Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Malene Haakansson, "The camps have voices," ACT/Caritas - Darfur, 11 Jul 2006.

Zalingei, West Darfur, 11 July 2006--At first glance, it seems like life as usual in one of Darfur's biggest camps for displaced people. In Hassa Hissa camp on the outskirts of Zalingei town, the women queue for water. The school on the small hill is packed with up to 200 pupils per classroom. Men, women and children sit on mats and benches at the overcrowded health clinic, patiently waiting their turn.

But not everything is the same.

Two months ago, the 40,000 people seeking refuge here from the clashes between Darfuri rebels and the government of Sudan and Sudan-backed militia groups rebelled themselves. Riots broke out in camps of displaced people across Darfur, soon after the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in Abuja, Nigeria, in early May.

The African Union (AU) civilian police no longer have a presence in the camp, and government police returned only recently.

The nomadic women are not allowed to sell firewood inside the camp, because the displaced people associate them with the militias, who still ravage and plunder the area.

As in many of the other big camps in Darfur, the people of Hassa Hissa have been demonstrating against the Darfur Peace Agreement, signed by the government of Sudan and a small but militarily strong faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, led by Minni Minnawi.

The people in the camp are against the agreement mainly because their tribal leader, Abdul Wahil Al-Nur, of Darfur's largest tribe, the Fur, has not signed it. In Hassa Hissa, anger turned to violence, with demonstrators lashing out at the AU's and the local police's inability to protect them. Police stations were burned down, police were beaten, and weapons were stolen.

International forces

The displaced people of Hassa Hissa know what they want.

"The militias have to be disarmed, and we want individual compensation for lost property. The ones that have committed genocide have to be brought to justice. And we want a fair share of Darfur's wealth and power. That will make us happy," says one of the sheiks without hesitating.

His words echo those of Abdul Wahil Al-Nur.

"Our security is controlled by the militias. We live in a camp where there is no protection. We demand that the international community will respond to our outcry. U.N. forces have to come and disarm the people who carry guns. We have to know when the U.N. comes. It is very important," underlines another sheik.

The men in the camp say that it is the U.N.'s role and responsibility to help them.

A former school teacher explains that it is the length of the conflict that has changed the atmosphere in the camp. "The first year we lived here, we thought that our problems would be solved, and that we would soon return home. But after hearing about the peace discussions in Abuja, it looks like it is going to take some time. That is why we are vocal about our problems to the government and international organizations."

The school teacher says that the sheiks could not control the demonstrators. He says that the people are frustrated with their situation and that they have nothing to lose.

"It is like finding out that it is not possible to solve the problems you thought you could solve. The only way to solve them is to fight back * also if it can cost your life. How long can we sit here and wait? We have to do something."

Many of the displaced people in the camps surrounding Zalingei come from villages nearby, but no one dares to go back because of the militias and the lack of protection.

A new situation

A staff member of the ACT-Caritas operation in Darfur is watching the situation closely.

"We wonder if there comes a time when the people in the camp and the international organizations do not agree. There has been a lot of trust between organisations and displaced people. They will come and tell you about rape and want to leave the camps if we leave because they feel more secure in our presence," the staff member said.

But he is still concerned over the attacks on the AU in May.

"It was very alarming to watch how much anger the people had against the Darfur Peace Deal."

He says it is important that the organisations are very clear about what they are doing and what they are capable of, so the displaced people's expectations matches reality and there is no misunderstanding.

For the time being, a U.N. peacekeeping mission remains only a proposal. The AU has just extended its mandate to the end of the year, and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir still resists having international troops on Sudanese soil.

For further information, please contact: ACT Communications Officer Callie Long (mobile/cell phone +41 79 358 3171) or ACT Information Officer Stephen Padre (mobile/cell phone +41 79 681 1868) or Caritas Internationalis Media Officer Nancy McNally (+39 06 698 79 752)

ACT is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.

Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organizations present in 200 countries and territories.
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