NYALA, Sudan – The Sudanese government, in an effort to mask the human suffering unfolding in Darfur, is waging a campaign to coerce refugees to go back to their villages, according to Western aid workers and refugees.

The government claims tens of thousands have already returned home voluntarily. And last week, officials said they plan to move as many as 200,000 refugees in northern Darfur back to their villages.

But aid workers say the relocations could send the refugees into the same horrific conditions they fled and could lead to huge numbers of deaths, as well as trigger a refugee rush into neighboring Chad.

The push to send the refugees home comes as Sudan faces growing international pressure to solve the crisis in Darfur, where government-backed Arab militias called the janjaweed have forced hundreds of thousands of black African tribesmen from their homes. An estimated 30,000 have been killed.

Sudanese officials have downplayed the gravity of what the United Nations is calling the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian disaster.

Western aid workers say the government has adopted a number of strategies to move the refugees back to their homes. In north Darfur, the government, through aid agencies it runs, has been offering refugees transportation and 10,000 Sudanese dinars – about $40 – to return to their villages, the aid workers say.

In the west Darfur region of Zalinge, they have pressured village officials to return to their homes in the hope that residents will follow them, according to a recent report by the aid agency Doctors Without Borders. Those officials who refused, the report said, had their salaries cut off and were threatened with arrest.

In the south Darfur capital of Nyala, 250 refugees were carted off in trucks and sent back to their home areas two weeks ago. And in recent meetings, officials have demanded that Western aid agencies encourage refugees to go home, implying that if they didn’t they would be viewed as having a political agenda.

“There are varying degrees of coercion and manipulation going on,” said a Western aid official whose agency attended the meetings. He asked not to be named because he feared his agency would be expelled. He added that refugees “are not making free and informed decisions.”

“All the aid agencies are definitely concerned about that,” he said. “It is a big, burning issue at the moment.”

Sudanese officials are wary of creating aid-dependent populations that could prolong the crisis and keep the global spotlight on Sudan. But they deny they are inducing refugees to go home.

“We need to help them,” said Jamal Yusuf, the south Darfur commissioner of Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission, flashing a smile. “Everyone needs to go back.”

When asked if the government had any quotas and timetable for refugees to be sent home, he replied that he wanted to see 100,000, nearly half the refugee population in his south Darfur region, return to their villages within a month.

Aid workers say that could be disastrous. Village after village has been razed to the ground, and most refugees have no tools, seeds, or livestock to grow crops. Wells have been destroyed, and the planting season ends this month. Getting food aid to hundreds of villages during the heavy rains would be nearly impossible, agencies say.

Meanwhile, the janjaweed continue to attack civilians, burn and loot villages, despite the government’s promise to disarm them, according to the African Union, which issued a report on Wednesday, citing its military observers in Darfur.

“The security problems in the rural areas are not over,” said Joel Charny, the vice president for policy for Refugees International, an advocacy group. “In the event of forced returns, you could see people killed in their villages. You could see problems of sheer survival.

“Who’s going to support them?” he added. “We have enough problems providing aid in the camps.”


The Sudanese have already used harsh tactics to force thousands of refugees to move. Earlier this month, soldiers and policemen arrived just as the morning darkness melted at a camp near Nyala’s airport, a strategic military site.

They fired guns into the air. They whipped women. One soldier stopped Ahmed Muhamed, 32, a tall, mild-mannered father scrambling to find his six children in the chaos.

“Zurga,” the soldier said, using an Arabic slur that means “blacks.” “You make the problems of Darfur. If you don’t leave, we’ll do it by force.”

Muhamed and thousands of others, many loaded into rattletrap trucks, ended up at a huge refugee camp at Kalma.

Yusuf, the commissioner, defended the dismantling of the airport camp, saying the refugees were trespassing on private property and that they were trying to help them.

“It was not done by force,” he insisted. “They asked the government to be moved.”

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SUDAN

AP-NY-07-29-04 1825EDT

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