Prospects for peace in Darfur receded yesterday as Sudanese rebels refused to disarm at talks in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) said it would not hand over weapons until the government of Sudan disarmed the Janjaweed.
Sitting in Bahai, in a shoddy refugee camp on the border between Chad and Sudan, the SLA seems little more than a group of bored young men making night-time excursions across the border. But the SLA along with the Justice and Equality Movement claim they are the only protection the civilian population in Darfur have against attacks by the Sudanese government and Arab militias.
In turn, the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed say they are fighting these rebels when they carry out their brutal attacks on entire villages.
Khadir Porhalla, an SLA commander, said yesterday: "Why do they want us to give up our guns when the Arabs still have theirs? If we lose our weapons we simply let all black people in Sudan be killed."
The SLA says the Khartoum government has only been willing to attend peace talks since the Janjaweed attacks grabbed the attention of the international community. "We have begged the government to come for talks for months," said Commander Porhalla. "Why do they only come now and demand so much from us and give nothing themselves."
The gridlock in the talks and a failure of both sides to reach an agreement has given the refugee camps in Chad an air of permanency.
Asha Aliya Yahya fled her village of Abugumra carrying her elderly mother on her back five months ago after a Janjaweed attack killed her two sons and grandchildren. She is still grieving, for her children, for her mother who died on the way to the Iridimi refugee camp, for the fertile soil of her village, but she feels the need to build a home in Chad for her remaining 12-year-old daughter.
She helped a local woman plant some crops in return for some seeds that she now plants with a knife she found on the road. "God alone knows how long I must stay here," she said quietly, covering her face to hide her moist eyes. "The planes came to my village and bombed us and as we ran away they bombed us on the streets. Now my daughter cries for our home but I tell her this is a better life - there is no bombing, no planes. She is safe."
Iridimi, a camp of 15,700 people is one of the first refugee camps to have been set up in Chad. People began arriving there more than five months ago and the humanitarian organisation Care moved in to manage it officially four months ago. In many ways it is a model camp - Kofi Annan visited it when he toured Darfur and Chad in early July and aid agencies have set up schools, feeding centres and community groups to serve the growing number of refugees.
But the fact that the refugees have begun planting crops and building mud huts to replace the canvas tents they were given when they arrived shows they have despaired of returning to Darfur soon. "People only grow crops if they believe they will stay for a while," said one field worker from Care. "It's an act of faith to buy seeds and plant them and expect to be in the same place when they grow."
In the market that has sprung up in the middle of Iridimi, people have borrowed money from relatives in Libya and Saudi Arabia to set up kiosks selling lollipops and batteries, tea shops, even a television room with satellite TV. They all say they will return home when there is peace in Darfur, but no one can guess when that will happen.
Aziza Hahmie Jaber has built a house with a small kitchen and bathroom but she still carefully stores the goatskins her family used to water their livestock. "There are no animals to give water to here but one day we may return to our country," she said. For now it seems to camps are here to stay.
Officials from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, say they expect to be here at least one more year and many say that it may be five years before all refugees return home. Most people who arrive at refugee camps in Chad fled Darfur more than three months ago but stayed near the border hoping they could go back to their homes. As the Janjaweed attacks showed no sign of abating, they decided to give up and move to the camps.
Juma al-Hamder moved to Iridimi two months ago after spending two months in the border town of Tine. "If we had big guns to shoot down the Sudanese military airplanes we would not be here now," he said, sipping sweet tea in the market. "But we did not have the guns and the Antonovs killed my baby and my brothers. I don't think they will stop killing so I am here. Seven days ago my wife gave birth in Iridimi to... a girl called Salma [peace], so maybe this is our home now."
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