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November 25, 2009

As pressure mounts to send IDPs home, little is being said about the crucial issue of land rights.

 25 Nov 2009
By Katy Glassborow, Tajeldin Abdhalla Adam and Blake Evans-Pritchard in The Hague (AR No 237, 25-Nov-09)

Abdalla Adam, an IDP (internally displaced person) leader from Alryad camp in El Geneina, West Darfur, says that he desperately wants to return to his village, Mestarei, from which he was forced to leave in 2003, but cannot because others have occupied his land.  Shortly after he was expelled, Arab settlers moved in.

"We were evicted by force from our land, which was given to settlers," he said. "The ultimate goal of this campaign of killing and displacement is to eliminate us and give our land to these settlers. We don't want to live in these camps but for now we have to because there is no where to go."

"This is about our land, which we are very attached to, where we have our houses, farms and orchards, and where our ancestors lived, died and were buried," Adam explained.

Adam is not alone in expressing such anxieties. Many other IDPs would also like to leave the camps and return to their former villages, once the situation improves, but fear that they no longer have land to go back to.

Mohamed Abdalla Aldoma, a lawyer from the Darfur Bar Association, said, "Land occupation in Darfur is a very vital issue. But, unfortunately, everybody, including the [United Nations] who documented it in 2007, are silent now."

Around three million Darfuris (mainly members of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa so-called black African Darfur tribes) have been displaced by government forces and allied janjaweed militia since 2003.  Perceiving these tribes as disloyal and harbouring insurgents, the Khartoum government deliberately targeted this section of the population, destroying homes, crops, livelihoods, killing men, raping women and forcing people off their land. There are claims that Khartoum annulled traditional customary law - which gave ownership rights to the region's sedentary African tribes and leasing rights to Arab nomads - and then actively encouraged Darfur Arabs and Arabs from other countries such as Chad to settle on land previously occupied by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, in a bid to swell support for Bashir's regime.

One estimate from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNCHR, puts the number of Chadians that migrated to Darfur between 2006 and 2007 at 30,000, but gives no indication that the Sudanese government was responsible for encouraging this influx. Aldoma says that he has documented many cases where settlers, who were clearly foreigners, were given Sudanese IDs. "In some places the settlers have taken full control of the land including farms, orchards and water resources," he said.

Salih Osman, a Sudanese legislator and human rights campaigner, warns time is running out to resolve the problem and that, in the absence of official records, traces of villages and land ownership could disappear. During the fighting, many villages were razed and surrounding fields burnt.
"In time, the remnants of the ruined villages will vanish, and someone will come and say he found the land and there was no sign of previous possession," Osman said.  "The longer we keep people in camps, the longer there is a possibility of something like this happening. We all fear that this will be an ethnic cleansing, in the sense that millions of people will never be able to go back to their regional homes."

IDPs report that, whenever they try to leave the camps, they are in danger of being attacked by militiamen.
When two IDPs, Omer and Ali, left their camp at Kereinig, east of El Geneina, recently to cultivate peanuts a few km away, they were ambushed by armed men. They were then beaten and Omer's arms were broken.
"We were very lucky to survive," he said. "We thought they were going to shoot us, but instead they beat us and threatened to kill us if we come back again."  Omer said that the two men had wanted to leave the camp to grow something for their families to eat.
"But these armed men in military uniform have prevented us," he said. "They told us that they are the government, and they are the masters of this land."

Ibrahim Adam, from the Kasab IDP camp in Kutum, North Darfur, recalls how he was attacked by four armed soldiers when he took his goats to graze in bushland 20 minutes walk away from the camp.
"They knocked me down and started to kick me with their boots all over my body while I kept rolling like a ball," he said. "Then they tied me to a tree and left with the goats."  Ibrahim was eventually discovered by his family, who managed to free him from the tree.  Ibrahim says that neither UNAMID, the UN peacekeeping operation in the region, nor the police were able to take any action.
"We are just living in big prisons," he said. "We have no freedom to move, let alone go back to our destroyed villages."

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