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Returning Sudanese find insecurity, hunger and death

Sudanese officials drove up to the creek near the Chad border where Alama Abdullah Hassan was hiding with her family three months ago: "It's safe now in Darfur. You can go home," Hassan recalls them saying.

So the family of refugees from a now 19-month-old conflict between nomadic Arab herders and non-Arab farmers came back _ and was attacked last Wednesday.

Under threat of U.N. sanctions, the Sudanese government insists it is now doing all it can to calm Darfur and says it is ready to welcome home 1.4-million uprooted villagers. But the few who do trickle back find whole villages and tribes on the move, seeking safety from attacks blamed on progovernment Arab militiamen, non-Arab rebels and simple bandits.

On Monday, Hassan talked with a reporter while tending her young daughter and a cousin, curled up in pain from gunshot wounds, and also mourning two dead cousins _ all victims of last week's raid that the family blames on Arabs in the Janjaweed militia.

"There's no security here. If we could go back to Chad, we would," said the 35-year-old Hassan, whose extended family took the Sudanese officials at their word and returned to their home region in July.

In a two-room, bare concrete clinic, Hassan and others newly returned from refugee camps across the border in Chad or hiding places in the mountains of Darfur spoke of the threat from near-daily attacks that all blamed on the Janjaweed.

"I myself came home yesterday from Chad. I wanted to see my family," said Bishara Ahmed Terab, from the village of Cosimo. He said he had already seen a man shot dead by Arab militiamen.

The fighting is tied up with rivalries over scarce water and arable land, a dispute that had been going on for generations before it escalated into war in February 2003 and gained international attention in recent months.

The United States, European Union and others accuse Sudan's Arab-dominated government and the allied Janjaweed of pursuing a genocide campaign of burning, raping and killing that has taken more than 50,000 lives.

The bloodshed in Sudan's vast western region broke out with an uprising by two non-Arab movements that primarily attacked government installations and military targets to press demands for a bigger share of power and resources.

On Monday, a helicopter flight over Darfur found abandoned villages scattered among the herders and farmers of still-thriving communities. Some villages appeared to have been recently vacated, their neatly tended walled compounds of round mud huts and peaked thatched roofs empty of people and animals. Other villages were overgrown with weeds.

"They declare a cease-fire, but I don't see people coming home," Ruud Lubbers, chief of the United Nations' refugee operations, told aid workers during a visit to a camp for displaced people just outside the village of Seleah. "There are still incidents."

"Regularly," said Jo Mason of the Irish relief group Concern.

Sudan's social affairs minister, Habib Makhtoun, told Lubbers and reporters Sunday that the conflict is a problem of tribal clashes and bandits. The government is investigating attacks as they occur, and arresting culprits when it can, Makhtoun and other Sudanese officials said.

Hassan's cousin, Abakar Ali, lay with sheets covering a leg with seven bullet wounds from the attack last week.

He wants to stay in Darfur despite the two years of violence that killed his brothers, sisters and cousins.

"Because home is better than any place," Ali said.