Hawa Khary, nine months pregnant and clutching two terrified young children, watched helplessly last week as police armed with sticks and tear gas bulldozed her flimsy grass hut in a crowded refugee camp. Within hours, the little family was herded into a truck and driven 14 miles into the countryside.
When the trucks stopped, to Khary's astonishment, she was shown to a spacious, clean white tent with a small patch of grass outside for washing and cooking. It was identical to hundreds of other tent sites, laid out in perfect rows across a cleared field. Latrines had been dug and food supplies were in stock.
But Khary, like many of the 1,500 people now living in what the government calls an "ideal camp" for families displaced by conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, said she was afraid to stay here and, given the choice, would quickly return to rebuild her twig shelter in the old camp near the bustling provincial capital, Nyala.
"Better tent, but much worse security. I don't trust the government to protect us," said Khary, 25, curtly summing up her new circumstances. Her son, born Thursday in her new tent, yawned in her arms.
Officials showcase new camp
Sudanese officials have been displaying the new camp to international visitors this week. They said it was cleaner, healthier, safer and better supplied than many of the 158 sites across Darfur where about 1.5 million people have fled a 20-month conflict between African rebels and government troops and their allied Arab militias.
They also dispute complaints made by camp occupants, aid workers and U.N. officials over the forced relocation of hundreds of families, carried out last week by Sudanese police officers and soldiers who raided Old al-Jeer Sureaf on three days, wielding sticks and teargas as they destroyed huts and rounded up families to be moved.
"We differ on the issue of the violence," said Mustafa Osman Ismail, Sudan's foreign minister, during a tour of the new camp Thursday with Jan Pronk, the U.N. envoy to Sudan. "Nobody was killed. These displaced were in the middle of the city, directly near military security, and suffering from health hazards. Now they have a clinic, water, food and services."
Ismail said the displaced families had been warned three months ago that they would be moved because the land where they were living belonged to a private owner. He also said teargas was used only on Nyala residents who impersonated the displaced people and were infiltrating the camp to collect free food.
"I'm really happy that this visit is completely different. For the first time, I can see confidence between the [displaced people] and local authorities," Ismail told journalists. "In all the camps and villages we didn't find any complaints. People really praise the police for a marvelous job they were doing on protection" at the new camp and in villages where displaced people had been returned home.
Forced relocations criticized
But Pronk was tight-lipped and grim during his visit to several camps with Ismail and other Sudanese officials. Sitting next to them at a news conference, Pronk said he did not oppose the relocation in principle but criticized the government for using "too much violence." In the future, he said, "relocation should take place with dignity and without undue violence on already vulnerable population."
When a Sudanese journalist suggested that the refugees had exaggerated the degree of violence, Pronk slammed his hand on the table. "When a doctor tells me that police sent him out of a clinic at gun point, I believe him," he said.
In a separate interview, Ismail said the next relocation effort would be arranged with help from Pronk, who is trying to set up talks between the government, aid groups and the displaced.
Still, the conflicting accounts of the relocation operation have highlighted a widening gap between the Khartoum government, which says it is trying to protect and help civilians in Darfur, and the growing legions of displaced war victims whose distrust of the government is growing deeper.
Militants in vicinity
Aid workers said services at the new camp were an improvement, with clean latrines and regular distributions of sorghum, sugar, cooking oil, salt, pasta, rice and tomato paste.
But they also said it was close to an Arab militia camp and the homeland of Arab tribes, who tend to be hostile to displaced Africans. They said the old camp was evacuated because the government suspected it was a base for African rebels close to Nyala.
Nearly 2 million Africans live in shabby tent cities across Darfur after being driven from their farms by fighting. According to the U.N., the government has bombed villages and armed Arab militias to retaliate against the rebels. Tens of thousands have died from hunger, disease and violence.
In the cool shade of their new tents Thursday, displaced women expressed anger at both police abuse and at being forced to move far from Nyala, where they were able to earn a little money collecting firewood or doing laundry for city residents.
A school teacher in the camp said many displaced people faced a "pattern of humiliation" because they can neither farm nor earn a living. Sadia Hidel, a midwife, said she was especially outraged that over 10 pregnant women were forced to move.
"It's hard to trust people who bomb and burn your village. Then they burn your shelter and beat you while you are living in a camp," Hidel said. "We are already off our land, and they do this to the weakest members who already have poor nutrition. I've never seen any pregnant women treated like this. It's foolish to trust."