Despite what the UN says, the terror continues in Darfur
The UN Security Council is reconsidering the deployment of its joint African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, known as UNAMID. UN officials say there is now "much less organised violence" in the remote western province of Sudan. Hence they want to scale back UNAMID, an operation costing $1 billion a year.
However, the Sudanese government continues to bomb, rape and terrorise its own citizens in Darfur, just as it has since April 2003. A forthcoming Waging Peace report on recent attacks by the Khartoum regime and its proxies runs to 90 pages (1). Last year there were 132 confirmed aerial bombing raids by the Sudanese armed forces. Anywhere else this would not represent "much less organised violence." Already this year there have been 40 bombing raids, indiscriminately targeting unarmed civilians (2). Sudanese planes were bombing their own citizens in the Jebel Marra area as recently as March 29th (3). Just last week another 7,000 civilians fled their villages in North Darfur following Sudanese government attacks. (4) Yet, the myth persists: things are much better in Darfur.
Refugees in camps remain terrified of returning to their villages, 90% of which were destroyed by their own government: women are systematically raped; camps are regularly invaded by Sudanese soldiers and intelligence officers; educated civic leaders and students are arrested and tortured (5).
There are 1.7 million Darfuris (out of a population of 6 million) registered in camps. Another 282,000 are in camps in next door Chad (6). Yet, these numbers are probably an understatement: some Darfuris tell us they choose not to register in camps, even though it makes them ineligible for food, in case those who are registered are forced to return to their villages.
Some UN officials, helped by credulous journalists, are perpetuating a myth, claiming 100,000 Darfuris have returned home. Yet when Radio Dabanga interviewed twelve tribal chiefs in twelve different camps, a different picture emerges. Opportunistic immigrants from Chad, Niger and Nigeria have taken over villages that were ethnically cleansed of their original Darfuri inhabitants: the UN points to this as evidence that villages are once more inhabited. It is telling that the UN official closest to the camps in Chad says he has no knowledge that Darfuris are returning home (7).
The real reason the UN can even consider scaling down its peacekeeping force is because it knows the world has lost interest in Darfur. This is a victory for the Khartoum regime which has skillfully created a media vacuum there, denying access to reporters or human rights groups. Khartoum has also intimidated local UN officials and humanitarian aid staff into remaining silent about the human rights violations they see daily. Meanwhile Khartoum piles restriction upon restriction on humanitarian agencies, deliberately reducing access with predictable results: hunger and disease achieves ethnic cleansing on the cheap, something I've seen at first hand in camps in West Darfur.
Further up the UN system, there is political pressure to lay off Khartoum. Why? Because running in parallel with the catastrophe in Darfur have been years of negotiations to get Khartoum to stop slaughtering the people of South Sudan (who also happen to be mainly black African). The international community chooses to appease Sudan's ruling National Islamic Front regime (now rebranded the National Congress Party), turning a blind eye to the horror in Darfur in case Khartoum walked away from talks on South Sudan (8). In the end, the international community has been left looking doubly weak because not only is Khartoum still killing in Darfur: it has also resumed bombing South Sudan, now an independent country.
From the start, UNAMID was misnamed: it has only ever monitored violence against civilians; it has not intervened to save unarmed Darfuris, and it has not kept the peace. Local people interviewed by my group, Waging Peace, and other human rights groups and journalists, recount strikingly similar accounts: UNAMID fails to engage when the Sudanese armed forces, security and intelligence agents or their local proxies, the Janjaweed, attack civilians.
Most often UNAMID is miles from the violence, lacking the fuel to respond within days, let alone hours. Local people tell of UNAMID personnel deliberately avoiding trouble spots, but this is a complaint heard about peacekeepers in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. To be fair to UNAMID personnel, unless you know you have the full support of the politicians and officials who deployed you, you are unlikely to stick your neck out, especially when your pay is weeks late.
Many Darfuris we interview distrust UNAMID, and they often protest in their camps. Last week UNAMID soldiers shot and killed seven Darfuris who were demonstrating (9). People complain that UNAMID officials are too meek to even ask for access to assess the human cost of government bombing raids and attacks -- an essential part of UNAMID's mandate.
Waging Peace is in weekly contact with Darfuri Diaspora with family in camps such as the one I visited, outside El Geneina. They tell of arrest, torture and extortion at the hands of the Sudanese authorities. Phone calls to the USA and UK are bugged, with sometimes fatal consequences for those "spreading lies" about the Khartoum regime.
If there is anything "less organised" about the Sudanese armed forces violence, it is because Khartoum has resumed its systematic ethnic cleansing of its old adversaries, the South Sudanese, bombing churches, schools and oil fields.
Instead of scaling down UNAMID, we should provide an improved, well-resourced peacekeeping force with the political backing to lift the veil of silence on what has been called "Rwanda in slow motion."
(5) Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org