"The conflict in Darfur started as a counter-insurgency campaign that lasted a few months, with huge humanitarian consequences, but it has now transformed into a low-intensity conflict which is likely to evolve into a situation of chronic instability," Alexandre Liebeskind, head of Darfur operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN.
"There is one overriding problem that needs to be resolved - that of armed militias," Niels Scott, head of the Darfur unit of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Khartoum, added.
"We are receiving reports of banditry and armed attacks on a daily basis and these people need to be neutralised," he said.
The conflict in Darfur pits Sudanese government troops and allied militias like the Janjawid - accused of terrorising the region's non-Arab tribes - against two main rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army/ Movement (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), who claim to be fighting the marginalisation of their region by Khartoum.
An additional concern, according to the African Union (AU) protection force in Darfur, was that the SLA, particularly in South Darfur, had no unity of command.
"It doesn't bode well for the Abuja peace negotiations that it seems the SLA chain of command is disintegrating," one sector commander of the AU contingent in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, said.
"The conflict has become more tribal- and livestock-oriented," he added. "It is shifting from inter-party to inter-tribal fighting."
Liebeskind warned that there was a risk that rebel commanders on the ground would not accept a peace agreement between political leaders.
"There is a fragmentation of the SLA on the ground along ethnic lines. What we see is an increasing tendency to ‘warlordism’," Liebeskind noted.
Rebel commanders and their men increasingly tended to control an area that corresponded with the boundaries of their ethnic group, he explained.
"The return to peace, civilian life, will be very difficult when these local commanders have experienced the taste of power," Liebeskind noted.
The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Sudan, Jan Pronk, acknowledged the delicacy of the current security situation. Banditry, he said, had increased and become more ferocious, while militia groups had not been disarmed. He said there was still a possibility of renewed attacks in the region.
The governor of South Darfur, El Haj Atta al Mannan, however, credited the AU for improving the security situation in the areas where it was deployed.
On 5 July, the Sudanese government, the SLM/A and the JEM signed a Declaration of Principles (DoP) in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, raising the hope that a permanent political settlement to the conflict was in sight. The negotiations are set to resume on 24 August.
"Within two or three months, the situation - inshallah [God willing]- will have been resolved in Darfur," al Mannan said.
The DoP contains provisions regarding the shape of future negotiations on matters such as unity, religion, power- and wealth-sharing, security arrangements and the crucial issue of land use and ownership.
Despite this progress, Pronk said, huge challenges remained before the region could enjoy complete peace.
"[Even] If an agreement will be reached between the government and the SLM/A and the JEM, many conflicts will still remain. They won't suddenly evaporate," he warned. "However, the DoP will provide a peaceful basis to negotiate a political solution to these problems."
"Any peace agreement must address the underlying causes of the conflict; the everlasting competition for shrinking resources in Darfur," Liebeskind said.
Many of these conflicts were not new, Pronk added - they had merely increased in scale due to an increased population, more pressure on land, climate change, soil degradation and the proliferation of weapons, among other factors.
"A Darfur-Darfur dialogue is needed after an Abuja agreement has been reached," Pronk noted.
Liebeskind said there was a strong desire among Arab nomads to settle and increase their homelands in order to improve their living conditions and send their children to school.
However, the return of internally displaced people (IDPs) to their homelands and the respect for Darfur’s current boundaries was one of the key provisions of the DoP - affected African tribes insist that occupied lands be returned to their original owners.
"Ongoing reconciliation, as well as management of conflicts between nomads and farmers, will require much political attention and resources for compensation and development," Pronk acknowledged.
The UN special representative predicted that following the fight for peace, the battle against poverty would require decades of sustained effort by the Sudanese and the international community.
OCHA’s Scott estimated that the overall humanitarian situation was under control, although 2.9 million people - almost half the total population - continued to be affected by the conflict, and the security situation remained problematic.
"Over the past six months, we haven't seen any large scale health problems, which is an indication that things are getting better," Scott said.
He added that humanitarian access in the region had greatly improved, and that 60 international NGOs, 12 UN agencies and 12,000 aid workers were active in Darfur.
"The NGOs and the humanitarian community have improved the humanitarian situation enormously," governor al Mannan said.
"Generally speaking, tensions have eased in Darfur over the past six months, but there remains a chronic insecurity around the large IDP camps and pockets of insecurity around disputed rural areas," Liebeskind noted.
He said thanks to food assistance, the provision of seeds and tools and stable security, some people were planting again and were expecting a harvest that would cover most of their food requirements next year.
In other areas, however, people were stuck in camps or in their villages, with no agricultural production taking place.
"On top of that, we see a general impoverishment of nomadic communities, because - for the third year in a row - they are unable to move their animals during the rainy season and because the market prices for cattle have collapsed," he added.
He predicted that nomadic tribes would need much more attention and assistance from the humanitarian community in 2006.
"All in all, there is room for optimism, but we must be realistic," Pronk said. "The situation is fragile, utterly fragile."
PLANNING FOR RETURNS
Following the possible signing of a Darfur peace agreement, IDPs would gradually need to return to their areas of origin in order for the situation to normalise, humanitarian agencies said.
However, according to an interagency assessment in March 2005, 98 percent of the IDPs interviewed felt the situation was still too insecure to go back.
"The biggest issue next year will be the issue of returns. It will require a combination of the kind of security guarantees the Sudanese government can give and a very intelligent policy in terms of inciting the return of IDPs by providing assistance in rural areas," Liebeskind noted.
The AU has, in the meantime, started to increase its troops on the ground in order to provide additional protection.
"With more troops at our disposal, the main priority would be to provide more security to IDPs in and around camps and to provide security to some of the villages people are returning to," Col Ajumbo noted.
"If we want to avoid to get trapped in [a situation of] never-ending assistance to IDPs, the balance between over-assisted IDPs in camps and under-served communities in remote rural settings has to change," Liebeskind observed.
Pronk called on humanitarian organisations in the region to start planning for the return of IDPs, as well as recovery and development, especially in rural areas.
"Even while peace is not yet there, it shouldn't take us by surprise," he said.
Although security was paramount, some development was needed in order to facilitate the return of IDPs to their villages, and more services had to be provided in those areas.
"In Darfur, we have at least a number of months to bridge the gap between emergency assistance and recovery activities and we need to start our preparations," Pronk stressed.