Too Soon To Return Home, Say Darfurians
Displaced Question U.S. Envoy's Advice

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009

NEW YORK, Aug. 5 -- The Obama administration's Sudan envoy is facing growing resistance to a suggestion he made recently to civilians displaced from Darfur that they should start planning to go back to their villages. Darfurian civilians and U.N. relief agencies say it is still too dangerous to return to the region where a six-year-long conflict has led to the deaths of more than 300,000 people.

In the latest sign of tension, Sheik al-Tahir, a leader at Kalma, one of Darfur's largest camps for displaced people, said Tuesday that homeless civilians would protest retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration's strategy for resolving the conflict and his assertion in June that genocide in Darfur has ended. Tahir and other camp leaders have accused Gration of taking the side of the Sudanese government, which has been seeking to dismantle the camps.

Gration denied this week that he is seeking to send Darfur's displaced into harm's way, saying he was simply urging Darfurians and the United Nations to begin preparations for return.

"I am not pushing for anybody to go back right now, because I don't think the situation is secure enough," he said in an interview Tuesday. "I don't want to get into a position where people are trying to return because there is peace and some modicum of security, and then we haven't done the planning to ensure they can move back."

The latest round of violence in Darfur began in February 2003, when two rebel movements took up arms against the Islamic government in Khartoum. In response, the government, backed by local Arab militiamen known as Janjaweed, launched a bloody counterinsurgency operation that the Bush and Obama administrations have termed genocidal.

A recent State Department analysis showed that more than 3,300 villages have been severely damaged or destroyed in the violence. Most of the survivors have either fled to neighboring Chad or crammed into a network of camps in Darfur.

Gration's effort to prod the displaced communities into preparing for a return has been complicated by the loyalty many still profess to an exiled rebel leader, Abdul Wahid al-Nur, who lives in Paris and has refused for years to participate in talks with the Khartoum government.

Gration met recently with leaders of the Kalma camp, which houses more than 100,000 displaced Darfurians. He told them that the violence was easing in Darfur and that he was confident he could negotiate a political settlement by the end of the year, according to notes of the encounter by a U.N. relief coordination team in Darfur known as the Inter-Agency Management Group.

Gration also urged camp leaders to select envoys to represent their interests at ongoing U.S.-backed talks in Doha, Qatar, suggesting that Wahid's boycott would deny them a voice in the process. Your "future is in his hands, and his hands are in Paris," Gration said, according to the briefing notes. "You need someone who is working for you."

Some of the camp leaders, according to the account, said they were unhappy with Gration's assertion that genocide was no longer occurring in Darfur, insisting that government forces and allied militias continue to commit atrocities against residents of Kalma. They said that they would never return to their villages unless the Janjaweed were disarmed.

The U.N. interagency group also expressed concern about Gration's assurance that "peace will prevail in Darfur by the end of the year, and returns have to happen," and described the conditions in Darfur as too dangerous to ensure civilians' safe return. It voiced concern that Gration was linking the fate of Darfurian civilians to political goals.

The U.N. group concluded that there are not enough funds or resources to deliver assistance to the villages people had fled or even to oversee the administrative work of ensuring that those who return are doing so voluntarily.

"In addition," the briefing note states, "it is important to keep in mind that a large part of the IDPS [internally displaced people] might opt for staying in their new settlements over a return to their place of origin."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company