Sudan: Darfur Refugees Refuse to Attend Conference Amid Security Fears

Khartoum — Sudanese refugees in Chad have refused to participate in a conference in Darfur next week intended to address concerns of displaced persons and refugees, including voluntary return, saying the security situation on the ground is still too dangerous.

The event is scheduled to take place in South Darfur state's capital Nyala from 25-26 March, with outcomes to be discussed at the upcoming Darfur donors' conference in Doha to drum up support for development projects in the region.

UNAMID and the Voluntary Return and Resettlement Commission of the Darfur Regional Authority (DRA) expect that over 1,000 participants will attend the summit, including displaced persons and refugees, civil society groups, government officials, NGOs, UN agencies and the diplomatic community.

However, Sudanese refugees in the eastern Chad camps of Treguine, Bredjing and Kounongou told Radio Dabanga that ongoing conflict in Darfur, lack of security and suppression of freedoms prevent their return to their homelands.

Head of the Bredjing camp, Jamal Daoud, questioned how refugees could be invited to attend a conference on voluntary return at a time when pro-government militias continue to terrorise, murder and rape civilians with apparent impunity and with the full knowledge of the DRA.

Indeed the conference was rejected outright by the chiefs at all three camps, who said refugees would return if the DRA addressed problems in the region, without the need for a conference.

TIMING QUESTIONED

Leaders for refugee and displaced persons inside Darfur have also expressed doubts about the conference, questioning its timing given the realities of the situation on the ground.

The coordinator of the Zalingei camps in Central Darfur said displaced persons there have declined an invitation to attend the Nyala conference.

He fears the summit may give the green light for further violence, murders and displacement in Darfur and called upon authorities and UNAMID to seize arms, stop violations and promote justice.

Despite initially refusing to attend the event, North Darfur camp coordinator Ahmed Ateem told Radio Dabanga he'd since head a change of heart, saying the absence of displaced persons would not serve "any purpose".

Ateen, who plans to attend with several camp residents, said if displaced persons stayed away from the conference than their voice and concerns would remain unheard.

The administrator had earlier criticised the holding of the conference, saying its agenda was largely being driven by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which he says is seeking to dismantle refugee and displacement camps.

Meanwhile, representatives for refugees and the displaced in South and West Darfur states have also confirmed their attendance at the summit to Radio Dabanga.

Omda Salahuddin Abdullah Hassan, head of the coordination office of displaced persons in South Darfur, said the conference was an opportunity for the displaced to unify their demands, as well as reflect upon their issues during the 10-year conflict.

Sheikh Daoud Arbab Yunis, head of the Higher Committee for Displaced of West Darfur, has also underlined the need for all participants to be able to freely express their opinions in the summit, saying he had been "interrogated" by security services following a similar conference in El Fasher last year after speaking "frankly" about problems faced by the displaced.

Despite attending the talks, the sheikh expressed pessimism about the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), describing the agreement as "ink on a paper" that "does not exist on the ground".

He said his organisation would be representing the demands of displaced people at the conference, which included calls for increased security, disarmament of militias, the expulsion of settlers and the enforcement of the rule of law.

VIOLENCE, INSECURITY ON THE RISE

The conference comes amid renewed bloodshed in the troubled western region, sparking a new wave of displacement - the worst since violence peaked in 2003, after marginalised non-Arab rebel groups took up arms against the Sudanese government.

With killings, looting, blackmail, tribal violence and kidnappings remaining a constant of daily life, representatives for refugees and the displaced said large-scale voluntary return was unrealistic.

The spokesman for the association of displaced persons and refugees of Darfur, Hussein Abu Sharati , told Radio Dabanga he had intended to gather representatives from all the camps prior to the conference to discuss their demands.

However, the meeting failed to take place after security and economic conditions prevented many displaced from travelling and taking part in the talks.

Sharati admitted he would not take part in the summit, saying now is not the time for a conference.

He stressed that solving the conflict should not happen through conferences, but by addressing the root cause of the problems in Darfur.

First stop the crimes, then we [can] talk about voluntary return", he was quoted by Radio Dabanga.

In an interview with the station announcing the conference, Azhari Shatta, voluntary return and resettlement commissioner of the DRA, defended the current timing, adding that tribal clashes and ongoing battles in Darfur should not influence the talks or the voluntary return of displaced to their home villages.

"How long must we wait until guns stop and we begin the process of voluntary return, compensation and co-existence?" Shatta asked. "War and battles are not a justification for postponing the conference, even the contrary, we believe that the conference will reflect positively on the security situation in Darfur", he added.

The DRA says there are currently more than 1.5 million displaced people in Darfur, with the majority of them in refugee camps.

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