SUDAN WATCH: Straw demands action on Darfur - Refugees may not have confidence to return home until next spring

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Straw demands action on Darfur - Refugees may not have confidence to return home until next spring

On Tuesday morning, Mr Straw flew from Khartoum to Northern Darfur to see what had been happening on the ground. He toured a feeding centre for critically ill children at the Abu Shouk refugee camp and was accompanied by a British military adviser who had been working with African monitors in western Sudan for the last two months.

BBC correspondent, Bridget Kendall, who accompanied Mr Straw on the flight quotes him as saying that having ravaged villages and forced villagers into camps, the militia now roam the surrounding areas which have become bandit country.

Mr Straw met the refugees as they queued for water in the camp and said the camp appeared to be very well run but he was aware that, as a foreign dignitary, he was often shown the best conditions rather than the worst.

It was "the scale of the problem" that made the biggest impression, he said as he toured the Abu Shouk camp. "I knew the numbers. But it is one thing to know the numbers, it is quite another thing to come here, to survey this camp, and to realise that there are more than 50,000 people here but that is only one-twentieth of the people displaced as a result of the conflict.

"There is a very great deal to be done before these and 1.2 million like them feel reassured enough to go back to their villages ... That requires a real effort by the Government of Sudan to provide for their safety and also to ensure there is progress in the peace talks."

Speaking during the visit, Mr Straw said the camps appeared to be safer but he voiced concern about surrounding areas and villages, which one of his officials described as "bandit country". "I recognise that the government of Sudan have made progress, especially in humanitarian access and camp safety and security within the camps, but people are obviously still very anxious and nervous about whether they will be safe when they go back to their villages." He said it was critical that Khartoum establish "safety and security across Darfur and get the political process going". Rebel groups operating in Darfur also had to take responsibility for restoring stability to the region, he said.

He said he would report back to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the extent of progress made. "The government of Sudan ... has sought to comply with what has been imposed upon them. It is for Kofi Annan to judge the extent to which they have complied," he said. "I will also be talking to African leaders as well as other (UN) Security Council members so we are all in a position by the end of next week to ... make judgments about whether there is sufficient progress. There is not enough progress - but (the question) is whether there is sufficient progress."

Straw said he had talked to refugees at the camp - currently home to 55,000 people - about why they fled their homes and what it would take to enable them to return. One woman said she had been bombarded from the air, presumably by Sudanese government planes. Another said while the Janjaweed militia were still at large, she was too scared to go home again.

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