Some local and UN officials in Chad say a pledge by President Idriss Deby that half of the nearly 180,000 displaced people in Chad will return to their villages by July could happen if promises on security are met.
"This is the hope we all have," said United Nations deputy humanitarian coordinator in Chad, Fatma Samoura, from the humanitarian aid hub Abéché in eastern Chad.
Until now, none of the 180,000 Chadians displaced across the three eastern regions of the country is known to have permanently returned home.
Chadians began leaving their homes in late 2005, when the war in neighbouring Sudan spilled over the border and Sudanese Arab militias, often referred to as `Janjaweed’, began attacking their villages.
At the same time, decades-old conflicts between ethnic groups competing for power, and between nomads and agriculturalists competing for land, have escalated due to the proliferation of arms in Chad.
But 400 families (2,000-3,000 people) at a site for displaced people near the town of Koukou-Angarana in southeastern Chad have told aid workers they have an "absolute desire" to return to their home village of Louboutigué, according to the deputy chief of the village, Bako Moustafa. Some 9,000 others in the same area are willing to consider going home, he said.
The displaced say certain questions surrounding their return need to be addressed first. Their experience could prove to be a litmus test for the thousands of others who are expected to follow them.
History of violence
The reasons the people of Louboutigué give for having fled their roughly built mud huts, animals and livelihoods echo the stories of displaced people across the region.
On 7 November 2006, around 1,000 armed men on horseback tore through Djorlo, a neighbouring village to Louboutigué. Cattle were stolen, huts burned, and 36 people killed.
Witnesses to the attack described people with their eyes gouged out and elderly women with third-degree burns caused by torched thatched huts.
The attacks were part of an inter-communal conflict spreading across eastern Chad at the time. Aid workers in the region blamed Sudanese `Janjaweed’ militia for forcing some groups to turn against others, and inter-ethnic rivalry that meant members of one tribe, the Dadjo, were particular targets.
People in Louboutigué did not want to be next. They fled to the larger town of Koukou-Angarana, some 20km to the east, where a government administration was in place.
For nearly a year, they lived in makeshift huts in Habilé, a temporary village of straw and plastic-roofed shelters created for displaced people dependent on food aid, as they had no fields of their own for farming close to Koukou.
In October 2007 some 25 families decided they no longer wanted to be so dependent. They headed home to their burned down village, began rebuilding their homes and planting their fields, planning to return to the site after they had collected their harvest - a common practice among displaced people.
But for one of those returnees, Mahamat Said, this move back home has come to mean more - it is a "test".
"If there is security there, we will stay," he told IRIN. "The violence has greatly subsided."
Many displaced people told IRIN they would not return en masse until the government can guarantee their security.
As a first step to achieving that, the government has promised to create a national police post in Koukou-Angarana to stabilise the sub-prefecture, according to Bradin Tahir Saleh, the government’s local representative. “We will create a police post to protect people,” he told IRIN in an interview.
Local authorities, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and displaced people say the planned deployment of a European Union military force (EUFOR) and a UN peacekeeping mission - now scheduled for February after months of delay - will also intervene if people face problems upon their return.
But Aldric Kodja, OCHA humanitarian affairs officer based in Goz Beida, said improved security is not the only necessary condition.
"The EUFOR's arrival is good," he told IRIN in Goz Beida, the administrative centre of the Dar Sila department that houses several sites for displaced people, including Habilé. "But there are other factors involved in ensuring durable peace in the region."
"The problems at the root of the displacement of people must be solved," Kodja said, pointing to inter-communal rivalry, and conflicts over arable land and water as being at the heart of peoples’ grievances.
Efforts towards reconciliation
In October 2007 a UNHCR meeting gathered local authorities, sultans (the traditional representatives of Muslim communities in Chad) and village chiefs from different ethnic and tribal groups across Chad's eastern region, aiming to start a dialogue between different communities in conflict, such as Arabs and non-Arabs and warring ethnic groups such as the Zaghawas and Tamas.
UNHCR spokesperson Annette Rehrl said the same Arab nomads who allowed their cattle to graze in farmers' fields - leading to deadly confrontations - were coming forward with proposed solutions.
"It is a very encouraging initiative," she told IRIN, adding that efforts to dialogue have continued at the local level.
"I don't think there will be problems [if they return]," added Shinkinda Musonda, head of UNHCR at Goz Beida. "But discussions between Arabs and non-Arabs must continue.
"People saw their kinsman dying. That's not something you can erase with a meeting."
But others are not so optimistic.
In the small town of Adé, along the border with Sudan, a grouping of over 35 chiefs of displaced villages told IRIN they had not participated in any reconciliatory activities, nor were they prepared to.
"Would you reconcile with someone who killed [your people]?" asked farmer Aktib Anour Hamid, chief of Moudeina 1, a village in southeastern Chad that was attacked in late 2005.
"There has been progress, but I don't think that all the underlying problems are solved," Nicholai Panke, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Chad, told IRIN. "There are still a lot of inter-communal problems that are not settled."
In addition to questions of security, the people from Louboutigué say they will only return if humanitarians can help them install water, health and education infrastructure in their villages of origin, as they did in the site for the displaced.
Some of them have lived for more than a year in a quality of life superior to that which they had in their villages of origin," UNHCR's Musonda said. "They do not want to start over again, which is legitimate."
The European Commission recently gave 10.1 million euros (US$14.8 million) to help support the stabilisation of eastern Chad.
At a press conference in N'djamena on 22 January, European Union commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, Louis Michel, said the international community will have to move fast if 90,000 displaced are to move home before July.
"We have a big job of support mechanisms ahead of us to prepare all this," he said. "We have to be able to bring them back to where they come from. But for that, we need to establish security in their home villages. We have to foresee all the preparatory work involved in building schools, hospitals, etc, and identifying what they will need."
Still, the issue has raised eyebrows among some humanitarians, who see the provision of such infrastructure in all villages of origin as beyond their mandate and capacity.
Pierre Mara, interim head of the UNHCR office in Koukou-Angarana, told IRIN: "We do not see these small spontaneous returns as a sign that the possibility of return exists for everyone."
For the people of Louboutigué, planning for their return has nonetheless already begun. The UN and local authorities plan to visit the village in the coming weeks to start assessing the needs for peoples’ return.