Background Briefing

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Reversing Ethnic Cleansing

In rural areas under government control, the government-backed Janjaweed militias continue to exert near-total dominance, impeding the movement of people through fear, intimidation and violence that have become a daily feature of these areas. Even where there is no active conflict, displaced villagers are afraid to return to their villages because of the menacing presence of the militias who are above the law.  Rebel attacks on convoys and buses traveling along the main roads have also increased insecurity, jeopardizing humanitarian delivery in some areas.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are currently confined to camps for displaced persons and settlements around the major towns in Darfur. Many perceive the government assault on their villages as an attempt to forcibly evict them from their land; most displaced persons fear losing their land, and some have attempted to return to assess security. However, few are willing to return permanently in the current climate of insecurity. 

While there has been growing international pressure on the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed, little or no progress has been made on this front. Instead, militia leaders who participated in atrocities and government officials who directed or sanctioned such abuses remain in place, sometimes in high-level positions. Given this glaring impunity, their emboldened followers continue to rape, loot, and pillage with no fear of sanction or other consequence.

The need for safe and voluntary return of displaced communities to their areas of origin, however, could not be clearer, or more urgent.  Many communities from North and West Darfur, the vast majority of them farmers, have been displaced for two agricultural seasons, and those of South Darfur have been displaced for more than one season. It is essential to reverse the ethnic cleansing that has occurred as soon as possible to prevent its consolidation caused by institutionalized, protracted displacement. The international humanitarian community, which has rightly insisted on unrestricted access to Darfur to bring life-giving assistance to the victims of the conflict, should not later be judged to have inadvertently used that access to reinforce the displacement, and to have stood by while ethnic cleansing is consolidated in its presence.

Safe and voluntary return is also essential for the overall economy of Darfur which has been devastated by the extensive destruction and robbery of farms, farming implements, and water points. The broader effects of the widespread displacement of farming communities on the annual harvest are becoming evident as projections of a major food crisis next year loom on the horizon.4  If at least some farmers do not return to their villages in early 2005 to prepare the land and plant crops before the rainy season, another year’s harvest will be lost, and the foreseeable period of humanitarian assistance will be extended until the end of the 2006 agricultural season. It is also possible that some of the nomadic communities may require food aid, since they have also been hard-hit by the economic consequences of the conflict. They complain that their migration routes have been obstructed by rebels, and that livestock prices have been halved in two years, while the cost of grain has risen sharply.5

Voluntary return of displaced persons is complicated by several factors:

1) Security: Improved security in the rural areas remains the fundamental prerequisite for any successful return, even in areas where there is no active fighting between the warring parties.  Given the extent to which government troops and allied militias have been responsible for the forced displacement, there is no way that security can be ensured by government armed forces. Police, while sometimes marginally better trusted by displaced communities, remain small in number and insufficiently trained or equipped to protect against militia attacks, and in some places the abusive militia have been incorporated into local police forces. Increased international presence, in the form of expanded A.U. presence in key strategic towns, camps, and concentrations of displaced persons and along main roads; international police working alongside local police, and increased international humanitarian presence will be essential to improve security, particularly in  the many where there is no active conflict. 

2) Government policy: Government plans in July 2004 revealed a strategy of resettling displaced persons from over-crowded displaced sites near the main towns to new camps and settlements.6 The government tried to force certain community leaders to lead their people back to villages of origin, even though their security could not be guaranteed. This government initiative was likely motivated by two factors:  the timing of the planting season and the desire to alleviate some of the international pressure by presenting a façade of “normalization.”   

3) Need for assistance in areas of return: The majority of the displaced and refugees fled with few or no possessions. Most people were unable to plant crops in their home areas during the 2004 season and therefore have little or nothing to harvest. Most returning villagers will require food and other assistance to survive until the harvest of 2005. In addition, the attacks have destroyed much of the village infrastructure, including water points and housing, which will require rebuilding or rehabilitation.

