Darfur refugees seek justice over peace
KALMA CAMP, Sudan (AP) — Refugees in this crowded camp — where mass graves hold the victims of one of the bloodiest Sudanese government attacks against them — see little hope in a new drive for peace aimed at ending the nearly six-year war in Darfur. What they want is justice.
For many of the refugees, that means putting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on trial for genocide.
Khalthoum Adam, a 50-year-old woman in Kalma Camp, says that peace deal or no, without a trial she won't return to her home village not far from Kalma. She fears violence by Arab camel herders she says are still holding the land she and her family were driven out of by attacking planes and government militia five years ago.
"They will be sending us to another danger" if camp residents are forced to return home as part of a peace agreement, she said. "If (al-Bashir) doesn't go to trial, we will stay in the camps."
Adam spoke as she emerged from Kalma with a group of women to collect grain from nearby fields, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers to prevent the frequent attacks on women who dare step out of the camps.
Distrust of al-Bashir and his Arab-led government is deep and bitter among the 2.7 million mostly ethnic Africans driven from their homes. Some observers say their fears must be taken into account amid new, still struggling efforts to get Darfur rebel leaders and the government back to the negotiating table.
After the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court announced genocide charges against al-Bashir last summer, international observers and Sudan's allies warned that if the court pushes ahead, the regime could lash out and wreck any peace process.
Next week, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo is to present details to the Hague-based court outlining what he says is al-Bashir's role in overseeing the systematic targeting of Darfur's main Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes. Based on that, the judges are to make a final decision on the indictment and on issuing an arrest warrant.
Al-Bashir has sought to avert prosecution by presenting himself as indispensable for peace. He launched a new initiative Wednesday, offering a cease-fire to rebels and announcing his willingness to meet some of their top demands, including disarming the government-allied Arab militias known as janjaweed and compensating displaced Darfurians to help them return home.
His move comes as the United Nations and the Arab Gulf state of Qatar try to stitch together yet another round of peace talks between the government and Darfur's multiple rebel groups. So far, the rebels have rejected a cease-fire. They say concrete steps — including disarming janjaweed — must come first.
The janjaweed are blamed for widespread atrocities, killings and rapes against ethnic Africans in a campaign believed to have been backed by Khartoum to help it put down Darfur's rebels. Up to 300,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in early 2003.
In the eyes of many Darfur refugees, justice is the only way to peace. Al-Bashir, they say, simply will never make peace, and the ICC is the only way to remove him. They are convinced his talk of a resolution aims only to force them out of camps to drain what have become strongholds for rebels and the core of their support.
The dawn assault on Kalma by government troops in August only solidified that belief.
The forces surrounded a section of the camp, home to around 100,000 people in southern Darfur. They pounded it with machine guns and allegedly with artillery. The 33 residents killed in the attack have been buried in four mass graves outside the compound of the U.N.-African Union peacekeepers who since the attack watch the camp 24 hours a day.
Khartoum says the troops that attacked Kalma were pursuing rebel gunmen, though it says it is investigating whether excessive force was used.
The government has made no secret of its desire to empty the camps.
"These camps are used by the rebels to ignite public opinion against the government. We have the right to find a way to make the displaced return home," said Sorour Abdullah, the government Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator in Nyala.
Some Darfurians are convinced security can only come with regime change in Khartoum and that trying al-Bashir will bring that about. Many observers warn that more hard-line figures could take his place.
"This government has been ruling the people of Sudan for 19 years. This is enough," said Taj Eddin Nourein, 23, a resident of As-Salam refugee camp who was selling sugar cane in the market in Nyala, near Kalma.
Nagla Bashir, a peace activist and professor at Nyala University, says any peace process must have support from the wider population — refugees and Darfurians who remained in their homes — to succeed.
"The solution remains here," she said. "Peace can only be created if it starts from the base."
Bashir sees room for a middle ground on the issue of justice — that people may be satisfied by an apology for atrocities and local prosecution for some figures if they are convinced peace is coming.
Not all displaced Darfurians dismiss peace prospects. Elias Abdulla Elias, who works as a vendor in Nyala after being driven from his home in north Darfur, says the ICC charges have forced al-Bashir to make peace.
"If it wasn't for the threat of trials, we wouldn't have had a peace initiative that is backed by the world," the 25-year-old said. "If peace prevails, we can then have justice."