The violence that once consumed Darfur has returned with renewed savagery, forcing a new generation into exile.
In a country long beset by conflict, the continuing fighting in Sudan’s west has driven two million people from their homes and killed more than 200,000.
Now the 20,000-strong joint African Union-UN peacekeeping force, the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (Unamid), is facing increasingly vehement demands to answer for its performance in protecting the hundreds of thousands of civilians targeted by rebels and government forces alike.
In a leaked report, published by US magazine Foreign Policy in April, former Unamid spokeswoman Aicha Elbasri gave accounts of several alleged transgressions where the joint mission failed in its primary mandate to protect civilians and humanitarian workers.
By July this year the allegations published in Foreign Policy had come to the attention of the United Nations in New York. “The Secretary General is concerned about the recent serious allegations against the African Union-United Nations [Hybrid Operation] in Darfur,” said a UN spokesman at the time.
Ban Ki-moon was reported to have ordered a new investigation into “a wide range of issues, including inaccurate reporting of the facts on the ground in Darfur, specific instances of failure to protect civilians and accusations of mismanagement of Unamid”.
The details of the investigation are due to be made public in the coming weeks, but the head of the Unamid operation, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, has already left the agency. On Friday the Secretary General announced that the Ghanaian national, who had overseen Unamid since December 2012, had been appointed as the special representative and head of the UN office for West Africa. No mention was made of the ongoing investigation in the announcement, but a Unamid spokeswoman said Mr Chambas would continue to be “actively and fully engaged” in events in Darfur.
In August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the UN Security Council to direct Unamid to “improve human rights monitoring and public reporting”. Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW, said: “Accurate and timely reporting by the AU-UN mission is critical for protecting vulnerable civilians.”
Accounts of both Janjaweed militia and government forces targeting the innocent, many published by the website Radio Dabanga, make for harrowing testimony.
At the end of July the Darfur-based news outlet reported on the killing and rape of displaced people near Korma, in the north of the region. Earlier, militiamen had assaulted five residents of El Salam camp in the area of Amar Jedid. “They severely beat the displaced with rifle butts and whips, leading to varying injuries,” reports said.
In its article on the leaked report earlier this year, Foreign Policy magazine alleged that Unamid peacekeepers had handed over three buses full of displaced people travelling to a peace conference to a group of uniformed men “without a fight”. One of the bus drivers reportedly told investigators that the peacekeepers had simply “stood watching as the gunmen drove away the buses carrying IDPs [internally displaced persons]”.
“It is fair to say that Unamid peacekeepers largely failed to protect Darfur civilians, and that their presence didn’t deter the government or the rebels from attacking the civilians,” said Ms Elbasri.
Among the allegations made by Ms Elbasri are that the peacekeeping unit failed to report a government bombing campaign in northern Darfur in March 2013 to the UN security council, or to make clear the government’s role in the conflict. The Unamid mission in Darfur is widely viewed as flawed, beset by differences between the African Union and the UN, suffering from a lack of cooperation from the Sudanese government, and troops ill-equipped to protect thousands of civilians.
A little over 10 years ago, Darfur witnessed an ethnic cleansing campaign that drew worldwide condemnation. Between 2003 and 2005 thousands of men, women and children were killed during a government counterinsurgency offensive against two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement.
Darfur’s ethnic Fur and Zaghawa tribes, suspected of supporting the rebels, were targeted by Janjaweed militia, who razed villages on horses and camels, burning homes and slaughtering those who remained.
George Clooney was among the celebrities who helped bring the conflict to global attention and called for a multinational peacekeeping force to be deployed. The Darfur Peace Agreement was signed by the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, on 5 May 2006. That year, the African Union deployed a peacekeeping mission to Sudan, replaced in 2008 by the Unamid operation, described as the “largest peacekeeping mission in the world”.
The peacekeepers role, however, is not without danger. They face the highest casualty rate of any such force and attacks on the mission have killed at least 58 peacekeepers.
Unamid, which is now in its sixth year, has been described by Human Rights Watch as being “largely ineffectual in protecting civilians from violence”.
The Sudanese government is said to have intensified its bombings of Jebel Mara, a longtime rebel stronghold, and other locations. The United Nations estimates that more than 380,000 people have fled violence in Darfur since the beginning of 2014.
Last month the Human Rights Watch report said: “Although [Unamid] has described these attacks and other patterns of insecurity in its periodic reports to the UN Secretary-General, it has not reported detailed findings, including civilian death tolls, estimates of property destruction, and alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
“The mission has not issued a stand-alone public human rights report in five years.”
Tess Finch-Lees, a human rights specialist and Sudan campaigner, told The Independent on Sunday: “Unamid was arguably doomed to fail. It is based on a false premise, one that assumes there is a peace to keep. Peace not only eludes Darfuris, its utterance taunts them.
“The people in camps, who are lying doubled up from starvation-induced abdominal spasms, know that there are no deals to be made with the devil.
“Peace cannot be brokered as long as the UN allows Sudanese forces to drop bombs on civilians. At what point and at what human cost will the UN stop the crippling charade of appeasement and complicity? If Ban Ki-moon is serious about his pledge to put ‘Rights up Front’ in the UN’s work, why is Darfur languishing at the back of the queue?”
Last year, amid mounting concern over Unamid’s performance, Britain’s then Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Baroness Warsi, said: “We believe that Unamid could be much more effective in carrying out its mandate in this and other areas through more robust and effective use of its troops and other resources. We are raising this concern in ongoing discussions in the UN Security Council about the renewal of Unamid’s mandate.”
The Unamid mandate was extended at the end of last month until 30 June 2015.Reuse content