Dear Mr. Brisbane,
I have received your response (copied below) to my concerns about the New York Times dispatch from Nyuru, West Darfur (February 26, 2012); however, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of my concern and that of the (now three) Radio Dabanga dispatches, including most recently a report on the strong and unambiguous views of the Darfuri refugee camp leaders in eastern Chad (April 3, 2012). For at the center of Mr. Gettleman’s dispatch is the clear implication that the “100,000” returnees he speaks of in the opening paragraph are from eastern Chad. This is simply not true and nothing you say in your response acknowledges or corrects this serious misrepresentation of realities on the ground in this deeply troubled region. This is not a small matter: given the paucity of international access to and reporting on the people of Darfur, misrepresentations or understatements of their suffering are inexcusable.
Failing to address this central misrepresentation of the nature of Darfuri returns, your account of the Gettleman piece is thoroughly vitiated. What the Radio Dabanga dispatches highlight, and you essentially ignore, are  the fact that all the Darfuri leaders in the refugee camps of eastern Chad have made explicitly clear to Radio Dabanga that there have been no significant returns of refugees to Darfur from eastern Chad, and that they are in a position, so near the Chad/Darfur border, to notice any large-scale returns, from camps or otherwise; and  that the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative for Chad has made clear that there have been no significant refugee repatriations under UN auspices, only (as has long been the case) spontaneous and occasional back and forth movements across the Chad/Darfur border, a border that is entirely arbitrary demographically and geographically.
Indeed, you perversely misconstrue the implications of the statement by the Chad UNHCR representative, saying, “This statement [by the Chad UNHCR representative] implies the people have come from Chad (‘repatriated’ would not apply to displaced people within Sudan.).” But this simply ignores the critical issue of numbers of refugees, given Gettleman’s claim that the “100,000 returnees” are from Chad. Here is the key excerpt from the interview that Radio Dabanga conducted with the UNHCR representative (Radio Dabanga, April 2, 2012):
[Radio Dabanga]: Did any voluntary repatriation [of Darfur refugees in eastern Chad] took place ever?
[Chad UNHCR representative]: “So far no repatriation took place from the Sudanese refugee camp in Chad.” [emphasis added]
[Radio Dabanga]: So there are no people [returned] voluntary from Chad to Sudan officially under the coordination of UNHCR?
[Chad UNCHR representative]: “No, what we call spontaneous repatriation is not organised by the UNHCR. People can decide to go by themselves. In such a case, the UNHCR doesn’t provide for any assistance. We heard that some Sudanese had repatriated. We asked our colleagues from UNHCR, even implementing personnel in the Darfur region. But none had been able to provide evidence that those people were living in the refugee camps in Chad. So right now I’m not in the position to certify that any refugee had repatriated from the refugee camps in Chad.” (emphasis added)
[Radio Dabanga]” I ask this question because we read in the international media that there is repatriation from Sudanese refugee camps in Chad from Sudan.
[Chad UNCHR representative]: “No, this did not happen.” [end]
But the claim that large-scale repatriation of refugees has occurred is precisely that of the Gettleman article; here are three key excerpts, clearly implying large-scale refugee repatriation (or spontaneous movement) back to Darfur:
 “More than 100,000 people in Darfur have left the sprawling camps where they had taken refuge for nearly a decade and headed home to their villages over the past year, the biggest return of displaced people since the war began in 2003 and a sign that one of the world’s most infamous conflicts may have decisively cooled.” [ ]
 “Abdallah Mohamed Abubakir, a skinny farmer, just brought his family back to Nyuru.” [ ]
“Until just a few weeks ago, the Abubakirs, like hundreds of thousands of other Darfurians, had been living in Chad. They were essentially serfs, renting a tiny spit of land and barely surviving off it. They fled to Chad in 2003, when nomadic Arab militias sponsored by Sudan’s government—the infamous janjaweed—rampaged the Darfurian countryside, slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians who belonged to the same ethnic groups as the Darfurian rebels.”
As Gettleman’s story reads, it is impossible not to see this as suggesting that the large majority of the return population is from eastern Chad. To be sure, this is not the claim of the Darfur UNHCR representative quoted; but as Gettleman has written and organized his dispatch, it is unambiguously the inference that we are expected to make. This is not true, and as the Darfuri leaders of the refugee camps also make clear in the original Radio Dabanga dispatch (March 30, 2012):
“In interviews with the 12 camp leaders to be broadcast over the next few days, they said the return of 100,000 refugees was ‘misleading’ and if this was the case the camps would also be visibly emptier. The leaders of Gaga, Furshana, Berayjin, Terayjin, Milih, Tolom, Um Nabuk, Areka Soni, Jebel, Kulungo, Ardimay, Goz Amir said they were surprised at the timing of this ‘false information’ suggesting refugees were freely returning to Darfur.” [emphasis added]
Why did Gettleman not interview these camp leaders if he was going to make such large claims about refugee returns? Why did he not speak with the Chad UNHCR representative?
