El Fasher, Sudan — The changes across the landscape here would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
The rebel groups that started the war in Darfur in 2003, catalyzing a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, almost seem to have gone into hibernation. So, too, have the infamous janjaweed, the marauding bandits who raped, killed and terrorized countless civilians.
And this planting season, for the first time since 2003, United Nations officials say that tens of thousands of farmers who had been seeking refuge in squalid displaced persons camps returned to their villages to plant crops, a journey many Darfurians would have considered suicide until recently.
“People need to update their perception of Darfur,” said Daniel Augstburger, the director of the African Union-United Nations humanitarian liaison office in Darfur. “It’s not like there are still janjaweed riding around, burning down villages.”
At El Fasher airport — which used to be crawling with pilots, soldiers, national security agents and dubious armed men — the fighter jets sit idle on the runway, cockpits covered in canvas. Occasionally they fly sorties, the camouflage-painted planes cutting across an impossibly bright sky. But there have been no major bombing campaigns for months, if not years, peacekeeping officials said.
“Frozen,” said Lt. Gen. Patrick Nyamvumba, the Rwandan commander of the 20,000 peacekeepers in Darfur. “That is a good word for the situation. It is calm, very calm at the moment, but it remains unpredictable. “
Darfur, Sudan’s enormous western region that has become virtually synonymous with conflict, seems to be stuck between war and peace. There is still violence, a lot of it, with five Rwandan peacekeepers recently killed and aid workers kidnapped and routinely carjacked. Heavily armed bandits — possibly castoffs from the earlier days of more organized warfare — have become ubiquitous. Partly because of that, the flow of people out of the camps is just a trickle compared with the 2.7 million still stuck in them, afraid to go home.
But the rebel groups have been quiet in the past year, hobbled by endless fragmentation and no clear political agenda. At the same time, the Sudanese government seems encouraged by the Obama administration’s talk of engaging with the nation, rather than isolating it, and United Nations officials say there is little evidence the government is sponsoring ethnic violence here, as it has been accused of doing not so long ago.
Even some of the most outspoken activists on Darfur, who helped keep this conflict on the world’s front pages for the past five years, drawing more attention to Darfur than just about any other African war in recent memory, do not automatically recoil anymore at statements like “The war is over.” That was essentially what the former peacekeeping commander said in August, provoking a protracted controversy.
“There is no doubt that violence has diminished significantly in the past two or three years — and many, including myself, have been slow to recognize how significant this reduction has been,” said Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and one of the leading academic voices on Darfur.
But, he added, civilians were still being attacked, and “the anger, frustration, and despair simply cannot be overstated.”
That said, few of the cataclysmic predictions of the past few years have come true — not the big Sudanese government offensives that many feared would take place in 2006 and 2007, or the expected attacks by thousands of janjaweed against refugee camps. Even the widespread death and disease that United Nations officials and many aid workers worried would be the consequence of the Sudanese government’s expulsion of 13 foreign aid organizations last year were largely averted.
“People were crying wolf,” Augstburger said. “The crisis within the crisis never happened.”
The hybrid African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission, the most expensive in the world at $1.6 billion per year, which took years of negotiation to put in place, is also going much better than expected, the peacekeepers say.
“Yes, we have obstructions from time to time,” Nyamvumba said. “But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”
All this seems to add up to a single question, asked from the sprawling refugee camps to the inner circles of the Sudanese government: Now what?
In the camps, the transient life of the refugee is becoming permanent. Most people hate living here. The crowded huts, the waiting for food handouts, the idleness are steadily taking their toll.
“I am uncomfortable and depressed,” said Abbas Abdallah Mohamed, a farmer who fled his village four years ago. But like many others, he was not ready to venture home.
“If we go back, maybe there will be tribal war,” he said, referring to one of the biggest problems today in Darfur, the fighting between different ethnic groups over shrinking grazing land.
Some camp dwellers have begun taking jobs in nearby towns making bricks the biblical way, out of mud and straw, building solid homes for others while they themselves live in temporary shelters often constructed from twigs and plastic bags.
“The possibility is that they could be here forever,” said Mohamed B. Yonis, a top United Nations official in Darfur.
In El Fasher’s market, shopkeepers in white prayer hats sit cross-legged behind pyramids of spices and dates. Young men with strong voices call out the price of beef. The streets are clogged not with armed pickups but with horse-drawn carts pulling blocks of soap.
The focus in Sudan seems to be steadily shifting to the south. Rebels in southern Sudan fought a separatist war for decades, and the region is scheduled to vote on its independence next year. But as the south edges toward nationhood, ethnic violence is building, with more than 2,000 people killed in 2009, many more than in Darfur, according to United Nations officials.
The root cause of both rebellions, in the south and in Darfur, is the same: marginalization. Sudan has a history of concentrating power and wealth in the center of the country, at the expense of the periphery. Until that is addressed, analysts say, Darfur will most likely remain tense, even if that tension is not expressed in mass killings or scorched villages.
But one glimmer of hope is that camp elders, religious figures and women’s leaders are being given prominent roles in peace talks for the first time.
“Will it be the big breakthrough?” Augstburger said. “I don’t know. But the movements are starting to get concerned. It’s a brand-new dynamic.”