Darfur: They see their homes across the river. But they daren't go back

For the 1.8 million people who have fled Sudan, an end to the crisis seems as far off as ever
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The Independent Online

Almira, 15, lives in a tent consisting of grass mats stapled to cardboard boxes and torn-up shirts. Her old home, built of traditional mud bricks, is only 100 yards away across a dried-up river bed, but she believes it is more than her life is worth to go there.

Almira, 15, lives in a tent consisting of grass mats stapled to cardboard boxes and torn-up shirts. Her old home, built of traditional mud bricks, is only 100 yards away across a dried-up river bed, but she believes it is more than her life is worth to go there.

The wadi, or river bed, is the border between Chad and Sudan's Darfur province, where a United Nations report recently described mass killings and atrocities, including crucifixion, blindings, systematic rape, huts burned with children inside and women forced to hand over their baby sons to be killed. Though the Sudanese authorities seized on the report's conclusion that this fell short of genocide, the UN unequivocally blamed the slaughter on government forces and their allies, the Janjaweed militia.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said after a meeting in London on Friday with Sudan's Foreign Minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, that the crisis in Darfur was still "extremely worrying". Mr Straw urged Sudan's government and two Darfur rebel groups, the SLA and the JEM, to return to the negotiating table. But despite a pledge to reopen peace talks this month, the two sides have yet to set a date.

"The government soldiers have to leave before I can go home," said Almira, who is among 3,000 Sudanese camped across a ridge just outside the Chadian side of Tina. Bakhiet Sandal Rajab, another refugee who can see his old home, agreed. "If we go back, the opposition [rebel groups] may kill us, thinking we are with the government, and the government may accuse us of being with the rebels and kill us," he said.

Nowhere is the brutal dislocation of the conflict more evident than in this town, divided by an international frontier. Only a handful of people remain on the Sudanese side of Tina, where sand blows through the open windows of deserted homes and the streets are littered with the bones of animals. Thousands used to live here, but fighting between Sudanese government forces and the rebels forced them out in the summer of 2003.

Across the wadi, the other half of Tina has a busy market, cars and camels, and shops selling everything from Coca-Cola to novelty lamps. The gully marking the border, across which more than 200,000 refugees have fled since the conflict in Darfur began in 2002, is guarded by a single soldier asleep on a mat by a Browning machine gun.

Although at least 200,000 people are estimated to have died and more than 1.8 million have been displaced by the conflict, international concern has been diverted first by the Iraq war, then by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Diplomats hope that the threat of prosecution may restrain the killing - a secret list accusing 51 people of war crimes was given to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, with the recommendation that they should be referred to the International Criminal Court. But the Khartoum government has declared that it will not hand over any of its citizens.

While the south of the region remains troubled, in northern Darfur the fighting has eased. Aid organisations say that this is because much of the region has been cleared of people, yet a few refugees are beginning to trickle back to the Sudanese side of Tina.

Sheik Mohamed Amin has a house in the town, but he and his extended family were living with other displaced people in an abandoned school- house. "The government says it is better if we are all in one place," he said, reclining on a tarpaulin on the sand floor. "They are trying to get people to come back, but ... they are scared."

Some say the rebels are spreading propaganda to keep people away. "I had people tell me that their houses had been flattened, that they had been bombed," said one man. "When I showed them pictures of the town still standing, they were amazed." Hawa Adam, a 35-year-old mother of two, recrossed the border into Sudanese Tina in November. She gets food from the local soldiers and brews alcohol to make money, which is illegal in Sudan and causes problems with the police - there is one policeman for every three refugees who have returned.

"They beat me, they beat everybody," she complains. Yet she says simply: "This is my country. I am Sudanese."

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