North Africa, West Asia

“It is a joke”: ongoing conflict and the controversies of 'return' in Darfur

Though attention may have shifted away from Darfur, the conflict is far from over. The internally displaced are being pressured to 'return' when the issues from which they fled have yet to be resolved.

Lucy Hovil
21 July 2014

Over the past few years, the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region has faded from the headlines. While levels of violence decreased following a peak in 2004-5, violence is again on the increase and the war is far from over. In 2014, the Rapid Support Force, former Janjaweed fighters re-branded as government forces, have gone on the offensive. The stark reality is that over 300,000 Darfuri people have been displaced since the start of 2014. Every day their displacement reinforces the notions of marginalisation that lie at the root of the conflict, reminding them not only of the government’s failure to protect their homes, their families and their livelihoods, but also of its direct and indirect involvement in their displacement.

The International Refugee Rights Initiative has just released a report that documents the ongoing violence and displacement in Sudan’s Darfur region. It addresses the highly controversial issue of “return”, as internally displaced persons (IDPs) are coming under increasing pressure from the government of Sudan to leave the camps where they sought refuge. The quote in the title of the report, “It is a joke”, sums up how one person living in Darfur described coming under pressure to leave the camps. In fact, the very mention of “return” and “Darfur” in the same sentence immediately begs the question how there can be talk of return when the circumstances that forced people into displacement have not been resolved.

In response to the concerns raised by local civil society actors about this development, the report seeks to give a voice to those who have been displaced by the conflict and document some of their experiences. It shows that IDPs are being forced to make difficult choices in a context of almost impossible odds. While most people remain in the camps for much of the year, people are moving to their villages temporarily or permanently – albeit in small numbers and in highly precarious circumstances. They are making rational decisions, but are doing so under enormous pressure due to the poor humanitarian conditions in the camps and the realistic fear of losing their land. In the view of those who have returned, the war is not over and much of Darfur remains insecure, yet they have little choice.

Their return is further complicated by the fact that much of the land left behind has now been appropriated by newcomers or members of militia groups – referred to as Janjaweed by most interviewees – and they are having to make deals with and pay “taxes” to these militias in order to farm their own land. Although localised agreements are being reached between returnees and militias, and are, at a stretch, creating benefits by reducing outright violence and alleviating some of the food shortages, they are fundamentally unfair and are potentially feeding the broader war economy: inevitably, those with weapons are negotiating from a stronger position than those without. These agreements fail to create an environment in which tensions over land distribution and resource allocation can be addressed in any sort of sustainable way. Communities that might accept such arrangements as a result of precarious conditions in the camps are unlikely to accept them for long, and the injustice is likely to seed new feelings of marginalisation and exclusion – and possibly future conflict.

Not surprisingly, therefore, “return” is failing to come anywhere near to taking place “voluntarily, in safety and with dignity,” as required by the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Instead, it is operating within the same political dynamic as the ongoing conflict and is building on, rather than challenging, that dynamic. It is yet another example of the way in which civilians are suffering the brunt of this brutal conflict.

Ultimately, “return” – which needs to be understood not merely as physical movement but as a genuine and long-term resolution to displacement – is a deeply problematic description for what is currently taking place in Darfur. Indeed, the findings demonstrate that exile is never going to be resolved through physical return alone, even should that become possible: instead, it needs to be a strongly political process. Those who have been caught up in this conflict believe that they have been discarded by a state that is mandated to protect them, reflecting similar levels of marginalisation that are being experienced by millions across Sudan.

Indeed, the destruction in Darfur is part of a broader picture in which the government of Sudan has continued to use violence and displacement as a strategy of control. Similar tactics have been used throughout the country, including during the war that led to South Sudan’s independence and more recently in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Repeatedly, and in violation of fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, the government has shown a willingness to force the mass displacement of its civilian populations in order to alter the political and ethnic fabric of the country – and to strengthen those who are seen as supportive of the regime.

At the end of the day, therefore, there needs to be a political resolution to their exile that addresses not only the specifics of the Darfur conflict, but the wider national conflict dynamics. With international attention flitting between the two Sudans – and, to a certain extent floundering in the face of an ever escalating crisis – the need to balance the bigger picture with the intimate detail on the ground is as crucial as ever. In the meantime, civilians in Darfur are being forced to choose between a rock and a hard place – which, at the end of the day, is not really a choice at all. 

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