'There are problems': Doubts in Darfur as new PM promises peace

EL FASHER, Sudan (Reuters) - Saleha Nour sits selling nuts in the market in El Fasher, Darfur and dismisses her new prime minister’s promise of a brighter new future with a wave of her hand.

She is talking on the eve of a visit by the premier - Abdalla Hamdok - who is coming to set out his plans to settle the near 17-year-old conflict in the west Sudanese region and repair the damage done by ousted president Omar al-Bashir.

But Nour has heard all the promises before and long given up hope of returning to the village she was forced to flee at the start of the fighting.

Violence may have subsided since the days when Bashir mobilized mostly Arab militia to crush an uprising by mostly non-Arab rebels, unleashing a wave of killings and mass displacement that Washington and others called genocide.

But it is still too dangerous for families to go back and for things to return to how they were, says Nour.

“When some ... went (back) farming they got attacked at night in their houses and killed,” Nour says. She now lives in a camp outside El Fasher. Other families lost their cattle when their farms were seized in the first fighting, so whole livelihoods have gone.

Their plight underlines the challenge facing Hamdok as he and his transitional government try to settle the conflict and bring the northeastern African country out of decades of diplomatic and financial isolation that was exacerbated by sanctions imposed over Darfur.

The makeshift camps that housed hundreds of thousands at the height of the violence have grown walls and infrastructure and solidified into settlements, making it harder to persuade people to resume long-abandoned lives.

And the societal and ethnic divisions that fueled the worst of the conflict are still there in the background.

Sudan's Prime Minister in the transitional government Abdalla Hamdok addresses residents during his visit to the camps of El-Fashir in North Darfur, Sudan November 4, 2019. Picture taken November 4, 2019. REUTERS/El Tayyieb Siddig


A day later, Hamdok draws a crowd of hundreds as he tours Zam Zam camp just outside El Fasher on Monday.

The soft-spoken civilian greets them with the words “freedom, peace and justice” - a slogan chanted by the crowds that took to the streets across Sudan in this year in mass rallies that eventually ousted Bashir.

“We will meet your demands. We will work together,” Hamdok tells the crowd.

He stays talking for most of the day but offers little in terms of concrete new proposals.

“Our conditions for a return are security, peace, education, health care,” 21-year Ahmed Ibrahim tells Reuters during the visit. He was 10 when his family fled.

Hamdok took office in August under a three-year power sharing deal with the military.

Since then the transitional government has asked the United Nations and the African Union to keep operating their joint peacekeeping mission in Darfur - a force that Bashir was trying to shut down.

Khartoum is also taking part in peace talks with rebels from Darfur and other borderlands.

But diplomats say the sides hare having to wrestle with a conflict that has changed and fractured.

Rebels have fallen out and splintered with some now fighting for cash in Libya. Arab tribes have been competing among themselves as water resources dwindle, fuelling conflicts between farmers and nomads. Banditry is rife.

And the militias that fought in the early days of the conflict have changed leaders and names and taken up new roles in Sudan’s shifting political landscape.

People in the camps say they are worried about former Arab militia - known as the Janjaweed - that they say joined the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the dominant force in Khartoum since Bashir’s ouster.

Hamdok is guarded by a troops of army special forces during his visit.

But the RSF is also present, driving around in heavily armed pickups. Its commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is part of the national transitional leadership.

“Every time we go back farming ... Rapid support (fighters) came and kicked us out,” said Sadia Ibrahim, another displaced villager. “There are problems.”

Editing by Andrew Heavens