A Sudanese refugee woman carries food supplies March 21 at Abu Shouk, the largest camp in North Darfur for internally displaced people, outside El Fasher, the capital of Darfur, in Sudan.
A Sudanese refugee woman carries food supplies March 21 at Abu Shouk, the largest camp in North Darfur for internally displaced people, outside El Fasher, the capital of Darfur, in Sudan. Nasser Nasser/AP
U.S. and international officials say the situation in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur is improving, but that is little comfort to Darfuris, who have a very different perspective. The situation in Darfur now may not qualify as war, but many say it doesn't look like peace, either.
The outgoing commander of the international peacekeeping force in Darfur, Nigerian Gen. Martin Agwai, said in late August that the war there is essentially over. The new U.S. envoy to the region, Scott Gration, says he has noticed encouraging changes as well.
Gration says the fighting has lessened significantly between militias loyal to the Sudanese government and rebel groups. The war that has reportedly killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions is now dormant.
Displaced Sudanese women and children seeking medical treatment line up outside the Egyptian military field hospital March 26 at Abu Shouk refugee camp.
Displaced Sudanese women and children seeking medical treatment line up outside the Egyptian military field hospital March 26 at Abu Shouk refugee camp. Nasser Nasser/AP
'Death Is Still Going On'
But that is hardly how Ahmad Ali Osman sees things. He lives in Abu Shouk, the largest camp in North Darfur. Tens of thousands of internally displaced persons, known to aid groups as IDPs, call this hot, dry and garbage-filled place home. Osman says increasingly violent crime is reaching them in their dwellings.
"The security situation is not good. Death is still going on and the security situation is not improving in Darfur," he told Gration, the U.S. envoy, during his visit to the camp in early September.
In testimonial after testimonial, people living in the camps, aid workers and rebels told Gration what has been going on since March, when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Sudan's president for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Since then, the Sudanese government has evicted a dozen international aid groups from Darfur. And IDPs are reporting a new level of insecurity in and around camps — gang rapes, as well as murders, kidnappings and arrests, and bombs that have fallen as recently as this month.
Distrust Of Khartoum Strong After Years Of War
Muhammad Adam, an IDP leader, says new local aid groups sent to the camps by the ruling party in Khartoum are not to be trusted.
"Those local organizations are security apparatus, and they do intelligence work inside the IDP camps," he said. "And IDPs hate them."
Many people are deeply mistrustful of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, which since 2003 has been in a pitched fight with rebel groups in the region. The rebels began the fight in Darfur as a revolt against political and economic marginalization by Khartoum.
But over the years, the fighting has drawn all manner of local government-sponsored militias seeking to capitalize on the forced displacement of millions of farmers and others.
In recent years, alliances in Darfur have changed dramatically, and many of the rebel groups have splintered. So when there is an outbreak of violence in the region or in the camps, it's difficult to know who exactly is responsible and why.
U.S. Envoy: Law Enforcement Issue, Not War
Gration has experience that makes him particularly well-suited to navigating the murkiness. He retired from the Air Force as a major general. He says he flew more missions over Iraq than any other American. In the 1960s, Gration and his missionary parents fled civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He has been an IDP, a refugee and a combatant. So when Gration's gut tells him the war is over in Darfur, he is speaking from experience.
"We will push Khartoum to stop supporting the militias. But it appears that there is heavy banditry, that there is a lot of warlord trouble. We still have gender-based violence that is unacceptable. But it's a law enforcement issue," Gration told IDP leaders.
But Darfur police and other security forces appear unable — or unwilling — to help civilians. In a region the size of Texas, many police outposts don't have cars. Those that do often lack fuel, telephones and other equipment. After the kidnappings of two international aid workers earlier this year, everyone appears to be feeling unsettled.
One aid worker urged Gration to raise the matter with the government in Khartoum, adding, "We know they can exert control when they want to."
Darfur Leaders Need To Create Security
Gration has closer relations to Sudan's ruling party than any of his predecessors. During his recent visit, the party invited him to a conference at the governor's compound in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. It was a surreal scene of men wearing white, flowing gowns and furry, leopard-print slippers. Gration gently pressed them to be better leaders.
"There is more that we must do to bring more security, to bring more stability and to bring more development to this land," he told the gathering. "But the leadership must come from you, the leaders of the people of Darfur."
The ruling party wants to sign a peace deal with Darfur's rebels by the end of the year, so Gration is trying to unite the different groups into one negotiating entity. Some say it is a fool's errand.
But Gration says he needs to start laying the groundwork for 2.6 million Darfuris to leave the camps, preferably before President Obama runs for re-election. Peace is only the beginning, he says. Displaced people will not want to return to their homes until there is a guarantee of more security.
"If we're going to have people go back, we've got to start thinking about how do we put into place secure zones where people can go outside of the camps," he said.
Conflict Spans Sudan-Chad Border
Gration is calling on international peacekeepers to work on his security zone idea. He is also calling on civilians to replace uncooperative rebels and speak for the IDPs in future talks. And because Darfur figures into Sudan's conflict with neighboring Chad, Gration is mindful of the need for more stability along the border.
The governments in Khartoum and N'Djamena, Chad's capital city, have been sponsoring rebel groups in and around Darfur in a longstanding proxy war.
As a result, Gration is also calling on Chadian rebels to leave Darfur. They have been spotted high on a sun-cracked plateau near a place called Ain Siro.
During his visit — at a desert oasis, under date palms, and mango and guava trees — Gration met with a group of heavily armed rebels from the original Sudanese Liberation Army. This is their turf, and they are suspicious of any strangers who come here.
One of the rebels, Ismail Amandruk, warned that violence will erupt once more if Chadian fighters don't leave the area and international peacekeepers continue to visit without permission.
"I'm going to fight them, even if I would be considered as one of the war criminals," he said. "Everybody's talking about peace and security. But if people are showing the weapons as you see, then there is no peace. There is no peace."