SHATTAYA: A Sudanese woman dries crops outside her house on October 10, 2019 in the village of Shattaya, some 150 kms west of Niayla, the capital of Sudan's southern Darfur region, following her return home last year after more than a decade of being displaced. - AFP

Sudanese farmer Suleiman Yakub vividly remembers the day he was hung from a
tree and left to die by Arab militiamen who attacked his village in Darfur,
killing, looting and burning. "Villagers were executed in front of
me," said Yakub, 59, a resident of Shattaya village, which was attacked by
the notorious Janjaweed militia in February 2004 when the conflict in Sudan's
western region of Darfur was at its peak.

"I was handcuffed
and hung from a tree with a rope around my neck, but I survived," he said,
showing the scar on his neck. "We still don't feel safe." The
fighting in Darfur erupted in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms
against Khartoum's then Arab-dominated government of now-ousted leader Omar
Al-Bashir, alleging racial discrimination, marginalization and exclusion.
Khartoum responded by unleashing the Janjaweed, a group of mostly Arab raiding
nomads that it recruited and armed to create a militia of gunmen who were often
mounted on horses or camels.

They have been
accused of applying a scorched earth policy against ethnic groups suspected of
supporting the rebels, raping, killing, looting and burning villages. The
campaign earned Bashir and others arrest warrants from the International
Criminal Court (ICC). About 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million
displaced in the conflict, the United Nations says. Thousands of peacekeeping
troops from a joint UN-African Union mission were deployed in 2007 to curb the
conflict, but their numbers have been gradually reduced since mid-2018 as the
conflict has subsided.

Many Shattaya
residents, like Yakub, have tentatively started to return to their homes, made
of mud brick and thatch, after living in run-down camps for years. Their
village was one of those that faced the brunt of the attack unleashed by the
Janjaweed in the early years of the conflict. Residents say about 1,800
villagers were killed when gunmen on horses, camels and motorcycles tore
through the village, firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Vow to bring

The Hague-based
ICC has charged Bashir with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide
for abuses in Darfur, including for atrocities committed in Shattaya. Bashir
was ousted by his army in April after months of nationwide protests against his
iron-fisted rule of three decades. But tensions remain over land ownership in
Darfur, and those responsible for the war's darkest years have not been brought
to justice.

Sudan's new
authorities who came to power after Bashir's overthrow have vowed to end the
conflict in Darfur as well as in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
They are holding peace talks this week in Juba, the capital of South Sudan,
with three rebel groups who fought Bashir's forces in these regions. After more
than 15 years, the brutality unleashed on Shattaya, whose residents are mainly
from the African Fur tribe, is still evident.

Most houses in
Shattaya are severely damaged and charred, with residents who have returned
living in make-shift shelters, an AFP correspondent who visited the village
reported. The road to Shattaya is unpaved and dusty, and riddled with pools of
muddy water. Villagers complain that armed men are still in the area, and that
lands confiscated by Arab pastoralists have not been returned. "We have
not got back our farm," said Mohamed Izhak, 29, who claims his family
owned a lemon and orange orchard on the outskirts of the village. Izhak
returned to Shattaya last year, after living in a camp for years alongside tens
of thousands of people displaced by the conflict.

'We are scared'

Izhak said his
father, two brothers and three uncles were killed in the 2004 attack. "We
don't feel safe, even now... we are unable to build proper homes, we are living
in small shelters made from plastic and dry grass." Haj Abdelrahman, 63,
lives in a room that survived the destruction of his home. When he returned to
Shattaya, he found Arab pastoralists occupying his family's farm.

"The farm is
destroyed, they have cut the trees," Abdelrahman said, adding that he was
wary of talking to the pastoralists "because they are armed".
"They are not stealing our livestock anymore, but if they are not disarmed
we will not feel fully secure. We also want our land back." Many villagers
are planting vegetables just outside what is left of their houses, hoping that
one day they will get their farms back. "I have my farm outside the
village, but I cannot go there because I don't feel safe," Siddiq Youssef
told AFP. "If those militiamen are not disarmed, then we can't have peace.
We are scared even now when we see them." - AFP