Referendum little comfort for Darfur displaced

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Zamzam Camp, Darfur (Sudan) (AFP)

Among the sprawling thatch huts of Darfur's Zamzam Camp for displaced civilians, there is little feeling a referendum on administrative status might remedy years of suffering caused by the conflict.

The vote on whether Sudan's restive west should unite its five states into a single region has been touted by Khartoum as proof of stability returning to Darfur, where rebels have been battling their forces since 2003.

At a small market selling chewing tobacco under a patch of thorn trees in the heart of the camp, residents who have lost everything showed little interest in voting.

"The referendum doesn't concern me -- I just want peace and stability," said Ismail Omar as he sold small bags of the green-coloured tobacco.

Ethnic minority insurgents in Darfur rebelled against the Arab-dominated central government in 2003, saying the region was being marginalised.

President Omar al-Bashir -- wanted on war crimes charges related to the conflict -- began a campaign to crush the rebels, mobilising ground troops and allied militia recruited mostly from Darfur's nomadic Arab tribes, known as the Janjaweed.

It took just over one year for the war to come to Musa's village in North Darfur state, but it stripped him of everything he owned.

"I was in the village of Kunjara near Tarni when the war came and the Janjaweed attacked our homes and burned them and took our livestock," the 62-year-old said.

- A bitter loss -

Musa is one of some 2.5 million people living in the region who were forced to flee their homes, the UN says.

He feels the loss of the lands he farmed for years before being forced into Zamzam, which houses 185,000 people.

"I work as a tobacco trader in this little market after being a productive farmer," he said bitterly.

Bashir's ruling party supports the five-state system and while a single region has long been a demand of rebel groups, they say ongoing unrest means the vote is unfair.

Sudan's government insists interest in the election was high, with "3,583,105 out of 4,588,300 entitled to register" signing up.

But hardly any camp residents were seen casting their votes on Tuesday, the second of three days of polling.

Many Zamzam residents belong to the myriad non-Arab, Muslim ethnic groups that traditionally farmed the land or grazed cattle across Darfur.

While the region was long neglected by Sudan's central governments and underdeveloped before 2003, the conflict brought abject poverty and internal exile for Zamzam's inhabitants, issues they feel need addressing before the region's status.

From the alleyways around the market, barefoot children in threadbare clothes run to ask for a little food or money from the UN-African Union peacekeepers who patrol the camp daily.

- 'We want stability' -

For Omar Ashar, a 62-year-old trader who ekes out a living at the small market, voting on Darfur's administrative status offers little succour for the loss of his family when his village, a two-hour drive from the camp, was attacked by militiamen.

"I came here on March 7, 2003 after the militia burned our village in Tarni," he said.

Dressed in traditional white robes with a white turban wrapped around his head, Ashar wiped away a tear and his voice quivered as he recalled the attack.

"I saw my son Hamid Ibrahim and my nephew Faisal Tibin killed in front of me with my own eyes," he said.

Composing himself, he said the time was not right for the vote.

"We want peace and stability," he said.

While Zamzam camp was established in 2003, it shelters people who have fled throughout the conflict.

Some 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the Marra Mountains that straddle Central, East and North Darfur states since mid-January, heading to shelters in those areas.

One of Zamzam's more recent arrivals, Abdelmajid Abdelrahman, escaped a militia attack on his land in North Darfur in 2012.

Another farmer, he too suffered the loss of his livelihood, and did not see a costly ballot as a priority for him and other camp residents.

"The referendum does not matter to us, we want stability. That's the most important thing for us," he said.