Elections spark new fears in Darfur camps

In Zamzam refugee camp in Sudan’s Darfur region, optimism that national elections will bring an end to years of conflict and deprivation is in short supply, just like water, food, and everything else.

The elections taking place across Sudan this week seemed a distant notion in Zamzam, a sprawling makeshift city crowded with bony livestock and dust-coated children, who are among the 2,5-million people forced from their homes since 2003 by fighting between rebels and state-backed militias.

Even though the vote has already been marred by allegations of fraud and widespread voting problems, it is hoped that Sudan’s first competitive vote in 24 years will maintain a semblance of stability as the country heads toward a 2011 referendum that could split the Christian and traditionalist south from the Muslim north.

Yet the election is unlikely to end the conflict in Darfur, where the United Nations says 300 000 people have been killed since 2003 in a conflict that Washington has labelled genocide. Khartoum says 10 000 have died.

Many camp residents fear the election could actually deepen the combustible divisions in Darfur if it emboldens President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and weakens incentives to make concessions to rebel groups like the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

There was little debate as voting took place in camps like Zamzam about the prospect of reconciliation with a government whose leader faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court over alleged war crimes in Darfur.

“Unfortunately I see elections as a way for [the government] of maintaining things as they are with complete impunity,” said Rania el-Rajji, a United Kingdom-based researcher from Amnesty International.

“The government tried to kill us using mortars and they attacked us with Antonov planes,” said Mansour Omar Adibu, who came to Zamzam last year from Darfur’s Muhajariya area.

“If the government stays in power, we will come out and stand next to our children to fight against them,” he said.

Such feelings may have contributed to the paltry voter turnout among displaced Sudanese in Darfur.

According to poll workers, only up to a third of the approximately 9 000 voters registered at Zamzam, home to 110 000 people, had shown up by the middle of the third day of voting at the sole polling centre, a reed hut where woven rugs hanging from the ceiling blocked off voting booths.

Hand of friendship
An initial agreement in February between al-Bashir’s government and the JEM was an encouraging sign that the seven-year conflict could be approaching an end. But further talks have stalled, another rebel group rejected the deal, and the United Nations has reported lower-level clashes since then.

Ibrahim Gambari, who heads the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping operation in Darfur, said he hoped the election would bring “a gradual return to normalcy” and actually encourage the government to embrace a negotiated settlement.

“Maybe the opportunity … is a post-election scenario whereby the government extends the hand of friendship to other opposition parties, which may very well contribute to facilitating the [Darfur] negotiations,” he said in an interview.

Al-Bashir’s main opponents in Khartoum withdrew from the presidential race at the last minute, disappointing those who hoped the man who took power in a coup in 1989 would face at least a nominal challenge at the polls.

Contrary to UN hopes, normality may remain elusive while conflict continues in Darfur and fragile security impedes relief efforts.

Days before the election, the European Union pulled its observers from Darfur due to safety concerns. Just this week, four peacekeepers went missing near Nyala, in southern Darfur.

In the lead-up to the polls, al-Bashir threatened to cut off the fingers and tongues of election observers — another worrying signal to Western aid groups after the president threw out leading relief organisations last year.

All of that is bad news in places like Zamzam and Abu Shouk, another camp on the outskirts of the North Darfur capital, El Fasher.

Men trade stories in the shade of patched-together homes; there is little work to be had. At one Zamzam clinic, patients lie on thin mattresses waiting for the one doctor.

“If al-Bashir wins again, there will be a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur,” said Faisal Bakr Ahmed, a camp resident.

In the meantime, Mubarak Mohammed, the Zamzam clinic manager who is himself displaced, is looking for a triumph of hope over experience.

“Maybe if there is a peace agreement between the government and rebels, things will get better. Maybe there government will decide to change,” he said, wistfully. — Reuters

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