Rural Insecurity and Forced Return

The continuing presence of the Janjaweed militias and other government forces in the rural areas and their ability to commit violence with impunity remain the most important factors in deterring voluntary return to areas, even where there is no rebel presence and little likelihood of active conflict.  Human Rights Watch received numerous accounts of people who had attempted to return to their villages during the 2004 planting season starting in May-June; they intended to assess security and try to plant crops. The vast majority of returnees were forced to flee again due to continuing harassment, intimidation, and violence at the hands of government militia or nomads benefiting from the collapse of law and order and the opportunity to graze livestock on the ample farmlands previously denied them. Some nomads began farming, or hiring others to farm, deserted farms.

The example of Kokar district, twenty-five kilometers south of Geneina in West Darfur, is compelling. Following two offensives on five villages in the area, one a July 2003 joint government and Janjaweed militia attack, the other a February 2004 army offensive with aerial Antonov support, most of the population fled to Chad or to displaced camps around Geneina. The local police force of seventeen men did not react to either attack and additional protection promised by the state governor and a military representative never materialized.

Human Rights Watch learned that in July 2004 the deputy governor and the state humanitarian aid commissioner went to a displaced camp near Geneina and told these displaced persons that they must return and cultivate the crops, promising to provide security for everyone, and promising seeds. It was late in the planting season but they could still plant mareg, a type of sorghum that takes only two months to grow.  “We love farming. About forty men went with me,” said one leader of the displaced. They walked one day to get back. They found the seventeen police still in the police station, and the returnees set about planting.

I talked to one Janjaweed when I was cultivating in July. They were waiting for our crops to grow. This was a peaceful period.  I asked him why they came here to take the property of others and destroy our belongings.  “It is not our intention or desire but it’s coming from higher up, because the land in Darfur is suitable for animals rather than farming,” he told me. 7

In late August 2004, a group of Janjaweed nomads’ animals entered the farms. The farmers went to the police and they took the animals away. The informant continued:

The Janjaweed came and took the animals back from the police.  “We want them back, if you refuse, we will take them by force,” they told the police. So the police surrendered the animals to the Janjaweed. Two days after this, the Janjaweed came from all directions with their animals and at the end of that day all the farms had been destroyed. The Janjaweed came in one day. They brought all their animals in one group to the fields. They have the whole area as their pasture. . . . We did not do anything. We had no arms, the Janjaweed had the arms. They just stayed. We gathered at the police station and decided to return to Geneina. The police had nothing to do. They were afraid themselves. We were told by the Janjaweed, “This land is liberated and you have no land and no right to cultivate on liberated areas.”8

In some areas of Darfur, people whose remote villages were destroyed have sought shelter in villages along the main roads, such as between Nyala and Kass in South Darfur, hoping that the greater visibility to the international community would provide increased protection. But even in these locations, violence continued, albeit at a less obvious level than the blatant destruction of villages.  Villagers who fled to Murai Jenge, on the main Nyala-Kass road, where they now sell firewood to passing lorries for income, told Human Rights Watch: “We didn’t want to leave our area but that place became like a prison because if the women went out they would be raped.”9

The situation was similar in other parts of Darfur, such as in Wadi Saleh province, West Darfur.  Dozens of villages in the Wadi Saleh area were repeatedly attacked and destroyed in late 2003 after the SLA launched attacks on police stations and government offices in Mukjar and Bindisi in August 2003.  In February and March 2004, following fighting in the Sindu Hills between government/Janjaweed forces and the SLA, the government and Janjaweed rounded up dozens of community leaders and other men in Deleig and Mukjar, most of who were summarily executed outside the towns.10  Human Rights Watch spoke to one farmer from a village near Garsila who had fled his village for Deleig following its destruction by government forces and Janjaweed militias. 

