Where once the bunkers and razor wire of an African Union (AU) peacekeeping base dominated the plain in front of Tawilla town, now only a small water tower reveals the whereabouts of their camp, swallowed up in a sea of makeshift shelters.
The AU has been widely criticised for its limited capacity to protect millions of Darfurians caught in the crossfire of the three year-old conflict, yet few places better illustrate the crucial role its forces play in providing at least a sense of security.
The people camping on the doorstep of the AU base in Tawilla have not fled far - most come from the town and its surrounding villages. They often simply moved across the road, building this camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), and naming it ‘Rwanda’ after the first contingent of peacekeepers based there.
Opposite them, Tawilla town - a major trading centre west of El Fasher, capital of North Darfur State - is a ghost town. Even though villagers still attend its market, most of its inhabitants have fled.
About 2,500 individuals started to build shelters near the AU compound in September 2005, after attacks by government forces and allied Janjawid militias on Tawilla and other villages thought to be supporting rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A).
But since the 5 May Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) between the government and one of three main rebel groups – Minni Minnawi, an SLM/A leader from a Darfurian ethnic minority, the Zaghawa - the situation has become more complicated.
Fighting has escalated between those who signed the agreement, and those who did not, including an SLM/A faction led by Abdelwahid al-Nur - who comes from Darfur’s majority Fur ethnic group - and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) of Khalil Ibrahim.
Minni Minnawi is now nominally a senior member of the Sudanese government, and in July, violence escalated as Zaghawa herdsmen supported by his fighters – themselves the target of earlier government raids - attacked Fur-dominated villages.
The AU estimates that some 15,000-17,000 people are camping around their base as a result.
“The camp is growing so quickly because the Zaghawa are chasing the people from their villages," said Abdel Malik Suliman, a local man who arrived 20 days ago from Tarne village.
Recent fighting and atrocities have been vicious. At least 80 people were killed in Dalil, north of Tawilla, according to an AU investigation - eight of them school children. "We saw the blast stains; we found three mass graves," an AU commander in the area said.
This whole area west of El Fasher remains highly unstable, with Sudan government Antonov planes bombing Tabarat, a rebel base southwest of Tawilla, as recently as last Saturday.
No access, no assistance
During the July clashes, rebels hijacked two vehicles from a non-governmental organisation, Relief International, and three Land Cruisers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), killing a driver.
These agencies and Save the Children Sweden pulled out, leaving the displaced population vulnerable to attack, and beyond the reach of most international assistance. The only relief organisation that still visits the area is the Sudanese Red Crescent, which continues to provide monthly rations of food.
The food distributions prevent people from going hungry, but few other services are available. Healthcare is a particular problem. Before RI was forced to leave, its clinic treated about 200 patients a day. Now there is nothing.
"Our sick are in the hands of Allah," Isya Mohamed, a mother of seven, said. "Our children are suffering from infections, malaria, vomiting and diarrhea, but there is no medication at all."
Marian Mohamed Adam is pregnant, but does not receive any ante-natal care. If she has pregnancy complications, it is hard to imagine where she would go for help. The government-held town of El Fasher is a two-day walk through the desert.
Lack of sanitation is another problem in the ‘Rwanda’ camp. Some basic latrines are in a bad state and prone to flooding. Although 500 emergency latrines had been planned, they have not yet been constructed.
"The toilet situation is terrible," the AU civilian police officer said. "People are defecating everywhere."
"People still go out of the camp to plant their crops, but not south of Tawilla, because that's Minnawi’s territory and the rebels consider anybody entering that area a spy," he said.
The peace accord with the government has emboldened former SLM/A rebels of Minnawi's faction to claim what they feel is theirs, patrolling in and around the Tawilla camps with their weapons in full view – in violation of the agreement, which pushed for weapons-free zones around IDP camps.
Many villagers who first fled to older IDP camps have moved to the Rwanda camp, complaining about harassment by former rebel fighters. But when they arrive in ‘Rwanda’, they find armed Minnawi patrols there too.
"Armed men are coming into the camp to collect money from people at night," said Musa Muktar Bosh, one local man. "They have also abducted people and only released them when they received a ransom."
Minnawi's men say they are trying to contain Al-Nur sympathisers and combatants hiding in the camps. AU sources confirm that armed groups have infiltrated IDP camps. "Plenty of people are armed; people are being recruited," one civilian policeman said.
Some 100 men are said to have left the camp on Thursday. According to AU sources, a convoy of vehicles driven by the National Redemption Front (NRF) - a new coalition of rebel factions that did not sign the May peace agreement for Darfur – has also been seen.
"It is relatively quiet, but we expect things to explode very soon. NRF forces are gathering," a senior AU source said.
AU soldiers frustrated
The camp encroaching on the AU base bears witness to the importance people attach to security and the service AU force still provide, however limited their resources.
Simple the lack of fuel and vehicles, as well as a mandate limited to monitoring ceasefire violations, hampers even routine work. "We are too few and not well equipped - it makes me furious. We just patrol, show our faces, and we come back to our base," an AU commander said.
"This is my ninth mission, but I have never worked in a situation like this, in terms of mandate, equipment, and procedures. We only investigate and report when something happens, but we don't do anything about it."
Although some IDPs express their gratitude for the presence of the African peacekeepers nearby, others feel angry about the limited degree of security the AU can provide, especially at night.
Without exception, security is everybody's main concern. "Only when security returns, only then can we go back to our village,"
Isac Mohamed Isac, a Fur man in the ‘Rwanda’ camp says. "We need the international community to bring peace to the region, because we can't do it ourselves and the government can't do it either."
"The issue is complicated," added another local man. "We have five additional governments now: SLA-Minnawi, SLA-Abdelwahid, JEM, NRF and the Janjawid. That's why we need the United Nations force to come."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions