Sudan's Darfur region dabbles with peace
- 2 March 2012
- From the section Africa
A graceful sweep of magnolia trees around a reservoir, accompanied by the low, productive, hum of a pump, hints at a very different image of Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur.
The area in western Sudan has been devastated by civil war since 2003, but Darfur is changing - for the better, some now believe.
A peace agreement, a reduction in fighting, and the limited but promising return of displaced people to their homes are held up as examples of Darfur's progress.
But the war is certainly not over, and life is still very tough for the millions of people who have been displaced by the conflict.
The Golo reservoir is being rehabilitated, with the aim of piping clean water to the town of Fasher.
Like many development projects, it is being paid for by foreign donors, in this case the UK.
Fasher, as with many other towns in Darfur, has come under unexpected pressure by the influx of frightened people uprooted by the war.
The UN estimates 1.7 million people are still displaced in Darfur.
'War deaths down'
Most of the people in vast camps like Abu Shouk, on the outskirts of Fasher, have been there since at least 2006.
Maryam Mohamed Moctar, dressed in a plum and white tobe - a traditional robe, is taking her turn in a line to collect water.
She fled fighting in the early days of the war.
She explains that armed men on horseback - the feared Janjaweed - attacked her village.
The mainly Arab Janjaweed militia has been accused of carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Darfur's black African population after rebels took up arms in 2003, accusing the government of ignoring the region.
Ms Moctar's husband and son were killed, she recalls, prompting tears to stream down her face.
The international peacekeepers, Unamid, are among those suggesting tragedies like the one suffered by Ms Moctar are becoming less common.
Unamid's head Ibrahim Gambari explains that it is thought only 300 people were killed in war-related incidents in Darfur in 2011, a reduction of 70% from the year before.
But Darfur is far from safe. On Thursday one peacekeeper was killed in an ambush.
With fighting continuing in Darfur, a temporary life is becoming permanent.
Brick buildings have replaced tents in Abu Shouk, as people attempt to create a more stable life.
Ms Moctar made bricks, until her back became too painful.
The brick-making is having disastrous environmental consequences, as trees are cut down in the process.
But Abu Shouk, and places like it, has been transformed. You can even spot the odd satellite dish on top of a roof.
The government wants people to leave camps like this, and return to their home villages.
An estimated 100,000 did so last year, along with 20,000 refugees who had been living in Chad.
Most of them settled in West Darfur, which is relatively peaceful, thanks in part to Chad's reconciliation with Sudan.
N'Djamena had previously supported the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) rebels.
But not everyone in Abu Shouk considers things have improved enough to consider returning home.
In an improvised Koranic school, a simple large yard filled with chanting boys, Yahya Mohamed Ibrahim is teaching.
He is paid a little by each pupil, but says he never turns anyone away, even if they cannot pay.
Mr Ibrahim says he scarcely makes enough to get by - but he does not think it is time to leave the camp.
"If there is no war, all of us would go back. But now there is no security, and security is our main concern," he says.
Three rebel groups, Jem, Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) led by Abdul Wahid and the SLA led by Minni Minawi, along with some smaller splinter groups, are still fighting the government.
Jem is reeling following the killing of its leader, Khalil Ibrahim, though his brother Jibril, the new leader, has promised to continue the struggle.
The three main Darfuri groups recently joined up with the SPLM-North rebels, who operate further east in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, near the border with South Sudan, to form a new group, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF).
Its stated aim is to topple President Omar al-Bashir.
The SRF's first combined operation took place at the end of last month in South Kordofan.
It is possible the Darfuri rebels' new avowedly national agenda will see them concentrating more of their forces outside Darfur.
In the words of Mr Gambari, many of the Darfuri rebels are already "believed to be" based in South Sudan, where it is easier to avoid attacks from Khartoum, and occasionally strike in Darfur, or South Kordofan.
However, one Darfuri rebel group - the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), itself a collection of smaller groups - has signed a peace agreement, in Qatar.
LJM now has ministers in the federal government, and a strong presence in the recently-created Darfur Regional Authority.
The new body is tasked with implementing the peace deal, which includes reconciliation, compensation, safe returns, and integrating LJM rebels in the armed forces.
The Doha agreement is not that dissimilar to the failed 2006 Abuja agreement, which Minni Minawi signed before eventually returning to war.
Mr Gambari says there are differences: "The provisions on compensation, land and justice are much superior."
"The DRA's powers are wider and deeper, and whereas Minni Minawi decided to stay in Khartoum, Tijani Sese, the chairman of the DRA, has decided to relocate here."
He also points out that the Doha agreement had input from civil society leaders, including displaced people.
But the DRA's task is a huge one.
Tajeddin Bashir Niam, a minister from LJM, is aware the people's expectations will be difficult to meet.
"We are very frank with our people, we are telling the truth," he says.
"We cannot build a house for everybody, we cannot build roads everywhere."
He also says people expect to get lots of compensation, but not everyone has suffered in the same way.
Analysts point out the LJM is essentially an artificial organisation, created by Libya and the US, with little military strength on the ground.
For the moment, it seems as if the other Darfur rebel groups are according it - and the Doha agreement - a bit of time to judge its worth.
"The Darfurian components of the SRF have pledged not to enter into armed hostilities with the LJM… allaying fears of a repeat of the intra-Darfurian fighting that characterised the period following the partial signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006," says the Small Arms Survey, which follows Darfur closely.
Khartoum has relaxed its initial deadline to sign Doha, and hopes to persuade some of the remaining rebel groups to sign up.
But faith in leaders of all sides is low.
Back in Abu Shouk, I asked Mr Ibrahim at the Koranic school which politician he supported.
"I don't support any of them. Who is good?" he replied.
Even if the other rebel movements sign the Doha agreement - and it is a big if - the war in Darfur, which has brought death, displacement and a surge in criminality, will take years to recover from.