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Resettlement or land grab?

'Arabization' scheme is feared in Darfur as Chadians move in.

August 12, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Tulus, Sudan

Three years after it was burned to the ground, the village of Tulus in Darfur is springing back to life.

Corn and sesame sprout from fertile fields. Children play around newly built huts. Smoke from cooking fires once again rises from the land.

Problem is, those rebuilding Tulus are not the original inhabitants, who were chased away by pro-government Sudanese militias in 2004 and are afraid to return. Instead, their place has been taken by Chadian Arabs, who recently crossed the border to flee violence in their own country.

"It's comfortable here," said Sheik Algooni Mohammed Zeean, 42, leader of 150 Chadian Arabs who in March settled on a grassy plain not far from the ruins of Tulus' abandoned homes and school. Gesturing toward the fields bearing their first harvest in Sudan, he smiled. "I feel like this is my home now."

Over the last six months, nearly 30,000 Chadian Arabs have crossed into Sudan, many of them settling on land owned by Darfur's pastoral tribes that have been driven into displacement camps, aid groups say.

This migration has quickly become the latest obstacle to peace in western Sudan, drawing the attention of international observers and protests from those displaced from Darfur, who accuse the Sudanese government of orchestrating an "Arabization" scheme by repopulating their burned-out villages with foreigners.

"This is a government plot to give our land to Chadian Arabs," said Mohammed Abakar Mohammed Adam, 27, a farmer from the village of Bechabecha, which he said was abandoned after armed nomadic tribes known as janjaweed, widely believed to be backed by the government, attacked in 2003. But in recent months, Chadian newcomers have begun building homes atop the remains.

The Darfur conflict began in early 2003 when rebels attacked government forces to protest the poor resources and services in the neglected area. The regime in Khartoum, dominated by Sudanese Arabs, is accused of stirring up ethnic hatred by arming militias to attack villages that supported the rebels, many of whom increasingly call themselves "Africans." U.S. officials have labeled the government's campaign genocide. An estimated 200,000 people have died, mostly from disease and hunger in the early days of the crisis.

The recent influx of Chadian Arabs reflects the conflict's spread over the border, where similar clashes based on ethnic differences are destabilizing eastern Chad. Over the last year, nearly 50,000 Chadian refugees have sought shelter in Darfur, though most of the earlier arrivals were not Arab and settled in refugee camps.

Government officials in Khartoum have said little publicly about the recent influx. Sudanese Arab leaders in West Darfur are welcoming the Chadian Arabs, directing them to the vacated land and assisting them with food and supplies. They insist they are simply helping their Arab brethren at a time of crisis and that the newcomers will return to Chad as soon as it's safe.

But for some displaced Tulus villagers, now living less than 20 miles away in Habillah, news that strangers are cultivating their land has brought suspicion and anguish.

"That is our land," said Miriam Yahya Ahmed, a 60-year-old widow with four adult children. "Those people should go."

In Tulus, she lived on a small farm with fields of corn and peanuts. Now, the hunched, gray-haired woman struggles to nurture a few dozen corn stalks on a dirt patch behind her straw hut. International humanitarian groups worry that disputes over the land might reignite violence in western Darfur and lead to further delays in resolving the region's massive displacement crisis, with more than 2 million people driven from their homes.

"The mere presence of people on this land will make it more difficult for [displaced persons] to return home," said Ita Schuette, head of the Habillah branch of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world body's refugee agency, which has been monitoring the influx.

Tensions have been heightened by rumors that some Chadians have been offered Sudanese identification cards or papers to help them establish citizenship. One Darfur hospital was reportedly asked to forge 100 birth certificates, according to a U.N. official. In another reported case, Chadians were allegedly photographed for ID cards in the city of Foro Burunga.

U.N. officials have been unable to confirm those reports and said they have found no ID cards or evidence that the government was plotting to get Chadians to immigrate. After interviewing hundreds of Chadians, the agency has concluded that many are entitled to refugee status because of the violence in their home country.

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