The farmer and his family were among a dozen or so people who had returned to the village, located near the main road between Zalingei and Garsila. Most of the villagers remained in Deleig, afraid of the still-rampant militia members roaming the area. He told Human Rights Watch: “They [the government] forced us to come here and they say they will give security from the Arab people but I say there is no security here except God.” After the killings in Deleig in March 2004, he said, government officials called a meeting of local leaders.  “The government said everyone should return to their villages. All the sheikhs and omdas were in the meeting and you couldn’t say no. The meeting was in Deleig but the orders came from above.”11  When asked why the government wanted people to return to his village, the farmer, who returned in May 2004, said, “My idea is this, the government wants people to return so that when international organizations pass the villages they will think things are fine.”12

Displaced persons voluntarily returned to eek out a living on the edge of the road near their farms in Menj Merrah, on the road that runs between Geneina and Mornei in West Darfur. The rebels attacked in September 2003, killing one policeman; the police were withdrawn. No civilians were killed and no property was stolen. The uniformed Janjaweed (referred to locally as the Pesh Merga) attacked Menj Merrah on February 6, 2004, stealing, burning, killing people, and stealing their belongings. The shops, which line the road, were looted then burned. Everything else, including the eight-grade school and the health post, was burned, also. The 2,000 residents of the village fled, mostly to Geneina.

About 108 families returned to live around the police station and the burned-out shops on the road. The burned villages to the south and north of the road remain empty. A forty-five-year-old village leader said that these families were actually coming to and from Geneina. They take advantage of vehicles passing on the road (mostly between Geneina and the internally displaced camps at Sisi and Mornei) to sell charcoal, wood, and shergani (woven walls), made from a grass that grows close to the road. Since the return one month earlier, there has been no attack or other security incident.  According to this witness:

No one told us to return. We just decided to return. The foreign organizations bring food: sorghum, oil, sugar. These are the only items which are received, from HAC [the government Humanitarian Assistance Commission]. We received this twice during this month. . . . We were not given any money or incentives to come. . . . We have no crops and no animals. . . . It is now nine months since we have been expelled from our village, and no one here has changed his clothes since then.13

The government, however, did post twenty-two police, mostly of Darfurian origin, at the village. This was not much reassurance to the returnees.

We need security to live a normal life. There is no guarantee this will continue and we can recover. . . . Police? There are not sufficient in number. They could not provide enough for even 25 percent of the area. It is a vast area and the police have no means to move about. 14

The Pesh Merga, or Arab nomadic militias, are present, he said. When the returnees go to collect grass,

We see armed men around. Each one of us has seen them. These are strangers. They were not here before. They have no herds. The people with herds we know, we have no problems with them. The strangers, Pesh Merga, are on horses and camels. . . .  When we arrived, they were not here but gradually they appeared in the area. No one talked to them. They are all armed. . . .

I say to you: We will not leave our land. We will not let any foreigners [i.e., Darfurian Arabs] own it. We cannot stop them now. We have to surrender to the situation. . . .We are now weak and exploited but we cannot leave our land. All our things have been taken. We will not forget and leave it [the land]. We will not. We surrender now, but you should know……We want our rights to be regarded. We want compensation for our animals and our rights. We have to start again because the grass will not last forever, or the wood. We need something to begin with. 15

He added:

I am now forty-five and never in my life have I seen such destruction of our country, our place in Darfur. If we speak of death, this is normal for everyone, and we can expect it. But the whole area is destroyed and we cannot forget these bad incidents. People are sad and very desperate. Despite all that, we have a link to the land. We do not want the rest of the world to say we left our land for others. We will continue to stay here and we will not surrender to any foreigner who wants to inherit our land. 16

In Hashberra village in West Darfur, potential returnees met with armed Janjaweed farming the land. Mansour (not his real name) fled when the government and Janjaweed forces attacked the village with helicopters on March 15, 2004. This Masalit village was burned and looted and Mansour’s mother, with fourteen other women and ten men, were killed in the attack.

