I've been asked a lot recently whether or not I think that the displaced people of Darfur are beginning to return to their villages now that some measures have been put into place to provide security for them. "But more African Union soldiers are in more places now - surely, that must have had some impact," friends and colleagues (particularly those sitting in comfortable corner offices in Brussels or Washington DC) ask impatiently.
In short, the answer is no. The soldiers who are here are not enough. People do not feel safe enough to return to their villages. While quite a lot of them are currently leaving the camps during the day to plant crops on nearby farm land, there are very few families who really feel that the basic security situation outside of the towns and camps has changed.
"Since the 'arduban al achdar' ('green flies', an affectionate nickname for African Union soldiers in some parts of Darfur) have arrived, the Janjaweed militia no longer come inside the town, even the surrounding areas are now much calmer. But our villages? No, they are not safe."
"The soldiers have promised us they will start patrolling the area around my home, about 45km from here, once the rainy season is over and their trucks won't get stuck in the mud anymore. Maybe if that happens I will go back," one of the young men explains to me.
While I'm sceptical that some of the soldiers will be so keen to leave the comfort of their air-conditioned PAE tents and drive for hours across the remote, bumpy dirt roads, I suppose it's a step forward that people are beginning to discuss the options for improving security in the countryside.
It's just that numbers of troops, cars, and AK47s are not in themselves an indicator of safety.
When I ask the women what will make them feel safer, they tend to be much more specific and practical than the men. "When I know that I can send my children out with the goats or the sheep to graze all day and not worry about whether I will see them again in the evening - that's when I will feel safe," Hawa, one of the women's leaders tells me in a loud, clear voice at a meeting today.
I suppose more soldiers, patrolling more areas, and another round of peace talks (shaky though they may be) are a start towards solving Darfur's problems - but are they enough to make people think about returning home already? Let's just say I won't be convinced until I see Hawa and her children take that decision to return to the normal life she speaks about.
Tags: Sudan, Darfur, aid worker, security, return, African Union, peace talks