By Moyiga Nduru
JOHANNESBURG, Aug 16, 2004 (IPS) — Television footage aired over the weekend showed a group of Rwandan soldiers dancing and clapping their hands. With AK-47 assault rifles firmly strapped across their shoulders, the 150 troops sported green berets adorned with African Union badges as they waited to hear a speech from President Paul Kagame.
A few hours later, the soldiers were airlifted on an Antonov plane to the troubled Darfur region in western Sudan. There, they will protect 118 unarmed military observers from the African Union (AU) who are monitoring a shaky four-month truce between government and rebels from the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement.
Human rights groups and aid workers say the cease-fire has been largely ignored by pro-government Arab militia known as the Janjaweed ("men on horseback"). These paramilitaries have been accused of carrying out a campaign of terror against three ethnic groups - the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa - which are suspecting of providing support to the rebels.
The Rwandan soldiers are the first foreign troops to set foot in Sudan since aid and human rights groups began putting pressure on the international community to deploy peacekeepers in Darfur.
Before the soldiers left, Kagame noted that their mandate would also include using force, if necessary, to protect civilians.
"It makes no sense to protect the peace monitors while the population is ignored and left to die," the Rwandan leader told reporters.
Indeed, even as the Rwandan soldiers were landing in Al Fashir, violations of the cease-fire were reported to be continuing. Jan Pronk, the UN special envoy to Sudan, acknowledged this week that Janjaweed fighters were ignoring official instructions to end attacks.
But in Khartoum, Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail insisted that the AU peacekeepers, which also include a 150-strong contingent from Nigeria, will be restricted to guarding the observers. They are not to engage any of Darfur’s belligerents, he added.
Were this warning issued to soldiers from any country other than Rwanda, Ismail might find his words landing on receptive ears.
However, the present generation of Rwandans brings a unique perspective to bear on the Darfur crisis. Leaders, troops, members of the public - all have experienced genocide: the 1994 killings in which upwards of 800,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were slaughtered by pro-government Hutu militias known as the interahamwe ("those who fight together" in Kinyarwanda).
The genocide occurred under the nose of a United Nations peacekeeping force that lacked a clear mandate to intervene when action might have prevented the killings from gaining momentum.
Sudan’s wariness of the Rwandan troops was further demonstrated by the welcome the soldiers were given - or perhaps denied. No senior military officials were on hand at Al Fashir airport when the soldiers touched down.
The AU has said it would like to send up to 2,500 peacekeepers to Darfur. Last week, AU chairman Olusegun Obasanjo, who is also the president of Nigeria, urged Sudan to allow the deployment of more personnel. Khartoum’s refusal to do so would result in intervention by western troops, he warned.
The UN Security Council has given Sudan 30 days to reign in the Janjaweed or face sanctions. President Omar al Bashir has said that his government will meet this deadline - although Vice-President Ali Osman Taha has sounded a more cautious note, warning that officials will need at least three months to disarm the Janjaweed.
Adding its voice to the chorus of concern about the situation in Darfur is the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which has urged Khartoum to allow humanitarian aid to reach the displaced.
In a statement issued last week (Aug. 11), the bishops also echoed the findings of a UN report from Aug. 6 that held the government of Sudan ultimately "responsible" for the crisis in Darfur.
"We ourselves have personally witnessed some of these atrocities during visits to Sudan. Because of this, the African Union (AU) in particular must take action against the Government of Sudan and exclude it from all AU organs such as its Human Rights Commission," observed the bishops.
"In addition, (the AU should) put pressure on the Government of Sudan to implement the African Union provisions on good governance and the promotion of human rights."
As the diplomatic wrangles continue, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) says it has started to airdrop food into the most inaccessible parts of Darfur. According to the WFP, the food will assist more than 70,000 displaced people and local residents who have been cut off from aid because of the rainy season and insecurity.
But here too there are problems: a temporary shortage of jet fuel in Sudan has hampered the airdrop. Khartoum recently imported 10,000 tonnes of jet fuel to address the shortage, and the WFP says it is holding talks with government on measures to guarantee sufficient fuel for its humanitarian operation.
"Unless the low levels of jet fuel force a temporary suspension of the air drops, WFP plans to continue them throughout the rainy season into September, by which time all the locations should once again be accessible by road - the mainstay of WFP’s campaign to get food to the hungry people of the three Darfur states," added the UN agency.