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An uphill struggle for peace in Darfur

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Times Staff Writer

A Russian-made Mi-8 chopper hovers over the scorched remains of this Darfur village, half-deserted since a government air raid destroyed scores of homes.

U.N. military engineers peer through portholes, armed with maps and survey tools they will use to scope out a new peacekeeping camp to be built in the desert below.

Plans to put a 600-soldier base in the heart of Darfur’s latest trouble spot are part of the aggressive new strategy of the recently deployed United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission. Sileia jumped to the top of the list of proposed new camps after more than 100 people died in clashes in the area in February.

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But the white U.N. helicopter never lands. Someone forgot to dispatch a security patrol on the ground to protect the advance team. So engineers make do with quick sketches during a brief flyover.

“I don’t even want to get into whose fault this is,” said a fuming Col. Murdo Urquhart, the British army officer in charge of new camps.

Four months after it took over from the beleaguered African Union force in western Sudan, the joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur is a tale of good intentions and loftier ambitions, mixed with some of the same issues that dogged its predecessor. Among the problems are the slow deployment of troops, a lack of adequate equipment and a shabby network of military bases.

It’s being called the most formidable U.N. peacekeeping mission ever attempted. Not only will it be the largest when fully deployed at 26,000 troops, but there’s also an awkward power-sharing arrangement with the African Union.

Usually, U.N. peacekeepers are sent to failed states or countries with weak governments to enforce peace treaties in a post-conflict environment. But in Sudan, there’s a strong government that consented to the U.N. mission as a result of intense international pressure. There’s no viable peace agreement here. And the fighting, though it had cooled, may be heating up again.

Despite the challenges, expectations are high. Many of the more than 2.5 million displaced Darfurians hope stability will return so they can go home. And the international community is betting big that a robust presence will end the seemingly intractable conflict.

Most estimates of the death toll since 2003 range from 200,000 to 300,000.

Rodolphe Adada, the U.N.-AU joint special representative for Darfur, said the mission should quell violence once it’s fully up and running, but he warned that it would not be a substitute for political dialogue.

“We shouldn’t be seen as the solution,” he said.

The mission, with an estimated annual budget of $2.5 billion, has arrived as the Darfur conflict has grown more complicated. Though frequently described as a genocide that pits an Arab-dominated government and its allied militias against non-Arab rebels and villagers, the conflict today defies easy labels. Arabs are killing Arabs. Africans are killing Africans. Some former rebels have joined the government and some Arab militias, known as janjaweed, now fight against it.

At the same time, general lawlessness and proliferation of arms have fueled widespread banditry, carjacking and rape. Most recently, Chad and Sudan have contributed to the violence through a proxy war in the Darfur region, where they are arming and funding insurgencies to attack one another.

For the moment, the mission’s most pressing challenge is getting boots on the ground. Fewer than 300 additional U.N. troops, from nations such as Bangladesh and China, have arrived in Darfur. The rest of the nearly 9,000 peacekeepers here are African Union holdovers who just replaced their green AU berets with blue U.N. helmets.

Richard Williamson, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, has called the slow deployment unacceptable, urging the U.N. to dispatch 3,600 troops by June. But U.N. military commanders in Darfur foresee a slower rollout, perhaps 2,400 troops by September. Either way, full deployment of 26,000 isn’t likely until 2009.

The blame game

Finger-pointing abounds. U.S. officials blame U.N. bureaucracy. U.N. leaders say Western nations won’t provide needed equipment, including 24 new helicopters.

Then there’s foot-dragging by the Sudanese government, which is insisting that U.N. troops come chiefly from African nations. Sudanese officials say that’s because they don’t trust Western nations or their allies.

But African armies are often underfunded, ill-equipped and poorly trained.

A typical self-sustaining U.S. Army battalion can be quickly dispatched just about anywhere because it comes with its own vehicles, accommodation, generators, mechanics, medics, engineering capabilities and food services. Poorer African military units sometimes come with little more than soldiers with guns.

“Not everyone that wants to give a hand in Darfur meets the standard,” said Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Karenzi, the mission’s deputy force commander.

The United States has offered $100 million for new equipment and urged the U.N. to relax its standards to allow for a faster rollout. But U.N. officials warned against moving too quickly, particularly in a hostile environment such as Darfur, which has few roads, scarce resources and rainy seasons that make much of the region accessible only by air.

“Numbers must be matched by capabilities,” Karenzi said. Though the mission inherited about 32 bases from the African Union, many are in poor shape, requiring new toilets, satellite dishes, ovens and water treatment facilities. In Kulbus, scores of soldiers recently fell ill with intestinal worms after drinking untreated water.

Some U.N. officials say that a sudden boost in troop levels would do little to protect Darfurians if the peacekeepers must worry about their own survival. Without adequate support and supplies, new troops might fall victim to the same problems that plagued the underfunded, under-equipped AU force.

“If you deployed everyone in the next three months, you’d have a force that pretty rapidly became ineffective,” the British army’s Urquhart said.

Memories of last year’s assault on an African Union base in Haskanita loom large. Ten peacekeepers were killed when hundreds of armed attackers, suspected to be rebel factions looking for fresh supplies, stormed the small camp. The attack cemented the AU’s reputation among many Darfurians as an impotent force.

This month, an unarmed U.N. convoy was attacked and robbed while returning from a patrol. Mindful that first impressions are crucial, Karenzi said a Haskanita-style attack in the early days of the mission could prove devastating.

“It would create a very negative perception,” he said. “It would demoralize the forces.”

Emerging from the shadow of the AU force is another challenge. By the end of the AU tenure, its troops rarely left their bases, hunkering down in bunker mentality.

Under the U.N. banner, commanders are working to inject a new spirit and vitality. More than 130 patrols are conducted daily, including new nighttime forays. Troops patrol on foot, rather than remain in trucks, and chat with residents of displaced-persons camps to explain their mandate. There’s a heavy emphasis on hearts and minds. Soldiers hold hands with children and sit under trees with local women to share a cup of water.

Skeptics abound

Camp residents are skeptical. At Zam Zam camp near El Fasher, the forces got an earful about overcrowding and the scarcity of water.

Haroun Nemer, one of the camp chiefs, laughed after peacekeepers “introduced” themselves. “I know them,” he said. “They are the same African Union people as before. Now the hat is blue. But the cap doesn’t change anything.”

In nearby Abu Shouk camp, peacekeepers were chased away by armed residents last month. When the U.N. reported the incident to Sudanese police, camp dwellers banned peacekeepers from resuming patrols, accusing them of conspiring with the government.

But peacekeepers say they notice a difference.

“We have more confidence and I feel more productive than before,” said Jules Ntunda, a police advisor from Rwanda who has worked in Darfur for about a year. “Before, if someone hijacked a car we would stop our patrols and stay in our tents. Now we are more active.”

Adding to the job satisfaction is the fact that Ntunda, who sometimes went four months without pay under the AU, is getting a steady paycheck.

Recent fighting around Sileia provided the first major test of the new mission’s verve. U.N. peacekeeping commanders formally protested the civilian killings and laid plans for the new camp. But peacekeepers did not arrive on the scene until nearly four days later, residents said.

“If it takes four days or more to see what happened, it’s too late for the people,” said Imma Vazquez, head of the mission for Doctors Without Borders in El Geneina.

U.N. officials say their hands are tied until troop levels increase.

“Right now we can’t protect the people,” said Col. Amgad Morsy, deputy commander in El Geneina. “We can’t do it with the force we have now. We just don’t have the capacity.”

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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