The government wanted the displaced to move back. Mansour returned with his brother to Hashberra for the first time in July 2004 to investigate the situation. They found a neighbor of the Aulad Zeid Arab tribe, known to them by name, cultivating their dead mother’s land with a plough and horse. The armed man, whom he described as a “Janjaweed,” told him, “You have no right to this piece of land,” and accused Mansour of being “Tora Bora,” striking him on the back with a whip.17  Mansour told Human Rights Watch,

We saw other Arabs from a distance. They were cultivating also. They had goats. They have not rebuilt or built houses. Their families live in the city. They commute in the morning with the women. They protect the women while the women work in the field. They were planting millet. There were Arabs living in the same area before, they know about farming because we gave them land to cultivate on condition that it was still ours. It was Masalit land. 18

Mansour complained to the police that an armed man was on his land. The police transferred the case to the sultan of the Masalit, who formed a committee with Arab and Masalit representatives to solve the case. The committee made a trip to the village, spent the day with the man on Mansour’s land and decided that the harvest must be divided between the original occupants and the current occupant.   Mansour told Human Rights Watch, “We said that we lost all our property and wanted compensation. We refused the division of the crop. It was our land, we did not give them the right to use it. We wanted the whole crop. We were prevented from planting and it is ours. The committee said that if we did not want half the crop, to just leave it.”19

The committee decided that the original occupants, Mansour and his family, could return. It did not, however, acknowledge that they were owners of the land, and held that the land belonged to the government.

 “If we return, we will be killed,” said Mansour. “This was not the way that disputes were resolved before. The committee would not agree to taking land by force.”20

Forced Relocation

In government-controlled towns such as Nyala and Fashir, where hundreds of thousands of displaced people are now congregated in camps and settlements, people still face arbitrary arrests and detentions by local authorities, and possible beatings, intimidation and sexual violence at the hands of marauding militiamen if they venture beyond the camp peripheries. Despite assertions by the Sudanese government that it would put adequate police in place to protect civilians, the fact that these forces are poorly equipped, ill-trained and sometimes perceived to be recycles militia members has done little to ensure security.

Displaced persons also face the possibility that they will be violently moved, against their will, to another location not their place of origin. The events in El Geer camp in Nyala in November 2004 underscore the precarious situation of the displaced.  Even when located within one of the three largest towns in Darfur, under full government control, there has been no guarantee of safety. 

Since early October 2004, fears were high in displaced camps around Nyala following radio reports stating that the governor of South Darfur ordered the relocation of displaced people from Kalma, the largest camp near Nyala town, and other areas to a new camp outside Nyala.  Some displaced people feared that the relocation was a ruse by the government to forcibly return them to their villages where they would face further militia attacks. Others were suspicious of the role played by Islamic relief organizations in setting up the new camp.

Rumors of impending forced relocations had been circulating in Nyala for weeks prior to November 10, 2004 when government forces entered El Geer displaced camp, destroying shelters, beating people and spraying tear gas in an effort to move displaced people to a new location, Abu Zarief.21  The fact that a BBC camera crew actually filmed the events made the only significant difference to a pattern of abuse that had been occurring for some time.

This forced, violent relocation of displaced persons from one camp to another and not permitting them to settle, is a familiar pattern in Sudan. The Sudanese government has been pursuing a similar policy for more than a decade with some two million internally displaced persons who fled famine and war in western and southern Sudan to live in Khartoum. Human Rights Watch noted in 1992:

The military government of Sudan has in recent months bulldozed and burned the homes of about 500,000 of its poorest citizens in a forcible and often violent program of expulsions from Khartoum to new camps located outside the city. The relocations are a flagrant violation of the rights of the displaced and squatter communities to live where they choose.22

In 1997, Human Rights Watch observed that international relief organizations operating in Khartoum were divided over what approach to take to the government’s abusive practices which permitted the government to persist in its program.

