The 14-month conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, has displaced over one million people, in addition to the more than 100,000 who have fled across the border into neighbouring Chad, according to United Nations estimates.
Humanitarian workers in the region say that it is too early to predict the long-term implications of the conflict on either the internally displaced persons (IDPs), the refugees or the host populations in the areas they have fled to. But with many of the IDPs fleeing from the region's best food-producing areas to urban centres, the aid workers say, food shortages and dependency on food aid will be an ongoing problem.
"Even if the displaced were able to return to their farms immediately to avail themselves of the current planting season, they would still be dependent on food aid until the end of 2004," said Laura Melo, spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP).
If, on the other hand, this year’s April to June planting season is missed, the next harvest of staples like millet and sorghum will not be available until the end of 2005.
Despite the 45-day renewable ceasefire signed last week between the government and Darfur’s two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that 20,000 Janjawid militiamen - who it said are generally regarded as responsible for mass displacement, killing, raping and looting - remain at large in the region.
Since the ceasefire came into effect late on Sunday, there have already been a number of reports of violations. On 12 April, a herdsman from the village of Deja, several kilometres from Nyala in Southern Darfur, was killed by Janjawid after insisting on collecting his herd, the UN reported. The entire village, about 300 people, tried to flee to the nearby Kalma camp to seek protection, but were turned back by police.
In Western Darfur, attacks and harassment by Janjawid have also been reported to the UN. On 15 April, an elderly woman was attacked while collecting fodder outside Adramata camp for IDPs, while in Riyad five girls "disappeared" after venturing outside another camp.
Jamal Yusuf Idris, the government's Humanitarian Aid Commissioner in Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur State, said all the IDPs would go home immediately if the conflict ended. "If the war stopped, all of them are farmers, they would go home."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report issued 2 April - before the Ndjamena ceasefire agreement - that it was unlikely that Darfur's IDPs would be able to return to their farms to plant any time soon. "More bad times await the displaced. They will probably have no crops to look forward to in 2004," it said.
"It is highly unlikely that the displaced communities will be able to return home and plant, given the continuing war and insecurity permeating the rural areas, the scale of the destruction of their shelters and water systems, and the lack of seeds and tools," HRW added.
Since then, the ceasefire agreement has been signed and all three parties have agreed to facilitate the return of the IDPs to their homes, to put in place "adequate protection measures" for them and to ensure that "their property will be restored or their losses compensated". However,HRW warned, in another statement released on Wednesday, that in the absence of immediate and rigorous international monitoring, it was highly unlikely that this would happen.
"Without the international spotlight, the Sudanese government is unlikely to disarm and disband its Arab militia, re-establish security in the rural areas, or guarantee the safety of displaced persons who wish to return home for planting season - crucial benchmarks for any improvement in the situation," said Jemera Rone, a Sudan researcher at HRW.
Without protection and greatly increased humanitarian assistance, displaced civilians ran the risk of dying from epidemics and a "man-made famine", she added.
DROUGHT, PESTS AND WAR IN NORTH
Northern Darfur (home to 1.5 million people), which has been experiencing a drought over the last two decades, as well as desertification of its northern areas, is particularly vulnerable.
After several years of drought, an expected "bumper harvest" in 2003 was all but ruined in November when grasshoppers descended on key millet-producing areas, according to Bashir Abd al-Rahman, an official with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in al-Fashir, the capital of Northern Darfur State.
Mass displacement has now added to the state's woes. Conflict in the north has resulted in an estimated 60 percent of villages there being destroyed, burned, or abandoned because of fear of attacks, according to a survey conducted by the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in February and March 2004.
Even in undestroyed villages, over 50 percent of households had migrated, ITDG reported, some of them to hide in mountainous areas and others fleeing temporarily to avoid either aerial bombardments or forcible recruitment by the SLA and the JEM.
Many of the IDPs are from the main millet-producing areas of Tawilah, Korma, Kutum and Dar al-Salam and already lost a harvest in 2003. According to ITDG, about 40,000 households Northern Darfur missed the harvest season due to displacement, while many of those who did manage to harvest their crops later lost their food stocks to looters.
Meanwhile, livelihoods in the state are collapsing as market systems and seasonal labour opportunities have been lost due to insecurity, and commercial transport has all but ground to a halt.
All markets in the Jabal Si area and most markets in Kabkabiyah had closed, ITDG reported, noting that crop failure last year had rendered most people dependent on the markets for food. On one hand, grain prices had risen to as high as 10 goats for one sack of millet, from one to two goats per sack before the conflict escalated. On the other hand, livestock prices had dropped as people tried to sell their animals off before they were looted, it added.
Much of the region's infrastructure and thousands of fruit trees - a key source of food - had also been destroyed. In Kabkabiyah alone, over 150 irrigation pumps had been lost, damaged or looted from farms, and 35 shallow wells destroyed, said ITDG.
The combination of conflict, drought and pests had been overwhelming, Bashir told IRIN. "The majority of the IDPs are destitute. It is difficult to find an income. Without an income, and if they are unable to cultivate, how can they feed themselves?"
Host communities which had been sharing food with IDPs were also running out of food, he said. The UN has received reports of as many as 20 families being accommodated by a single host.
"Survival in Darfur is a delicate balance with limited room for margin. While most communities have developed complex coping mechanisms to deal with a single bad season of drought or failed harvest, a second failed, ruined, burned or looted harvest can push families to the edge of survival," HRW warned.
At a recent meeting of humanitarian actors in the national capital, Khartoum, a participant surmised that less than 50 percent of the IDPs would return to the places they had fled from. Instead they would go to irrigated settlements closer to the Nile river, move to urban centres such as Khartoum, or remain on the peripheries of towns in Darfur, he said.
Over the last decade, Darfur has been experiencing a slow migration towards urban centres, which may have been drastically accelerated by the conflict, according to observers.
Humanitarian actors who spoke to IRIN in Darfur said the numbers of returnees were impossible to predict at this early stage, but added that there was a danger of the growing settlements or "camps" on the edges of towns becoming permanent, with many of the IDPs remaining dependent on aid.
Speaking before Sunday's ceasefire agreement, Sulaf al-Din Salih, the national Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, told IRIN in Khartoum that people were already able to return to their homes.
"People are already going back home. People have the ability to assess the situation, whether they can go back or not. This has been done through local mechanisms or tribal systems. They make an agreement between themselves that they are going to protect this process of return, that no one is going to attack them. So whether there is a ceasefire or not, this process has already started," he said.
He added that extra army and police had been sent to Darfur to maintain law and order, and had achieved a good degree of success. "We think that things are improving quite a lot."
But humanitarian agencies say it is highly unlikely that people will return without tangible guarantees for their safety.
Meanwhile, aid agencies are under pressure to pay for and provide assistance in the urban centres that people have fled to, but not in their home areas, aid workers told IRIN.