EL GENEINA, Sudan -- The killings and burning of homes have diminished since terrified villagers in Sudan's West Darfur state fled to camps for the displaced and African Union soldiers arrived to protect them.
But a campaign of intimidation blamed on semi-nomadic Arabs known as the Janjaweed continues and has cut so deeply into the local psyche that refugees can't shake their fear of going home.
Many in the camps complain it still is not safe to venture to the outskirts of the compound, let alone trek to far-off villages.
''If we go outside the camp, we might be raped. If we go back to the village, we may be killed," said Ashya Diar Sugu, who has lived at the Riad camp on the outskirts of El Geneina since the nomads attacked her home two years ago. They killed her husband.
A short walk beyond the edge of the camp to collect firewood has regularly left women beaten, robbed, and often raped by attackers they say are Arabs. Men in the camps rarely venture out, saying they likely would be killed.
On a small rise at the edge of the Riad camp, armed men on horses or camels are sometimes visible, grim reminders to the refugees of why they fled here and why they don't dare leave.
Those men on horseback and camelback are the ones accused of the killings, rapes, and burning of villages in a scorched-earth campaign to drive the settled farming population from the region.
The village farmers and the so-called nomadic Arab cattle-herders have long competed for scarce resources in Darfur. Both groups are Africans and Muslims, but the nomads are called Arab because of their cultural affinity to that ethnic group, which is dominant in the north of Sudan.
In February 2003, Darfur rebels began attacking government targets, complaining of discrimination and neglect. Khartoum is accused of responding by arming the Janjaweed to counterattack. The government denies links to the Janjaweed but said it has ''self-defense militias" in Darfur.
The United Nations estimates more than 1.9 million people were displaced since the violence began, and at least 180,000 people have been killed. The African Union has stepped in with about 3,000 peacekeeping troops -- the number is expected to rise to 12,000 -- and has helped negotiate a number of hit-and-miss cease-fires.
A sixth round of peace talks between the two main rebel groups and the government is to begin Sept. 15 in Abuja, Nigeria.
Near Geneina, despite their fear, a small but growing number of women have begun to leave the camps for short trips to their villages to tend crops, putting the need to feed families above memories of Janjaweed terror.
Medina Khalil Arbab, who returned to her home village of Borta for the growing season, has planted crops four times this year. Two times, Arab men from a nearby settlement led their cows and camels into her fields and threatened to beat her if she complained. A third time, heavy rains washed away her efforts. Now she cultivates a smaller plot and has been left alone, so far.
''The situation still remains far from ideal," said Filippo Rossi, a protection officer. ''At least this year, the people are taking some initiative to resume their lives, going home for cultivation."
The UN said about 20,000 people have returned permanently to their villages in West Darfur in the last 15 months, though more than 700,000 people remain displaced.