Despite international uproar over violent evictions and conditions of relocation that were significantly harsher than the demolished shantytowns, the government has literrally bulldozed its way to its goal, which appears to be cleansing Khartoum of “undesirable” poverty-stricken, uneducated migrants who arrived because of drought, famine, and war from their rural places of origin . . . .23

The motivation for this ill-treatment of hundreds of thousands of people may be slightly different in Darfur, but the method of removing “unwanted” people on questionable grounds—stating that the land is “owned” by someone else, without any fair trial to judge competing claims—in total disregard for their well-being, is a well established practice by the Sudanese government.   Bulldozing the homes of displaced and poor persons without providing alternatives for them, and often without notice, continues in Khartoum: in the last year, the homes, schools, clinics, and latrines of the 120,000 internally displaced persons in Jaborona camp in Omdurman were bulldozed.24

The special case of Sanideleibo

The case of Sanideleibo, South Darfur, has been presented as a success story of return by the Sudanese government, but the situation remains precarious for the returned population. Sanideleibo has unique elements that would be impossible to duplicate in other areas, chief among them the fact that its leading native son, a Shartai (local Fur leader), is a member of the government, a state minister of North Darfur. 

Sanideleibo was composed of two villages, one mainly Fur and some Dajo and one Tarjam, an Arab group. In May, 2004, fighting took place in the village, resulting in the entire destruction of the Fur village, including the Shartai’s residence. Human Rights Watch researchers observed that the Tarjam village was left intact.  Accounts from both communities of the events of May diverged on most points except the date of the fighting and the number of dead on the Fur side—between eleven and thirteen.25 

According to Fur witnesses of the attacks, Sanideleibo was one of several villages, including Tabaldiat and Jabarone, that were attacked in that area on that day in what was a broader government offensive; the government forces attacking Sanideleobo included several pick-up trucks with mounted weapons, Land Cruisers, and a large contingent of several hundred camel- and horse-mounted militiamen known as the Popular Defence Force (PDF).  According to one witness, “Eleven of us were killed and the Janjaweed replaced us here in the village. . . . All the handles were taken off the water pumps. There were fourteen pumps and ten were destroyed, the Janjaweed used four while they stayed in the village.”

The Fur and Dajo population of Sanideleibo fled to Kalma displaced persons camp near Nyala and to a neighboring village. The attack drew unusual attention from the government, however, because the Fur Shartai was a state minister in North Darfur. Three days after the attack, the Shartai reportedly arrived with a police force from Fashir. When Human Rights Watch visited the area, there were one hundred police stationed in the police post between the villages Despite this presence, villagers reported that “security needs to be increased because police only go maybe two or three kilometers around the area.”26 The farms of many villagers are beyond that zone, rendering them vulnerable to the same types of attacks experienced by other civilians in other areas.

One witness stated that in July “a delegation came from Khartoum under the authority of the wali and told us to return. Before the delegation came [between May and July], I tried three times to return but I was chased by the Janjaweed.”

In addition to the large police presence in Sanideleibo, another factor in motivating return appears to have been that those people who fled to neighboring villages were able to plant some crops and received some initial humanitarian assistance to facilitate their return.

At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, the returned Fur residents lived on the ruins of their village, without any herds next door to the prosperous Arab village with herds where the market (formerly in the Fur area) had been relocated.

Another factor deterring return in various parts of North, West, and South Darfur is the unseasonal presence of massive camel and other herds in numerous areas. In West Darfur, for instance, in late-October, 2004, Human Rights Watch observed large numbers of camel herds passing through areas which would normally be off-limits given that crops were to be harvested in a matter of weeks. Farmers and nomads alike complained that the annual migration cycle had been disrupted—for the nomads, rebel presence has obstructed livestock migration routes at various places, and for the farmers, some of the nomadic communities appear to be taking advantage of the collapse in law and order to move far beyond the traditional routes, provoking friction with farmers in even the limited area of this year’s cultivation. Most of the farmers state that there is little recourse for such incidents, as illustrated above, and that police do not respond effectively.

The international community could play a role in establishing military and police presence in key towns in areas, such as Wadi Saleh, where there is little active conflict and where an international presence could help stabilize the situation and put in place conditions for return.

