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In Darfur, little has changed since peace deal was signed

KASSAB, Sudan—Don't ask Ibrahim Rahma about the peace agreement for Darfur. Where he sits, in this camp where thousands displaced by the war in western Sudan now live in tumbledown wooden shacks, there is no peace.

Here, the 38-year-old sheik said, stick-legged children still subsist on rationed food, and the water wells often run dry. Armed men still terrorize people. Two nights earlier, gunshots rang out in the nearby hills.

"You cannot just say there is peace. You have to see it," said Rahma, seated under a billowing gum tree surrounded by two dozen other weary-faced sheiks.

Across the vast, unforgiving desert of western Sudan, little has changed in the two months since the Sudanese government signed a much-celebrated peace agreement with the biggest Darfur rebel force to end a war that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.

The violence that has forced 2.4 million people from their homes continues, though the worst fighting now appears to be among rival rebel groups who rose up against Sudan's Arab-led government in 2003 on behalf of Darfur's marginalized African tribes.

The rebels' original enemy, Arab militias known as the janjaweed, which Sudan unleashed to fight the uprising, also are still here, looting and occasionally killing villagers in an ongoing scorched-earth campaign that the Bush administration has labeled genocide.

The long, complex process of disarming the janjaweed, the linchpin for peace, has already missed its first deadlines.

Overseeing the agreement are 7,000 overwhelmed African Union troops, who don't have the authority to punish violations. The United Nations wants to send its own, stronger mission next year, but Sudan's president, who denies any wrongdoing in Darfur, said last month that would "never, ever happen."

At the end of June, the U.N. envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, suggested that the deal might be doomed.

"There is a significant risk that the Darfur Peace Agreement will collapse," Pronk wrote on his blog www.janpronk.nl. "On the ground, especially amongst the displaced persons, it meets more and more resistance."

That the deal is already on life-support is a major disappointment for international efforts to end what the U.N. has called the world's gravest humanitarian crisis.

In May, diplomatic heavyweights led by then-deputy U.S. Secretary of State Robert Zoellick pressed Sudan and the rebels toward agreement in a week of feverish negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria. But at the last minute, with Sudan and rebel leader Minni Minnawi ready to sign, a rival faction led by Abdol Wahid al Nur pulled out.

Analysts welcomed Minnawi's endorsement at the time because he had the biggest military force, but support among his field commanders is eroding. Increasingly isolated, Minnawi shuns interviews and spends less time in Darfur, people here say.

Since the agreement, Zoellick has left the State Department, leaving the U.S. without a point man in the peace process.

"The U.S. provided important leverage and diplomatic initiative to the process, got one rebel group to sign a deal that (the government) was ecstatic about and then bailed," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think tank that tracks international conflicts.

"The aftermath of that premature departure has been disastrous, as the other rebel groups have only grown in support and resources, at the expense of the faction that signed."

Nur's refusal to sign is proving especially vexing. He's a member of Darfur's largest tribe, the Fur, and his followers comprise about two-thirds of the people displaced by the war.

Nur "is widely regarded as the person who represents the aspirations of so many Darfurians," said Alex de Waal, an Africa expert who advised the African Union on the peace process. "Simply because he hasn't signed, the people don't like it."

Many are also skeptical of government pledges to rehabilitate their long-neglected homeland, where life was pre-modern even before the war began.

The agreement promises $700 million from the government over three years for reconstruction and $30 million to compensate "war-affected persons"—amounts that appear to be dwarfed by the devastation here.

Up and down Darfur's sandy moonscape, village after village sits empty. In some, the charred, crumbling shells of mud huts are chilling reminders of janjaweed raids. Other villages, abandoned in fear, appear intact but eerily empty, seemingly frozen in an early morning stillness.

Potable water, proper schools and other services are urgent needs, residents said.

"There are no medicines in our clinics. We have no education," said Mohammadein Garelnabi, a commander allied with Nur who lives in the rebel-held village of Hashaba, deep in the hills of northern Darfur.

"This agreement doesn't do anything for the basic rights of the people here."

Analysts say the disarmament provisions are the agreement's weakest link because they rely on total cooperation from Sudan's government—which has maintained that the conflict is tribal and that the janjaweed aren't under its control—and on robust monitoring by the undermanned African Union.

"There will be no disarmament of the janjaweed under the existing plan, which is too weak to sustain such a difficult process," Prendergast said.

Within days of the signing, numerous new attacks were reported. On May 15, according to local accounts, 11 villagers were killed in janjaweed raids in the area around Kassab.

Sheiks here said anyone who ventures outside the camp risks being attacked. Women must go to collect firewood, however, so in recent weeks an African Union convoy has traveled with them.

"The janjaweed continue to be a menace," said Col. Richard Lourens, commander of the African Union force in the neighboring town of Kutum. "They tend to pop up anywhere. They hinder and harass. ... They believe they can move with impunity."

With the ongoing violence, basic humanitarian aid doesn't reach about a third of people who need it. Much of western Darfur is a no-go zone for aid workers, and throughout the region white SUVs emblazoned with aid agencies' logos are sporadically hijacked by janjaweed and rebels alike.

According to the agreement, Sudan was to present a complete disarmament plan by late June, and the African Union was to establish demilitarized zones for aid convoys to travel more freely. Those deadlines came and went.

Without progress on disarmament, the peace deal—and the African Union—seem to lose credibility in Darfur with each passing day. In a meeting last week, when the sheiks of Kassab told a visiting journalist that they hadn't read the agreement, an African Union officer volunteered to bring them a copy printed in Arabic.

The sheiks waved their hands dismissively. Rahma, among the youngest in the group, spoke up.

"We need security," he said. "We don't need to see any papers."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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