts and huge craters along Darfur's shattered landscape.

The Bush administration has termed the atrocities genocide, but the Sudanese government insists they are the result of civil war started by rebels. Analysts said official efforts to move populations, part of a plan to solidify power and control resources, have been going on for decades.

"Moving people off of land is part of a long pattern on the part of the government of Sudan," said John Prendergast of the nonprofit International Crisis Group. "Let's not forget history. In the south, 2 million people have died due to war -- 30 times as many as have perished in Darfur."

In the 1980s, the government forcibly moved the Dinka population from the Bahr al-Ghazal area of southwest Sudan, where slave raiding, mass displacement and bombings became the norm, he said.

In the early 1990s, government-backed militias burned huts and seized fertile land in the central Nuba Mountains region. Later in the decade, longtime residents of the Upper Nile oil fields were trucked off their land when the government wanted to start drilling for oil, human rights groups have reported.

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