International response to return issues

Currently, most of the attention of the international community is focused on the delivery of much-needed food, medical, and other assistance, and on prevention of forced return or relocation from the displaced camps in large towns like Nyala and Fashir. While this is an important issue for monitoring and action, it is also vital that the different sectors of the international community consider options for helping to facilitate voluntary, safe return of displaced people to their places of origin where they were economically self-sufficient. At the moment, there is no coherent strategy agreed upon among the various international actors for facilitating and monitoring returns.  The role of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was initially highlighted in a U.N. –Government of Sudan agreement as a key partner for facilitating and monitoring the return process, appears to have been partly side-lined, due in part to the hasty manner in which the agreement was negotiated without consultation with the agencies needed to implement any such return plan. In West Darfur, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will play a role in evaluating protection needs in the context of return of internally displaced persons, as it does for returning refugees. It is hoped that UNHCR will also expand its presence in the other states since IOM has neither the mandate nor the expertise to take on a protection role.27 

There is minimal international presence in the rural areas of Darfur, which is a major impediment to any successful return—in the absence of meaningful prosecutions of the leading abusers.  If security were sufficient, there is no doubt that most displaced people would be extremely eager to return to their home villages. However, most international emergency relief agencies have focused on the immediate situation in the displaced persons camps, rather than looking to the future or planning long term. Few international agencies are present in the rural areas from which the majority of the displaced population has fled. Even the A.U. forces remain concentrated in just five locations in Darfur,28 visiting rural areas in the course of investigations, but without any permanent presence.  This must change if displaced people are to be facilitated in making a safe, voluntary and successful return to their villages, their livelihoods, and their futures.

[4] See ICRC, “Sudan: Food Survey in Darfur,” Press Release 04/58, October 20, 2004,!OpenDocument and World Food Programme, Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment in Darfur, Sudan, October 2004,

[5] Even the nomadic communities benefiting from the looting—believed to be the smaller Arab pastoral tribes which do not have their own homelands, or dars—are experiencing economic difficulties. According to herders of the Aulad Zeid in West Darfur, the price of a female camel has dropped by more than 50 percent in two years: from 1 million Sudanese pounds in 2002 to 350,000 to 400,000 SP in 2004. They complained that no one was buying for export because the routes—to Libya, Egypt and elsewhere—are not secure. At the same time, prices in the market for grain and other items have sharply increased—due to the destruction of harvests and failure to plant. Human Rights Watch interview, Aulad Zeid herders, road from Geneina to Mornei, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[6]"Sudan to set up 18 ‘settlements’ for million Darfur Refugees: Report," Agence France Press, July 2, 2004.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview, Masalit community leader, Geneina, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview, Geneina, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview, Kass, South Darfur, October 5, 2004.

[10] Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No. 6(A), May 2004 and Human Rights Watch interviews, Wadi Saleh, West Darfur, October 2004.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview, Wadi Saleh, West Darfur, October 2004.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview, community leader, Menj Merrah, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview, community leader, Menj Merrah, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview, Sheikh Yousif Abdulrachman Hassan, Menj Merrah, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview, Sheikh Yousif Abdulrachman Hassan, Menj Merrah, West Darfur, October 18, 2004.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview, Mansour, Geneina, West Darfur, October 17, 2004.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview, Mansour, Geneina, West Darfur, October 17, 2004.

[21] Keane, Fergal, “Eyewitness: Terror in Darfur”, BBC News, November 10, 2004,

[22] Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Africa), “Sudan: Refugees in Their Own Country,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 4, no. 8, July 10, 1992.

[23] Human Rights Watch/Africa, Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996), pp. 254-55.

[24] “Sudan: Demolitions render thousands of IDPs homeless,” IRIN, October 13, 2004.

[25] Human Rights Watch interviews with Tarjam leaders and Fur representatives in Sanideleibo, South Darfur, October 7, 2004.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview, Sanideleibo, South Darfur, October 7, 2004.

[27] “The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns,” Human Rights Watch submission to the IOM Governing Council Meeting, 86th Session, Geneva, November 18-21, 2003,

[28] The A.U. has a presence in five towns in Darfur: Fashir, Nyala, Geneina, Kebkabiya, and Tine. It plans to expand its presence to four new locations and discontinue the base in Tine, where there are few civilians. It will downgrade its presence in Abeche, Chad, at the same time. Human Rights Watch interview, A.U. representative, Geneina, West Darfur, October 19, 2004.

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