UN Troops for Darfur

Aid Workers Remain Sceptical

Sudan gives way and allows 3,000 UN troops into Darfur. After repeated disappointments in the past, aid organisations remain sceptical. By Marc Engelhardt, Nairobi

Darfur refugees, sitting under a make-shift shelter Sunday March 25, 2007, in this derelict section of Es Sallam camp say they have been waiting nine months to be relocated to decent shelters (photo: AP)
The UN warned of a possible humanitarian collapse if aid groups are further blocked in their work by the region's violence and Sudanese bureaucratic obstacles

​​The newest refugee camp just outside Nyala in the south of Darfur is called El Salaam, which means, inappropriately enough, peace. Some 10,000 Darfuris, mainly women and children, live here under plastic sheeting which has been roughly fastened to wooden poles and is supposed to provide shelter. "New refugees are arriving by the hour," says Harry Donsbach of World Vision, who has just returned from Darfur. "They are fleeing the violence in their villages."

Unlike in other more established camps, there are no huts or tents in El Salaam and frequent shortages of water and food. For the few aid organisations which, like World Vision, are still active in Darfur, armed attacks are making it increasingly difficult to provide help for the refugees.

"We've lost six vehicles in the last week alone," Donsbach says. "We don't know who's taken them – you can't always tell exactly." As well as the government-sponsored Janjaweed militias and the various groups of rebels, there are now also ordinary bandits who have taken to attacking refugees and their helpers without any political agenda.

Darfur needs a robust military force

Nobody who works here really believes that the arrival of 3,000 UN observers and police to which Sudan has at long last agreed will really bring peace to El Salaam. You can almost hear Desiré Assogbavi, who represents the aid organisation Oxfam at the African Union, shrug his shoulders on the phone: "Darfur needs a robust military force with at least 20,000 soldiers," he says, "as the Security Council has agreed. The 3,000 can at the most merely do preparatory work."

Aside from more troops to support the 7,000 African Union forces which are already there, Assogbavi also wants better equipment. The Sudanese government has so far agreed to the deployment of armoured vehicles and six helicopters. Assogbavi does not think that will be enough.

photo: dpa
Playing on time - Sudanese President Omar Hassan el Bashir has so far shown very limited interest in pacifying Darfur

​​The Sudanese president Omar Hassan el Bashir had already agreed to all this with the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in November. But the government in Khartoum, whose army is involved in chasing down rebels and civilians, quickly preferred to forget about that. Khartoum still rejects the final phase of the three-point plan, the deployment of a robust 20,000-strong UN force. But Sudan seems to have avoided sanctions, for which the USA is calling ever more loudly.

Not even the African Union denies that the 7,000 soldiers they have sent to Darfur are too few, badly equipped and chronically under-financed. For months the AU has been among the strongest supporters of a so-called hybrid force including UN blue-helmets. In Otash, another refugee camp near Nyala, just four AU soldiers have to guard 55,000 refugees. As Donsbach says, "It's the size of a small town, in the middle of nowhere." On the Nyala side of the camp, where the AU soldiers have their barracks, things are fairly secure.

"But if you leave the camp from the other side, where the firewood is, you risk being attacked, raped or killed." The AU soldiers who are supposed to ensure the security of thousands of people with just two jeeps, are unable to do so even in areas within sight of the camp.

Distrusting Khartoum

Oxfam's Assogbavi finds it hard to believe that Khartoum means it when it says that it will allow the deployment of the initial UN forces in Darfur. "Khartoum has often said yes today and no tomorrow," he says. "I'll only believe it when I see the UN troops in Darfur with my own eyes." The conflict has lasted so far four years, at least 200,000 people have been killed, almost two and a half million have been driven from their homes, and in that time, Khartoum has often changed its mind, even when its approval seemed absolutely firm.

Assogbavi is also worried that the Sudanese authorities will drag out the process of deploying the UN troops for as long as possible. That's what they did with the AU forces, whose jeeps stood in port for months, allegedly because of missing customs papers. Aid organisations have to deal with endless new forms. In addition, the UN troops will to a certain extent be dependent on the government. They get their right to land and water from the government – and that too can take time.

And then there's the UN's own bureaucracy. So far the UN has neither concrete troop commitments nor finance. Jean-Marie Guehenno, who is responsible for the UN peace-keeping operation in Darfur, wants to have soldiers form African or Arab countries for the mission, and that makes the process even more difficult. It will take three or four months, according to current estimates, before the UN for its part has the mission ready to start.

Marc Engelhardt

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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