'There's no peace for us to keep'
With the world fixated on recent events at the International Criminal Court and how they will affect the situation in Sudan, it is important to remember what is happening in Darfur today.
As force commander of what is destined to be the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, I am deeply concerned about the deteriorating security situation here. Peacekeeping has become a deadly business in Darfur.
Late at night on July 9 my peacekeepers were given a task they should never have had to perform. At the village of Dar as Salam in North Darfur they collected the bodies of their fallen colleagues, which had been extracted from nearby Um Hakibah. In the harsh light of pick-up truck headlights they placed their colleagues in body bags for the helicopter flight to our headquarters in Al Fasher.
The despicable attack at Um Hakibah a day earlier, in which we lost seven men from Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana, with 22 wounded, was a grim reminder of the realities of peacekeeping in Darfur for our joint United Nations-African Union mission (Unamid).
The ambush occurred as one of our convoys was returning from a patrol to investigate allegations made by one of the rebel movements that two of their soldiers had been killed.
These brave men were engaged in a classic peacekeeping operation. It was their fatal misfortune to encounter a group of criminal thugs with total disregard for human life and peace in Darfur. This was a highly organised assault by up to 200 gunmen on horseback and in 40 vehicles equipped with rifles, machine guns and an arsenal of heavy-calibre weapons.
When I first listened to the details of this tragic incident, when I heard of the weapons involved and was told the fire fight lasted more than two hours, it struck me that this was a report straight out of a war zone. Yet again I asked myself, where is the peace for us to keep? The unpalatable truth is there is no peace in Darfur. This is a conflict that has now lasted almost as long as World War II, with the prospects of a lasting settlement looking less likely than ever.
How can we move forward from this tragedy? In my mind the attack offers several compelling lessons: for the international community, the rebel movements and the government of Sudan.
First, it is high time the international community honoured its responsibilities to this force. We remain desperately under-manned and poorly equipped. I have about a third of the forces I am supposed to have deployed in Darfur and none of the tactical helicopters that might have prevented the slaughter of our men.
Our long shopping list of missing equipment makes shameful reading. It should not take the loss of innocent lives to understand what is at stake here. We need to be reinforced urgently and given the proper equipment to enable us to complete our mission.
There is an old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In Darfur things are broken and they need fixing. In this context we welcome the recent appointment of Djibril Bassolé, Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso, as the new joint mediator to be based alongside Unamid in Al Fasher. This will certainly help revitalise the ailing peace process.
Yet the international community still needs to come up with new ideas. Some commentators have suggested, for example, that establishing a no-fly zone for Darfur could help stabilise the security situation. This is an extreme step. Some experts believe it would be counter-productive. That is not the point. The essential thing is, we need a debate. Will the international community tolerate the assassination of Unamid peacekeepers indefinitely?
We also need to look urgently at broadening the participation in this peacekeeping force. Security Council resolution 1769, which gives us our mandate in Darfur, speaks of the “predominantly African character” of Unamid. It does not say the peacekeeping force must be exclusively African. Given the understandable constraints among African contributing nations we should now be able to turn to those non-African countries willing and able to assist our mission at short notice. Darfurians deserve nothing less.
Second, the rebel movements. When the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed in 2006 less than a handful of movements were involved in the conflict. Today there are something like 30. As the movements have splintered into new factions, the prospects for a settlement have diminished. For too long these men have escaped censure, benefiting from the international community’s almost exclusive focus on the government in Khartoum to deliver peace. In fact they have been positively emboldened by it.
These men with guns do not represent their peoples, the vast majority of whom yearn for peace. Only last month 38 of my peacekeepers were held hostage at gunpoint for more than five hours by armed men from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Minni Minawi faction. This is the one significant rebel movement that signed the DPA. The movements have had it too easy for too long. It is time for them to demonstrate that they are serious about peace. They must lay down their weapons and sit around the negotiating table with the government.
Finally, the Sudanese government should understand that the attack at Um Hakibah is in no one’s best interests. Bringing Unamid into a conflict merely reduces the chances of a sustainable settlement. Allowing more peacekeepers in from more countries, removing real or perceived bureaucratic obstacles to our mission and the humanitarian effort, engaging with the movement, reining in its reprehensible militia, these all send a powerful message that the government is doing its utmost to bring about peace in Darfur. It will find plenty of partners willing to assist it.
Too many men, women and children have lost their lives in this ruinous war. The worst attack on this peacekeeping mission is a tragic reminder of how this conflict is spiralling out of control. The international community, the rebel movements and the government of Sudan must act now to restore stability and the prospects for peace. I am determined to ensure that my brave peacekeepers killed at Um Hakibah did not die in vain.
General Martin Luther Agwai is the Force Commander of Unamid