The fact that officials for UNAMID (the UN/African Union “hybrid” peacekeeping mission in Darfur) offer “confirmation” to Gettleman’s account should be regarded with the deepest suspicion: it is widely recognized that this force has been a gross failure, and that senior UNAMID officials have consistently skewed the truth in order to diminish perception of that failure. Gettleman doesn’t do anything to indicate that the rapturous account of Dysane Dorani is deeply self-serving:
“‘It’s amazing,’ said Dysane Dorani, head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission for the western sector of Darfur. ‘The people are coming together. It reminds me of Lebanon after the civil war.'”
It’s not surprising that Dorani does not acknowledge that more than 1 million Darfuris have been newly displaced since UNAMID formally assumed its role on January 1, 2008 (a figure based primarily on data from UNHCR and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). It is in fact likely that more than 100,000 people were newly displaced over this past year of “returns,” and displacements continue because security is still precarious in most of Darfur (despite the disingenuous claim by the Darfur UNHCR official cited by Gettleman: “‘There are still pockets of insecurity …'”). Thousands continue to be subject to violent displacement that UNAMID has proved powerless to halt: on April 2, for example, Radio Dabanga reported that: “More than 7,000 people have fled their homes in North Darfur after government forces and militants reportedly burned down their villages last week.” Why does none of this inform Gettleman’s account?
You evidently recognize that there is a problem with Gettleman’s peculiarly ill-informed generalization about the Darfuri refugee population in eastern Chad:
“UN officials told Mr. Gettleman that the returnees are a mix of refugees from Chad (who may or may not have been living in UN-run camps) and displaced people living in camps in Darfur.”
But again, the clear implication of Gettleman’s story is that the mass of returnees at Nyuru are from eastern Chad. Your characterization of the “mix” of refugees and IDPs here is disingenuous, given the way the situation is presented in the dispatch:
“Some of the people in Chad may not have been in official refugee camps but they were still refugees, living on their own, like the family Mr. Gettleman interviewed. Even if the UN in Chad says they have no records of people leaving the refugee camps, that does not mean that some people in Chad have not returned.”
If you knew anything about the situation along the Chad/Darfur border, you would know that while there are certainly some unregistered refugees not in camps—some eking out a living like Mr. Abubakir—they are a very small number compared to the 282,000 UNHCR has registered in the twelve refugee camps. We can’t know how many Darfuris are refugees outside the camps; but on the basis of publicly available research it is quite clear this number is unlikely to be as great as 10,000. There is simply too much insecurity, too little in the way of resources, too little of the basics for survival, including water, for people from Darfur to survive in eastern Chad outside a camp environment.
More obviously, are we to believe that there are large numbers of returns from outside the camps, but not from the camps themselves, with their extremely close proximity to the border? This makes absolutely no sense: all Darfuris are desperate to return to their lands and would if their security could be guaranteed. It does not. If there is evidence Gettleman or the New York Times has acquired indicating that there is a significantly larger population outside the camps, I would be extremely surprised. Gettleman’s dispatch reveals no such evidence or indeed any real research on the larger refugee situation along the Chad/Darfur border.
Again, the stakes here are extremely high: a powerful news organization with a world-wide reach has seriously misrepresented the issue of Darfuri refugee returns from eastern Chad to Darfur. Few people in the world suffer as much as these refugees; to suggest that their situation is a “hopeful” as Gettleman claims in his dispatch is deeply irresponsible.
Mr. Reeves: I have had a chance to ask Jeffrey Gettleman about the issues you raise. He offered a number of points in response, which I believe represent a solid response to the concerns you mentioned:
1. The article has several UN officials on the record in the story, along with US government officials, talking about this phenomenon of people returning to their villages in Darfur. The UN and US officials are providing services to these communities, which Mr. Gettleman saw in person. In the link in the story to a USAID website, the US documents what it is doing for returnees. These people do exist and have recently returned home.
2. The story was clear to say that the 100,000 returnees are a small fraction of the total of displaced people, thought to number around 2 million.
3. The comments quoted in the blog are ambiguous. The UN official speaking to Radio Dabanga implies some people have returned, but just that the returns were not organized by UNHCR:
“what we call spontaneous repatriation is not organised by the UNHCR. People can decide to go by themselves. In such a case, the UNHCR doesn’t provide for any assistance. We heard that some Sudanese had repatriated.”
This statement implies the people have come from Chad (“repatriated” would not apply to displaced people within Sudan.)
4. The people Mr. Gettleman spoke to in the story came from Chad but not from a UNHCR-run refugee camp.
From the story:
“Until just a few weeks ago, the Abubakirs, like hundreds of thousands of other Darfurians, had been living in Chad. They were essentially serfs, renting a tiny spit of land and barely surviving off it.”
5. Also, The Times was clear that any repatriation efforts by the UN are still in the early stage.
From the story:
“The United Nations will soon start organizing ‘go and see’ visits for refugees in Chad, he said, to scout out their home villages.”
6. UN officials told Mr. Gettleman that the returnees are a mix of refugees from Chad (who may or may not have been living in UN-run camps) and displaced people living in camps in Darfur. Some of the people in Chad may not have been in official refugee camps but they were still refugees, living on their own, like the family Mr. Gettleman interviewed. Even if the UN in Chad says they have no records of people leaving the refugee camps, that does not mean that some people in Chad have not returned.
Again, thanks for your message. I hope this addresses the matter.