Oct 13, 2005 (LONDON) — The capital of West Darfur, el-Geneina, is hardly a beauty spot. There are canyons where the roads should be and plenty of rubble instead of houses. The only signs of prosperity are the offices and guest houses of myriad aid agencies. But the real scars of war and devastation lie on the edge of town: here are some of the scores of refugee camps that now disfigure the entire region of Darfur, legacy of the bitter war between rebels and the Sudanese government that broke out in 2003. In the past five weeks, violence has increased sharply again, and the African Union (AU), which has 6,000 troops in the country with a mandate, endorsed by the UN, to monitor a ceasefire and hold the ring, is still struggling to impose its authority.
|A Rwandan soldier belonging to the African Union Force patrols a section of the Abu Shouk displaced camp in the outskirts of El-Fasher, Sudan. (AFP) .|
There are now about 1.8m people in the camps of Darfur and a further 200,000 refugees just across the border in Chad. The camps were created to provide safe havens for those attacked and driven from their land in the conflict, but fear is now the prevailing emotion in many of them. In Riyad camp, just outside el-Geneina, where 15,000 live in precarious structures of palms, dried reeds and plastic bags, refugees talk of the risk of venturing out after dark and of the constant attacks by armed gunmen, who sometimes ride brazenly into the camp itself. An AU force, camped just about a kilometre (little more than half a mile) away, is meant to give some protection, but, says one 27-year-old man, “rapes still go on and they do nothing, just write reports”. He has good reason to be afraid: two weeks ago 35 refugees were killed in an attack on a similar camp.
For despite a formal ceasefire of a year’s standing, between the rebel groups of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) on the one hand and the Sudanese government in Khartoum on the other, everyone agrees that security has sharply deteriorated. The threat in Darfur is that the violence will soon jeopardise the continuation of humanitarian support for the refugees and destabilise a region that had only recently achieved a bit of equilibrium, if not exactly peace. And if chaos in the west increases, this year’s historic but fragile deal between the government in Sudan and southern rebels, who have been fighting more on than off for 20-plus years, could also unravel.
The new wave of violence in Darfur has not only been directed, as it always has been, at the refugees, but at the aid workers themselves. At the beginning of last month, one aid convoy in West Darfur was ambushed by armed gunmen who looted everything, and then, says one of the victims, “systematically beat” the 23 aid workers, and sexually abused the women. This assault heralded a new level of violence against aid workers. Since then, many others have been beaten, whipped and kidnapped; one convoy was attacked on its outward and return journey to and from a camp. On October 8th two contractors were killed in an ambush. So, for the first time, were two AU soldiers, both of them Nigerians.
The result is that in West Darfur, for instance, which has 657,000 refugees, the UN and aid agencies are in a state of virtual paralysis in places like el-Geneina. According to Amy Horton, head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in West Darfur, “travel south of el-Geneina is at a freeze due to the insecurity”. The WFP has now built up three months’ worth of food supplies there, because it has become impossible to shift it to many of the outlying camps.
At the moment, thanks to the improvements in food supply and sanitation achieved in Darfur over the past year, few refugees are in immediate danger from this violent interruption. But NGO workers give warning that that could change very quickly if the present situation persists or gets worse.
Oxfam, for example, has three water and sanitation projects serving 90,000 people in camps south of el-Geneina, and had been unable for a month to send fuel to re-supply the generators that run them. It managed to get a convoy through this week, just before the existing stock of fuel ran out and the water system in several camps packed up. If it had not, the lack of clean water would almost inevitably have brought back disease and malnutrition. Of 16 camps in Darfur that Oxfam works with, six are inaccessible by road from the region’s three main towns and supply centres. In West Darfur, not a single helicopter is available to ferry aid workers around.
