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Signs of Hope in Darfur

After years of conflict in which 300,000 civilians died and 3 million became refugees, a fragile calm has settled over one of Africa's most horrific wars

By Jeffrey Gettleman in El Fasher, Sudan

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The images on TV and online were harrowing: burning villages, skeletal human remains abandoned in the desert, and throngs of displaced and starving people, most of them women and children, crowded into squalid refugee camps.

Darfur—a vast, arid region of western Sudan—grabbed the world's attention in a way that news of African conflicts rarely does. Celebrities like George Clooney became involved in raising awareness and money for relief efforts, and teens and college students raised thousands of dollars through groups like Dollars for Darfur, founded in 2006 by two high school students.

The war in Darfur began in 2003, when rebels demanded greater political and economic rights for black Darfurians from the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in Khartoum, the capital.

The government responded by turning loose the janjaweed—Arab militiamen who stormed into villages on horses and camels, torching houses, stealing cattle, and raping and killing villagers. Some 300,000 civilians died in the state-sponsored violence, and nearly 3 million are currently living in refugee camps.

Now, United Nations officials say that for the first time since 2003, tens of thousands of farmers who had been living in refugee camps have returned to their villages to plant crops—a journey many would have considered suicide until recently.

Perception vs. Reality

A hybrid African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force—the most expensive in the world at $1.6 billion per year—is finally in place and has helped to stabilize Darfur. Rebel groups, fragmented and lacking a clear political agenda, have been quiet; U.N. officials say there is little evidence the government is sponsoring ethnic violence in the region, though the situation remains unpredictable.

"People need to update their perception of Darfur," says Daniel Augstburger, the director of the African Union-U.N. humanitarian liaison office in Darfur. "It's not like there are still janjaweed riding around, burning down villages."

However, there is still violence in Darfur: Five Rwandan peacekeepers were recently killed, and aid workers are routinely carjacked. Heavily armed bandits seem to be everywhere, and the flow of people out of the camps is just a trickle: Millions are still afraid to go home.

In October, President Obama appointed J. Scott Gration, a retired Air Force general, as special envoy to Sudan, and the Sudanese government seems encouraged by the Obama administration's talk of engaging with the nation rather than using punitive measures like sanctions.

"We want to go far" in resolving the crisis in Darfur, says Gration, "and to do that, we're going to have to go with Khartoum."

Critics say this approach offers incentives instead of the pressure that is needed for a country whose President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been charged with crimes against humanity because of the genocide in Darfur. But even some activists say the situation there is improving.

"There is no doubt that violence has diminished significantly in the past two or three years—and many, including myself, have been slow to recognize how significant this reduction has been," says Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and one of the most outspoken voices on Darfur.

But, he adds, civilians are still being attacked and "the anger, frustration, and despair simply cannot be overstated."

That said, few of the dire predictions have come true—not the big Sudanese government offensives that many feared, or janjaweed attacks against refugee camps. Even the widespread death and disease that U.N. officials worried would be the consequence of the Sudanese government's expulsion of 13 aid organizations last year were largely averted.

But in the camps, the transient life of the refugee is becoming permanent. The crowded huts, the waiting for food handouts, and the idleness are steadily taking their toll.

"I am uncomfortable and depressed," says Abbas Abdallah Mohamed, a farmer who fled his village four years ago. Like many others, he's not ready to venture home.

Refugees Forever?

"If we go back, maybe there will be tribal war," he says, referring to one of the biggest problems today in Darfur—fighting among ethnic groups over scarce grazing land.

Mohamed B. Yonis, a top U.N. official in Darfur, says, "The possibility is that they could be here forever."

Although Darfur is less likely to be front-page news today, student activists remain involved. Dollars for Darfur is now part of STAND, the student-led division of the Washington, D.C.-based Genocide Intervention Network. STAND, with more than 850 chapters worldwide, says it has raised more than $650,000 to help civilians in Darfur.

"While things may be starting to transform in Darfur," says Emily Diamond-Falk of the Save Darfur Coalition in Washington, D.C., "every young activist knows that there are still millions of people living in despicable conditions."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 5, 2010)