Sudan/Darfur: abandoned villages burned

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is alarmed by the fact that abandoned villages in West Darfur are once again being burned to discourage the people who once lived there from returning home. At the end of last week, a resident of Seraf Village (12 km south of Masteri, which itself is 50 km south of El Geneina, capital of West Darfur) took our staff inspect the village, which he said had been burned the previous Monday (April 18).

This man told us the 200 families of Seraf had fled attacks by Janjaweed militias a year ago. Then on Monday last week, they saw smoke and feared their village was being burned. All that remains now are broken grain storage jars and blackened mud-brick shells of houses, the thatching having turned to ashes.

This gratuitous act is clearly a message to the former residents not to return home. We are concerned because acts like this - on top of the displacement of some 2 million people from their homes - threaten to change the social and demographic structure of Darfur irrevocably.

Actions like these also demonstrate the value of UNHCR's mobile protection teams, which have conducted more than 100 missions within West Darfur to find and arrange protection for the most vulnerable people, especially women who have been raped.

Last year, during Ramadan from October to November, some 55 abandoned villages were burned around Masteri, an agglomeration of nearly 100 villages. Now the burning of villages seems to have resumed.

This development comes as some 20,000 people have already taken the brave step of going back to their villages in Darfur from their refuge in Chad and from larger towns and villages within Darfur. We are working to improve life for those who do choose to go home to selected areas, although we do not want to send the signal that it is now safe for all Darfuris to return home.