Much of the violence is sheer banditry, committed by those who have nothing left to live off in a desert region razed by nearly three years of fighting. As a local tribal leader succinctly put it: “There is nothing left to loot apart from the NGO convoys.” More worryingly, there is plenty of evidence that the violence marks a return to the war’s old battle lines. It was the Arab militia known as the janjaweed who killed the 35 people in the refugee camp two weeks ago. When war broke out two years ago, the janjaweed were armed by the Khartoum government and became its proxy fighters against the rebels. They killed thousands and committed most of the atrocities in the war.
The AU claims there is photographic proof of the Sudanese government’s Russian-designed military helicopters strafing villages in conjunction with janjaweed attacks. This would add to the mounting evidence that not only has the Sudanese government done nothing to disarm these militias, as it is obliged to under the ceasefire agreement, but that it may be co-ordinating their attacks again. Sudanese officials in West Darfur deny this.
Not too many good guys
Meanwhile, the rebel SLA has also apparently started attacking government forces again. Not only that, but the AU accuses it of killing its two soldiers and the contract workers on October 8th. This is probably a result of peace-talks going on in Nigeria between the rebels and the Sudanese government, as different factions within the SLA jostle for advantage on the ground. For this reason there have been spikes in violence at the start of previous rounds of talks, but never to this level.
There is now little to prevent those who want to rape, loot and kill in Darfur from doing so. In reality, the AU force in Darfur, charged with monitoring the ceasefire, can do little with the resources at its disposal unless the Khartoum government actively helps it-which rarely happens. The Darfur region is divided into eight military sectors; in sector three, around el-Geneina, just 760 ill-equipped AU troops, mainly Nigerian, try to patrol an area of 12,000 square km (4,600 square miles). With almost no aviation fuel for its two helicopters, the AU force can do very little to protect civilians. The janjaweed still seem able to act with virtual impunity.
With the region so unsafe, many refugee camps are starting to take on an air of permanency, with schools, health clinics and small plots of family land. Despite ritual appeals by UN officials for funds to safeguard the refugees’ return to their old lands and help them rebuild their old lives, most aid workers now concede that many of the refugees in the big camps around Darfur’s three main towns-el-Geneina, el-Fasher and Nyala-may never go back.
The real test will come in the spring, when the refugees would normally return to their lands to sow crops for the next harvest. But Darfur may already have undergone a forced urbanisation, changing the region’s demography. That means that the way of life-and survival-for millions of pastoral people has changed forever. Now they must rely on the goodwill of others, for security as well as food.
Peace talks in Nigeria between the Sudanese government and the rebel groups, now into their sixth round, sputter along. But, mainly because of the lack of unity between the various factions of the rebel groups, no deal looks imminent. Meanwhile, security on the ground needs addressing urgently, regardless of talks.
Many humanitarian groups want more of an international squeeze on Sudan’s government, to make it meet its commitments under the ceasefire; it must be held responsible, too, for disarming the janjaweed, as it has promised but failed to do. The Sudanese have been blocking 105 armoured personnel carriers, donated by Canada, from reaching the woefully weak AU force, which sorely needs beefing up: it lacks every sort of equipment, from computers to helicopters, aviation fuel and even cash to pay its troops. Donors, mostly from the West, have been too slow to help strengthen it; a deadline to increase its strength to 7,000 was missed a couple of months ago. There are still only 800 civilian policemen in all of Darfur, which covers an area nearly as big as France.
Calls for a wholesale UN military intervention may get louder again. But Sudan’s government would not, at present, accept the humiliation of what would be a largely western military presence; the AU force, for now, is the only game in town.
In any event, the AU force’s mandate needs to be beefed up so that it can be allowed to go after the militias that kill civilians rather than just monitor a failing ceasefire. But the real problem is that the AU troops have yet to enforce their existing mandate. It has still to impose a disengagement plan on the two warring sides, let alone keep them apart. Yet, with a more robust interpretation of its mandate and with more cash and troops, it should be able to do more to help the millions on the verge of famine, death and despair. It is, indeed, the AU’s biggest current test. So far, it is failing.