Unpaid, underequipped African peacekeepers struggle in Darfur

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2007 

EL FASHER, Sudan — The white pickup emblazoned with the initials “AMIS” — for African Union Mission in Sudan — slowed down near the entrance to a refugee camp in northern Darfur. A young boy in grubby clothes appeared at the side of the road.

Sitting at the wheel, David Eklu, a Ghanaian peacekeeper, lifted an arm to wave at the boy. The boy raised his right arm — and hurled a handful of rocks at Eklu’s car.

Eklu sighed and drove on. “That has happened before,” he said.

To the war-weary people of Darfur, nothing seems to symbolize the international community’s inability to end the four-year-old conflict more than the 7,000 A.U. peacekeepers stationed here.

Tasked with monitoring a cease-fire that the Sudanese government and rebel groups have never taken seriously, the peacekeepers find themselves the targets of growing hostility from civilians — and, more worryingly, the armed factions.

In April, unidentified gunmen killed seven peacekeepers in three attacks over two weeks. In the most brazen assault, a Ghanaian peacekeeper was murdered in a carjacking just a few hundred yards from the mission’s Darfur headquarters in El Fasher, within sight of fellow peacekeepers. The guards, from the Gambia, allowed the assailants to get away, and no pursuit was ordered.

Since then, commanders have sharply curtailed patrols in much of Darfur, leaving most refugee camps without even a minimal peacekeeper presence and contributing to the widespread perception that the mission is ineffectual.

“They are useless,” said Mohammed Ismail, 31, who lives in a camp for displaced people in Nertiti, in central Darfur. “We still have security problems. We need the United Nations — maybe they will do something.”

Many in Darfur have long clamored for a stronger, better-funded United Nations force to replace the perpetually cash-strapped A.U. In June, after months of objections, Sudan finally agreed to allow 20,000 U.N.-led troops into Darfur.

But there are major logistical challenges to deploying the larger force, such as building barracks and providing equipment for thousands more troops, and it’s not yet clear which countries will contribute forces. Two smaller U.N. advance teams of nearly 2,400 specialists have also been approved, although fewer than 50 have arrived.

Diplomats say it could be at least a year before the U.N. force arrives. Until then, the A.U. will continue to struggle. Morale among peacekeepers was plunging even before the spate of killings in April brought the number of deaths to 17 since the mission arrived in 2004. Most troops haven’t been paid since February. Unable to send money home, the men joke darkly about their impending divorces.

“We are frustrated. We don’t have the funding, or we could do a lot of things,” said a Nigerian peacekeeper, who refused to be identified because he wasn't authorized to discuss the mission’s shortcomings.

From the start, Darfur was a tall order for the A.U., a five-year-old organization with almost no peacekeeping experience. The vast region in Sudan’s remote west is roughly the size of Texas, but with few roads or other infrastructure. Several cease-fires and an internationally brokered peace agreement last year have failed to end the conflict, which began in 2003, when the Sudanese government armed and trained Arab militias to quash a rebellion by non-Arab tribes.

Anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people are believed to have died in the fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe it unleashed. The Bush administration has accused Sudan of genocide. But analysts say the United States and European Union, the A.U.’s main donors, haven’t given the mission enough financial support.

With little money in its general account, the A.U. finances the $466 million-per-year Darfur operation mostly by one-time contributions from donors, which means officials spend a lot of time trying to raise cash from Western countries. Commanders said long-term force planning is next to impossible.

“We don’t even know if the A.U. could have done its job properly because they simply haven’t been financed and equipped well enough to measure,” said John Prendergast, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a think tank that studies conflict prevention.

The needs on the ground are apparent. Jeeps lack even basic communication equipment, such as two-way radios, so convoys frequently get disrupted. At the threadbare base in El Fasher, power sometimes goes out for hours at a time. For phone calls, most officers rely on the scratchy local cellular network, recharging their accounts in $5 increments and often out of their own pockets.

Rwanda, one of the largest troop-contributing countries, and Senegal, which lost five men in a single attack in April, recently threatened to withdraw unless Western countries offered more money.

“We cannot continue on the basis of voluntary contributions. We need sustained funding,” said Noureddine Mezni, the mission’s chief spokesman. “Without it, we will continue to suffer.”

It hasn’t always been so bleak. When the mission first arrived, peacekeepers were a frequent — and welcome — sight in the refugee camps, often escorting women to collect firewood and holding regular meetings with tribal elders to discuss security problems.

But when security failed to improve, Darfurians began to lose faith. Although the mission has no law enforcement power, tribal sheiks complained that peacekeepers merely passed their security concerns on to Sudanese authorities, who rarely acted.

And last year, when peacekeepers began distributing Arabic-language copies of the peace agreement — which has been widely rejected in Darfur — it only deepened public suspicion that the A.U. was in league with the hated central government.

Now, in desperate camps such as Nertiti, home to 37,000 people, sheiks have told local African Union commanders that they no longer want them to conduct patrols. Peacekeepers throughout the region are spending more time than ever stuck in their razor-wire compounds, commanders said.

“The morale is low, to be truthful,” said Mohase Elias Tsiloane, commissioner of the mission’s civilian police force, from South Africa. “We are trying our best to improve it. But the officers don’t like to sit in the barracks. They want to have a positive impact.”

2007 McClatchy Newspapers

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