Darfur refugees long for peace
By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Darfur
Al Salaam camp sits like an open-wound on the Darfur landscape, battered by the rains, and scorched by the sun. This place, named peace, stands as a monument to four years of conflict. It occupies an unforgiving stretch of desert, on the outskirts of the town of El Fasher, capital of North Darfur. The camp is dusty, bleak, and short of water - the kind of area most of us would want to escape. But Al Salaam is full to bursting point - almost 50,000 call it home. They live in a patchwork of flimsy straw huts, some topped with plastic sheeting.
'Shocked and humbled'
When the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the camp earlier this week, he said he was "shocked and humbled" by what he saw. For security reasons, Mr Ban was in and out in fast. But many have been trapped in the camp for years. Some of the young children still draw pictures of their old homes, according to teachers at a kindergarten visited by the secretary general.
"They draw on the ground," one teacher said, "and they are very sad. Then we tell them they are going back, and they are happy." But for now it may be just the children who believe in the dream of return. For some in Al Salaam the trauma is still very fresh.
We found some of the latest arrivals - mainly women and children, clustered together at the edge of the camp. They said they had walked for nine days to reach Al Salaam, after the Janjaweed Arab militia attacked their village last December.
With overlapping voices they told us 20 of their men folk had been killed - brothers, husbands and fathers, all of them civilians.
A slim young woman called Fadna, draped in a blue scarf, sat at the front of the group with her baby daughter on her lap. They killed my husband in front of me... I have nothing left, but my spirit Fatima, refugee Eight-month-old Sumaya was born in the camp. Fadna is not sure if she will ever be able to risk taking her child home.
"When the Janjaweed get someone they kill them," Fadna says, "a man and wife, an old woman, a blind woman, even a pregnant woman. They kill them, they go and the next day they come back again."
"You reach your husband in the last minute and try to give him some water. Then he loses his life, so you take your children and run."
Fadna's husband survived the attack on the village, but her brothers did not. One of the worst accounts came from a woman called Fatima, another young mother, her braided hair covered in a vivid orange and purple scarf.
"They killed my husband in front of me," she said. "They ran him over with a car. I have nothing left, but my spirit." The women complained that they have received no aid. They arrived too late to be registered for food aid at Al Salaam - after the camp was officially closed. "We don't have tents," said a woman called Fadhiya. "We have nothing to live on. Our situation is very hard."
Across Darfur the population in the camps has soared to 2.2 million and it is rising. Violence and insecurity are still displacing large numbers of innocent civilians - so far this year almost 200,000 have been made homeless.
Four years on, the conflict here is increasingly complex - harder to read or predict. Every morning I wake up there is a new rebel faction
United Nations official It is no longer just a battle between rebel groups and the government, with its allies, the Janjaweed. Now some of the Janjaweed Arab tribes are fighting each other, and the rebels are splitting. "Every morning I wake up there is a new rebel faction," said one United Nations official.
Peace talks are coming, and the world's largest peacekeeping operation is due to begin deploying in the coming months. Eventually there should be 20,000 troops here, with 6,000 civilian police.
A United Nations source describes the peacekeeping mission as "a lovely concept" but he wonders where all the troops and the money are going to come from, and how long it is going to take.
He says the time lag between the promise of a peacekeeping force, and its deployment, may be an irresistible temptation for everyone - the Arab tribes, the rebels and the government.
Darfur is in limbo, he says, and this is "the most vulnerable moment". In Al Salaam the sky darkens mid-afternoon, and rain begins to lash the camp.
A group of women and children seek shelter under a ragged tarpaulin. They have nowhere else to run. Soon they are soaked to the skin. The United Nations secretary general says they must all be able to return to their homes and their land. This week he promised that peacekeepers would come to protect them, and bring peace and security. But the dispossessed of Darfur are used to broken promises.