Doubts in Darfur


Saleha Nour sells nuts in the market in El Fasher, Darfur and dismisses her new prime minister’s promise of a brighter new future with a wave of her hand.

She is talking on the eve of a visit by the premier – Abdalla Hamdok – who is coming to set out plans to settle the 17-year-old conflict in the west Sudanese region and repair damage done by ousted president Omar al-Bashir.

Nour has heard the promises before and long given up hope of returning to the village she was forced to flee at the start of the fighting.

Violence may have subsided since Bashir mobilised mostly Arab militia to crush an uprising by mostly non-Arab rebels, unleashing a wave of killings and mass displacement that Washington and others called genocide.

It is still too dangerous for families to go back and for things to return to how they were, says Nour.

“When some went back farming they were attacked at night in their houses and killed,” Nour says. She now lives in a camp outside El Fasher. Other families lost cattle when farms were seized in thein intial fighting, so whole livelihoods have gone.

Their plight underlines the challenge facing Hamdok as he and his transitional government try to settle the conflict and bring the north-eastern African country out of decades of diplomatic and financial isolation exacerbated by sanctions imposed over Darfur.

The makeshift camps that housed hundreds of thousands at the height of the violence have grown walls and infrastructure and solidified into settlements, making it harder to persuade people to resume long-abandoned lives.

The societal and ethnic divisions that fuelled the worst of the conflict still simmer.

Hamdok draws a crowd of hundreds as he tours Zam Zam camp outside El Fasher on Monday.

The soft-spoken civilian greets them with the words “freedom, peace and justice” – a slogan chanted by crowds across Sudan this year in mass rallies that eventually ousted Bashir.

“We will meet your demands. We will work together,” Hamdok tells the crowd.

He stays talking for most of the day but offers little in terms of concrete new proposals.

“Our conditions for a return are security, peace, education, health care,” 21-year Ahmed Ibrahim tells Reuters. He was 10 when his family fled.

Hamdok took office in August under a three-year power sharing deal with the military.

Since then the transitional government asked the United Nations and the African Union to keep operating a joint peacekeeping mission in Darfur – a force Bashir tried to shut down.

Khartoum is part of peace talks with rebels from Darfur and other borderlands.

Diplomats say the sides are wrestling with a conflict that has changed and fractured.

Rebels have fallen out and splintered with some now fighting for cash in Libya. Arab tribes compete among themselves as water resources dwindle, fuelling conflicts between farmers and nomads. Banditry is rife.

Militias that fought early in the conflict changed leaders and names and took up new roles in Sudan’s shifting political landscape.

People in the camps are worried about former Arab militia – known as the Janjaweed – they say joined the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the dominant force in Khartoum since Bashir’s ousting.

Hamdok is guarded by army Special Forces during his visit.

The RSF is also present in heavily armed pickups. Its commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is part of the national transitional leadership.

“Every time we go back farming RSF fighters came and kicked us out,” said Sadia Ibrahim, another displaced villager. “There are problems.”