More than four years after an African Union-UN peacekeeping force costing billions of US dollars arrived in Sudan’s restive western region of Darfur, peace remains elusive and some question the mission’s value.
Critics say the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, is too close to the Sudanese government and not aggressive enough in fulfilling its core mandate of protecting civilians.
“It may be better than nothing,” one analyst told media, asking for anonymity. “But they are really focused on protecting themselves.”
The concern comes as Darfur suffers a surge in violence.
More than 700 people have already been killed this year in clashes between rebels and government troops as well as in tribal unrest and criminal incidents, more than for the whole of last year, UNAMID data show.
Rebels drawn from black African tribes rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in 2003. The conflict peaked years ago, killing at least 300,000 people, according to UN estimates. The government said 10,000 died.
Overall, there has been a “drastic decrease” in the number of people killed in clashes and things would have been worse without UNAMID’s roughly 16,700 troops, the force commander said.
“The mere presence of us on the ground flying the flag is a substantial deterrent,” Lieutenant General Patrick Nyamvumba of Rwanda said.
Since he took over three years ago, UNAMID patrols have roughly doubled to around 150 a day and more people displaced by the conflict have returned home.
The UN recorded 178,000 returnees between January last year and March this year.
“This could not be possible if there were not increased security,” Nyamvumba said.
However, an estimated 1.7 million remain in camps — which more closely resemble poor villages — where residents have reported shootings, arson and other violence.
In a report released last month focused on Khartoum’s use since late 2010 of non-Arab militia to displace ethnic Zaghawa rebels and civilians from east Darfur, Swiss-based independent researchers alleged that in several cases “abuses against civilians, looting, and burning of property occurred in the immediate vicinity of UNAMID positions.” Nyamvumba says his troops are clearly mandated to give “physical protection” to civilians in imminent danger, which they have done.
The fact that 38 UNAMID peacekeepers have been killed in hostile action shows they are doing their job, he said, adding: “I think the mission has accomplished quite a lot.”
However, Darfur’s top official, Eltigani Seisi, said the protection mandate seems to lack clarity.
“We saw incidences where UNAMID forces have been attacked and they were not able to ... protect themselves,” he said.
UN figures show that 13 UNAMID vehicles were carjacked in the first half of this year.
“If they are not able to protect themselves, they cannot protect the civilians,” said Seisi, who heads the Darfur Regional Authority, set up to implement a peace deal signed last year between Khartoum and rebel splinter factions.
Key rebel groups have rejected the agreement.
“They have the guns and they don’t use them,” a humanitarian source said of UNAMID.
Among the peacekeepers’ arsenal are five Mi-35 helicopter gunships used mostly for reconnaissance and escorting patrols, said Christopher Cycmanick, a mission spokesman.