As an employee of a German relief agency in Sudan during 2008, I had the displeasure of experiencing the sheer powerlessness of the United Nations in Darfur. People around the world don’t get an accurate picture of the conflict there, but are instead fed the media’s assurances of the strong resolve of the United Nations, which has sent the world’s largest peacekeeping mission to the region. In reality, the mission has largely failed to deliver.
The present conflict erupted in 2003, as two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), began attacking army garrisons. As was the case withSudan’s North-South conflict (1983-2005), the uprising inDarfuris recognized to have stemmed from discontent among the Darfuri population toward the central government’s neglect and theft of natural resources. From the onset of the war, the rebels accused Khartoum of oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs.
The government responded quickly by employing the murderous Janjaweed militia, and thus igniting a proxy war that mainly targeted the civilian population. According to the UN, since 2003 roughly 300,000 people died and 2.7 million have been displaced.
In response to the conflict’s devastating humanitarian impact, many NGOs intensified their activities in Darfur. Regrettably, the work of the UN and non-governmental relief agencies was compromised because of the precarious security situation, and because the government refused to cooperate.
The Sudanese government’s decision to expel 13 of the major relief organizations in 2009 was a heavy blow to the desperate citizens of Darfur. The devious move meant that additional hundreds of thousands of people risked dying from malnutrition and disease. The deportations were of course carried out in retaliation for the International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
To get back into the country, NGOs had to prove to the government that they weren’t spies working for the ICC and thus had to waste energy on their own defense rather than on conducting relief work to save peoples’ lives. Even though a few of the expelled NGOs are back in business, the struggle continues to this day.
When travelling in Darfur, I saw signs of a paranoid dictatorship doing everything in its power to hide the fact that the state is verging on complete collapse. The secret police must always know exactly where you are. This requires several permits and forms for every step you take when going into the countryside. Authorities need to know in which exact car you’ll travel, who the driver is and at what time you’ll arrive at your destination.
During my field trips within South Darfur, where I inspected our primary health-care stations and paid salaries to the local staff, everywhere and at all times I was strictly forbidden to take photos. As a white person I was constantly believed to be a spy. My French colleague lost her work permit after she was suspected of working for the CIA. Consequently, she was threatened with immediate arrest if she was ever seen in our project car again.
Added to these challenges was the constant reminder of the horrors of war. On one road trip in South Darfur we passed enormous refugee camps, the remains of burned villages, and roadblocks with armed young men who would get aggressive if they couldn’t get a ride.
More disturbing was the half-naked woman that we sighted hiding behind a tree. I don’t know what had happened to her, but inDarfurrape is a common tactic of war. This memory – as well as the fact that we didn’t do anything – will follow me to the grave.
The most dangerous threat against the thousands of relief workers who travel the dirt roads of Darfur are the bandits who spread horror by committing car hijackings, and these occur on a daily basis. Equally treacherous is the fact that the conflict isn’t really a single conflict, but rather a constant cluster of separate, unpredictable tensions between several tribes and ethnic groups.
After a visit to a project area in July 2008, my little convoy was swallowed by a fully escalated tribal war. On the way back to our base in the regional capital of Nyala, one tribe had attacked another over a small piece of land, resulting in hundreds of deaths. It is not known how many villagers were slaughtered, but our locally-employed doctor received about 30 injured individuals in one day.
When we stopped for lunch in one village, the main street was filled with inhabitants carrying AK47s on their backs. They intended to defend their village against an Arab militia whose frontline was located about 800 metersto the West. Along the road we met armed men on horses and camels, as well as the mentioned half-naked woman. As usual, the UN remained in their barracks and were conspicuous only by their utter absence.
The UN force is out-powered by the parties of the conflict, parties that are hostile to the UN presence. That makes it no more than a sitting duck, helpless by the grave realities on the ground. The UN has no real capacity to defend itself – as several deadly attacks have shown – or the civilians it was sent out to protect. The fact remains that there is still murder, rape and abuse on a horrific scale.
Every day there are reports of incidents targeting UN troops, refugees and aid workers that indicate an absolute lawlessness in all three regions of Darfur. Just like in Chad and the Congo, the engagement of the world community is simply not enough.
After the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda, the world community has repeatedly said “never again.” But the truth is that not even the world’s largest UN force can conduct an effective peacekeeping mission in an area as big as France.
What is needed to stop the systematic crimes against humanity in Darfur is an even greater engagement from the world community. What is needed is much more political will, a lot more money and much harsher measures against the Sudanese regime. Because as it stands now, “never again” has become “here we go again.”