Fear and mistrust as people of Darfur turn against peacekeepers
|The Guardian , 07 Juin 2006|
The dust and complaints swirled around Major Nafidi Herman in equal measure. His troops wrote reports but never took action, one man said. They offered no protection to civilians, added another, to murmurs of approval from the men who had gathered when Team 2 Bravo rumbled into their village recently.
The major, a burly Namibian wearing dark glasses and a sheen of sweat, nodded sympathetically, taking notes in a battered exercise book.
But when the village spokesman warned that he would tell his people to head for refugee camps if their safety could not be guaranteed by African Union peacekeepers, Maj Herman's patience snapped. "We cannot afford to have even one soldier guarding this village," he said.
It is a month since a peace deal was signed between Sudan's government and the main rebel group. Yet the frustration among the people of Darfur, and among the 7,300 peacekeepers from 25 African countries they look to for protection, is growing each day.
Insecurity remains rife and the peacekeepers can do little to improve the situation.
"Monitoring this agreement with only the troops we have now will be a failure," said Lieutenant Colonel John Asabre, in charge of intelligence and security at the African Union Mission to Sudan (Amis) headquarters.
Most analysts say the Darfur force should be doubled in size, with the power to protect returning refugees and to disarm militia. Yet the western nations that sponsor Amis have made an increase all but impossible by holding back funding. Some soldiers have not been paid for three months.
Hands tied, the AU has agreed to hand over the mission to the United Nations at the end of September. But there are serious doubts that this will take place by then, if at all.
While Sudan's government has finally agreed to let a UN assessment mission into Darfur later this week, the president, Omar el-Bashir, remains strongly opposed to a "blue helmet" takeover.
A UN security council delegation arrived in Khartoum on Monday to try to twist his arm. But even if it is successful, analysts say Mr Bashir is likely to insist that the mission's scale and mandate remain largely unchanged. And if not, Amis will continue to limp along.
A week on the road with the peacekeepers showed just how unsatisfactory either outcome would be.
Darfur is the size of Iraq, fiercely hot and prone to blinding dust storms. A force of 7,300 means one soldier for every 28 square miles. Liberia, where a UN peacekeeping mission was successful, is a quarter of the size of Darfur, yet the blue helmet force was 15,000 strong.
There are two tarmac roads here; the rest are little more than donkey tracks. When it rains, they become impassable. Yet Amis has just three fixed-wing aircraft and 25 transport helicopters, which were donated by the Canadian government with the caveat that they fly no more than 1,100 hours a month - less than 90 minutes each a day.
Equipped with light weapons, Amis soldiers are vastly outgunned by the rebels, the Janjaweed militia and their Sudanese military allies. Communication equipment is badly lacking, as are translators.
The peacekeepers are also hugely constrained by their weak mandate. Amis's main function is to monitor a ceasefire agreement signed in April 2004 by Khartoum and two rebel groups - and subsequently ignored by all the other parties. A ceasefire commission, which contains representatives of all the factions and is meant to investigate violations, last met in October 2005.
Amis can only protect civilians "under imminent threat and in the immediate vicinity, within resources and capability". Preventing attacks has rarely been an option.
"We need a mandate that allows our troops to do proper peacekeeping duties: air missions, patrolling demilitarised zones and setting up road blocks," said Colonel Wisdom Bleboo, 46, a Ghanaian with UN peacekeeping experience in Cambodia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.
Without that, and a major increase in the number of troops, the job was "impossible", he said.