Ziguinchor — Despite a lingering landmine threat, families who years ago fled fighting in Senegal's southern Casamance region are slowly trying to return to their home villages. But a lack of water - for drinking and for building homes - is keeping many away.
With some villages abandoned for 15 years, wells have collapsed or are full of debris. Entire communities have been swallowed up in dense bush, and homes and other buildings which are mostly made of mud-brick have been wiped out.
"The main problem holding us back before was the mines," said Bouba Diémé, from the village of Soukouta, in the rural community of Boutoupa Camaracounda some 20km east of the Casamance capital Ziguinchor.
While mines remain a problem, limited demining operations last year prompted some families to attempt a return. "But now this turns out to be impossible because there is no water in the area," Diémé told IRIN.
The reconstruction of homes, schools, hospitals and wells remains to be done in scores of villages across Casamance. The 26-year conflict between the Senegalese government and the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has yet to be resolved, which is in large part why recovery efforts have not gone full speed ahead, aid officials in the region say.
The problems facing Diémé and others trying to return to Boutoupa Camaracounda represent some of the challenges of providing recovery assistance amid an atmosphere of neither war, nor peace in one of the world's longest-running conflicts.
While all-out armed fighting has long been over, no comprehensive peace deal has been reached; the security climate is still precarious and some in the MFDC have resisted recovery efforts, refusing 'normalisation' without a resolution to the conflict.
Rebels have sabotaged demining efforts in the past. And in November 2007 one faction of the splintered MFDC put out a communiqué warning residents not to return from Casamance's southern neighbour, Guinea-Bissau, to their home villages in the area of Santhiaba Manjaque, where the faction is based.
Experts on the Casamance conflict say the MFDC likely fears that a mass return of the population would mean an influx of Senegalese troops.
Aid workers say that while there has not been a mass return to villages in Boutoupa Camaracounda, families are coming back little by little, some encouraged by military mine clearing operations last year. But the threat of mines remains throughout Casamance as humanitarian demining has yet to begin.
"It's not just the water problem that is blocking the return of refugee and displaced people in this area," local elected official Famara Diandy told IRIN. "There is also the fear of mines in certain localities."
The Centre National d'Action Antimines du Senegal (CNAMS) plans to launch a pilot project in February to clear mines to assist families' return, according to Papa Omar N'diaye, CNAMS director.
CNAMS and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are seeking funding for a programme to form mine action teams and carry out humanitarian demining in the Casamance regions of Ziguinchor and Kolda.
Local official Diandy said a lack of roads is another major problem, with many abandoned villages now completely cut off. He said Boutoupa Camaracounda has asked the government and NGOs for help but the community has yet to see a response.
"We have asked both the government and NGOs to help us," Diandy said. "But our requests have been in vain up to now. There are 6,000 people [originally from Boutoupa Camaracounda] who today live as refugees and we want them to come home."
Pierre Marie Bassène, director of the Agence Nationale pour la Relance des Activités Economiques en Casamance (ANRAC), told IRIN the agency was not aware of a water shortage problem for people trying to return to Boutoupa Camaracounda, but said the agency would be ready to help once a formal demand is received from local authorities.
One government water expert in Ziguinchor said Boutoupa Camaracounda - comprising more than 20 villages - has no motorised water pumps, only traditional wells. The Casamance conflict blocked access to the area during a programme to install modern pumps, the official said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]