JENEINA, Sudan, May 1, 2005 -- The Sudanese soldiers and allied militiamen who destroyed Darfur could empty out an entire village in something like 60 minutes flat.
They would swoop in fast in the early morning hours, their horses and camels sprinting, their trucks racing, their guns blazing. Within the space of that one calamitous hour they would obliterate the settlement, torching, raping and killing with ruthless efficiency.
But now, with some of the first tentative signs of peace settling over the area, the question is how, and even whether, their malign work can be undone.
It will be years before we know the answer. But it is already evident to diplomats and aid workers here that Darfur has been deeply changed by the war in ways that will be difficult to fix. They point to a litany of emerging problems: diminished water supplies; bitter land disputes; inflamed tribal animosities; the psychosocial traumas of rape and displacement; and a significant transfer of wealth in a place that has always been, and still is, desperately poor.
The good news in Darfur is that it has been quieter of late. The war between the government and two Darfur rebel groups - the conflict that sparked the unrest in early 2003 - has calmed down in recent weeks. Negotiations aimed at bringing it to an end are scheduled to restart next month amid growing optimism.
Still, a quieter Darfur is a relative thing. Vicious militiamen continue to rule the lawless hinterlands, and even an end to the violence cannot undo the basic, perhaps unalterable, changes wrought by the war.
Nearly two million people, most of them from certain targeted tribes, have fled their homes for squatter camps. If past refugee flows are any guide, many of them will refuse to go home, having grown accustomed to camp life, with its schools, health clinics and other amenities that did not exist in large swaths of the countryside.
Others have become hooked on city life. All across Africa, the bustle of towns and cities drains villages of their young. In Darfur, displaced people living on the fringes of cities have seen television for the first time. They have shopped at sprawling markets. For some of them, too, life in a remote village has lost its allure.
"I don't think Darfur will ever be the same way it used to be," said Maeve Murphy, a community services worker with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "People have experienced the population centers and many will stay, especially the most vulnerable."
Aid organizations have already begun planning how they will move their assistance to the countryside to lure displaced people back. That question is academic for now because the fierce fighters known as the janjaweed, who caused so much of the suffering in Darfur, continue to attack civilians who dare leave the camps, stealing relief supplies whenever they can.
Tribal tensions are more inflamed than ever. The Arabic nomadic tribes that participated in Darfur's destruction have long clashed with their sedentary neighbors, who tend to come from African tribes. In the chaos of recent years, the nomads have been emboldened to graze their livestock anywhere they choose, an inevitable source of tension when the farmers head back to their fields.
Titles to property are nonexistent here. Land ownership is based on ancestral links, but tradition is tough to enforce after the population has been scattered. Whatever power balance kept things from exploding in the past - a fear of retaliation if one stepped out of line - is gone. Now the nomads have guns and a belief that Darfur is theirs.
"They think the land belongs to them now," said Yahia Hassan Ibrahim, 45, a sheik who was forced from his village in West Darfur by Arab militias. "They say they took it from us."
Aid organizations, which have been pouring assistance into the African tribes, now wonder whether their one-sided approach might be heightening tensions by alienating the nomadic Arab tribes, many of which did not participate in the violence. They now plan to extend aid to needy nomadic tribes as well, even if some of that aid goes to the killers.
If nomads get food aid, the thinking goes, they might stop stealing from the camp dwellers. Regarding all nomads as killers, many here now believe, only ensures that reconciliation will never happen.
In another effort to lure nomads back to their traditional ranges, relief workers are planning to drill wells along their traditional migration routes. That way, they say, the Arabs will have less incentive to wander into farm lands in search of water.
Water shortages, always a problem in parched Darfur, have been aggravated by the war. Village wells have been destroyed, and the congregation of thousands of refugees in the camps has overtaxed local water supplies.
Restoring some balance of wealth will be a huge challenge as well. The victimized communities have been stripped of all their assets, food stores, herds of cattle and homes. The Sudanese government has established a compensation committee but few have faith that Khartoum will make it a priority.
Finally, there is the issue of rape, though on this point there is at least one promising development. Many tribal leaders have expressed mixed emotions about accepting the babies that are now being born to women who were raped by members of the janjaweed. But in the refugee camps across the border in Chad, home to 200,000, the high commissioner for refugees recently helped broker a deal.
It was an amnesty, of sorts. Tribal elders agreed not to deem rape victims as having strayed from their religion and engaged in unlawful adultery or premarital sex. They are to be welcomed by their husbands and available for marriage, the elders decided. With that one decree, many victimized women now stand a chance of participating in the rebuilding of Darfur.