African Union force proud of role in Darfur

Some of its men have not been paid for four months and, with few helicopters or troop carriers, it has to rely on diplomacy to keep the peace, but the beleaguered African Union (AU) force in Darfur insists it is still making a difference.

“There are difficulties, you couldn’t deny it,” the 7 000-strong force’s number two Hassan Gibril Alieu tells Agence France-Presse (AFP) at the headquarters in the region’s main town of El Fasher.

“But it would be wrong to say that the mission is close to collapse,” he adds, referring to reports in the United States press that the African governments which have contributed troops to the three-year-old force are about to throw in the towel.

A Senegalese soldier acknowledges to AFP that some troops in his contingent have not received their salaries for four months.

“It’s irritating because we can’t even buy cigarettes or phone home from down there,” he says, swiftly adding that the arrears have not affected the discipline of the men.

The AU force has paid a high price for its efforts to stem the violence in Darfur, which has killed at least 200 000 people and sent more than two million fleeing their homes in the past four years.

The force has lost 19 of its men dead or missing and had about 100 of its vehicles stolen, further complicating its problems in patrolling a region the size of France.

The force is supposed to be receiving logistical backup from the United Nations in a bid to beef up its effectiveness but plans to send out UN peacekeepers to create a combined 20 000-strong force have fallen foul of Sudanese government objections.

Even the UN support that Khartoum has approved is taking a long time to materialise.

Thirty-six armoured personnel carriers that are supposed to be lent to the AU force have yet to arrive in the region and of 100 officers and police advisers being seconded from the United Nations, 36 are still languishing in the capital Khartoum, according to UN officials.

Six assault helicopters and 3 000 additional peacekeepers that are due to be deployed in a second phase are unlikely to arrive for six months, the officials added.

‘All they do is write reports’

The force’s logistical problems mean that it has a poor reputation among the residents of Darfur. Its police contingent which is supposed to keep order in the displaced persons’ camps that dot the region is widely deemed ineffective with persistent reports of rapes and murders.

“All they do is write reports—nothing is ever settled,” complains Mohammed Ahmed (40) one of around 45 000 civilians holed up in the As-Salem camp outside El Fasher.

When violence does break out, force commanders have to rely on their powers of tact and diplomacy to negotiate a solution. Their mandate does not allow them to intervene, except in self-defence, and in any case they do not have the means to impose a peace.

Last month, clashes broke out in the desert north of Darfur close to the Chadian border.
Five Senegalese peacekeepers lost their lives, as did two rebel fighters and a Sudanese civilian.

The Senegalese government is adamant that the violence was the fault of the mainstream faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement, the only one of the myriad ethnic minority rebel groups in Darfur that is supposed to be bound by a peace agreement with the government.

But as anger over the losses on both sides threatens to undermine the African Union’s ability to patrol areas held by the group’s fighters, the force’s deputy commander was forced to fly up to try to thrash out a deal.

The flight across the lunar landscape of northern Darfur takes 90 minutes aboard one of the force’s Russian-made MI-8 helicopters.

Waiting in the small settlement of Umm Baro are local notables of the Zaghawa, an ethnic group that straddles the Sudan-Chad border and is strongly represented within the SLM-mainstream, as well as local AU commanders.

Alieu is careful not to blame the group’s fighters for the deaths of his peacekeepers as he pleads for a resumption of the AU’s patrols in the area and for access by all sides to a vital water source.

“What happened on April 1 was the work of the devil,” the deputy commander says, swiftly adding to the assembled notables: “Let’s put this incident behind us and renew our cooperation.”

But it is only when the rebels’ local commander arrives at the meeting in a briefing room in the small AU garrison that the real bargaining gets under way.

His face concealed with a turban and dark glasses, Harun Saleh—nicknamed Abu Tawil, or father of tall sons, because of his stature—tells Alieu that he wants compensation for the two dead fighters as well as the dead civilian.

He denies that his men had anything to do with the peacekeepers’ deaths.

One of the Zaghawa notables quickly echoes the demand calling for diya or blood money to be paid for the three Sudanese. He also demands that the African Union allow the use of its helicopters to take sick people in Umm Baro for hospital treatment in El Fasher.

Alieu retorts that the peacekeeping mission cannot take on the government’s responsibility to provide healthcare.

He adds that he has to account to AU headquarters in Addis Ababa for every precious hour of flying time he uses, but eventually concedes that his men will help out “when it is possible”.

But it fails to persuade the SLM delegation and another of its commanders, Ahmed Ismail reiterates: “No compensation, no renewal of cooperation.”

Eventually after four hours of bargaining, Alieu finally agrees that the AU will pay compensation. A panel made up of AU and SLM commanders as well as local notables is to decide the amounts.

In return, the SLM agrees to allow the resumption of AU patrols in three days.

The agreement is the sort of uncomfortable compromise that AU commanders are forced to make every day as they try to navigate a middle path between the conflicting demands of the Sudanese government and the rebels, not to mention troop-contributing nations.

But they remain adamant that the plight of the people of Darfur would be far worse without their efforts.

“Imagine for a moment what the situation would be like if we weren’t here,” one commander tells AFP back at HQ in El Fasher. - AFP

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