By Khalid Abdelaziz
TABIT, Sudan (Reuters) - Caught in a forgotten war between rebels and government forces and beset by bandits who roam the lawless roads, villagers in Darfur say their lives can scarcely get any worse if Sudan insists on international peacekeepers leaving their region.
UNAMID, the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, was deployed seven years ago to stem violence against civilians during a civil war in which the Sudanese government was accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
With fighting still dragging on, UNAMID's shortcomings have drawn criticism from the very people it was deployed to protect and Sudan has told it to devise an exit strategy.
Khartoum's move elicited indifference rather than opposition in northern Darfur, where much of the violence now rages.
"We won't be affected if UNAMID leaves because it doesn't play a significant role in protecting civilians," said Mohamed Abdullah, a local civilian. "We only hear about UNAMID submitting reports. We don't know what they do for us."
A rare visit by journalists to the remote northern Darfur village of Tabit -- site of recent allegations of mass rape -- showed how, despite the presence of one of the world's largest peacekeeping missions, violence still blights people's lives.
"Our lives are very difficult since the war began. We cannot grow crops except in a very small area because rebels and gangs come and loot our fields," said Mohamed Ismail, a resident.
Pointing to nearby mountains, Ismail added: "Just six kilometers from here, rebels and bandits dominate the region."
The Darfur conflict, which erupted in 2003 when mainly African tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced over two million, according to the United Nations.
Tabit was under rebel control for eight years of the war, with the government reasserting its authority in 2010.
But much of that authority is nominal, with gunmen stalking dirt roads to attack military and civilian vehicles alike, preventing villagers from traveling even for healthcare.
Tabit's clinic, which catered to 22 villages, was destroyed in the fighting.
"There are no vaccines ... here," said Maha Adam, 26, cradling a baby. "We cannot move outside the village perimeter to collect firewood and we wait for hours every day to buy water at the only well ... We live in fear."
With officials standing by during the government-organized press trip, it was difficult to speak freely about the alleged rape of 200 women and girls by Khartoum's forces in Tabit, highlighting the hurdles faced by UNAMID investigators.
Australia's U.N. envoy said on Nov. 10 Sudan's heavy military presence during UNAMID's interviews of the alleged rape victims had raised serious concerns.
UNAMID's conclusion that there was "no evidence" of the rapes triggered an outcry from rights activists. Khartoum had delayed UNAMID's first visit to the area in early November and denied it permission to visit a second time.
"All indicators confirm that the mass rape occurred in the Tabit area. We and human rights organizations have irrefutable evidence and testimony to prove the crime by government forces," said Jibril Bilal of the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the main Darfur rebel groups.
Sudan denies its forces were involved in any such incident.
Last month, an internal U.N. review said UNAMID had failed to provide U.N. headquarters with full reports on attacks against civilians and peacekeepers.
The review was ordered after media reports alleged that UNAMID had covered up details of deadly attacks to avoid provoking the government.
"UNAMID is something of a lost cause," said a Sudan analyst with a conflict-monitoring organization, asking not to be named.
Despite UNAMID's shortcomings, however, some observers say a neutral force that offers some oversight is better than nothing.
"Even now, in the presence of UNAMID, we are scared... So how will it be if UNAMID leaves Darfur completely?" a displaced Darfuri said. "UNAMID leaving would mean that the world has abandoned the people of Darfur and left them to die."
(Writing by Shadi Bushra; Editing by Lin Noueihed and Gareth Jones)