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The African Union in Darfur

October 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The African nation of Sudan — a bloody conflict that’s killed as many as 400,000 people and forced another two million from their homes over the last two years. The fighting in Sudan’s Darfur region pits government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed against local rebels. The U.S. has accused the government and Janjaweed of committing genocide; despite an official cease-fire and ongoing peace talks, the violence shows little sign of abating.

The African Union has sent roughly 5,000 troops — mostly Rwandans and Nigerians — to protect civilians and monitor the cease-fire. Another 2500 will be deployed by the end of this month.

Just back from the region are Sally Chin and Jonathan Morgenstein from the humanitarian organization Refugees International. They visited five refugee camps and observed the work of the African Union troops.

Well, you’re just back and your purpose was to monitor the AU’s work in general. How are they doing? Sally Chin.

SALLY CHIN: How are they doing? You know, we were in North Darfur and West Darfur. We were able to spend some time with the troops. Where they are they’re able to provide security. I mean, they’re able to assist humanitarian agencies with their convoys. They’re able to negotiate for the release of abducted aid workers, and they’re able to be a sort of beacon of security where IDP’s can come when there is instability.

The problem is, is they’re not everywhere, and they can’t be everywhere until they have more troops on the ground and until they have more equipment and better logistics. And then the third problem is they need a much stronger mandate. Their mandate right now, as you were saying, is to monitor the cease-fire. And it’s also to protect civilians when they are in the vicinity of the AU. That means they can’t proactively protect the citizens of Darfur. And that’s a problem.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Jonathan, is it a case where when they’re around, it’s great and then when they leave basically civilians are vulnerable once again?

JONATHAN MORGENSTEIN: Well, I wouldn’t say things are great. Where the African Union troops are as well as the humanitarian aid community, there is a modicum of stability. But there are internally displaced people camps that even just in the last week were attacked by Janjaweed and even reportedly government forces. And this resulted in over 30 people being killed.

Now the African Union force there has contributed to a situation where the number of people that have been killed on a daily basis has declined from what it was two years and one year ago, but the situation is not stable today. And the African Union really needs to be able to enforce its ability even where they are.

When we arrived in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, on Sunday the 18th, there was an attack by Janjaweed on villages to the southwest of that city. And the very next day, the African Union sent out an observer force to inspect what was going on. They were actually shot at and two Rwandan protection forces were actually hit by the Janjaweed.

The African Union force doesn’t have the ability to respond in kind. They were 12 forces — 12 Rwandan soldiers with rifles against hundreds of Janjaweed.

RAY SUAREZ: So the rules of engagement say that even when shot at they can’t fight back?

JONATHAN MORGENSTEIN: They can fight back in that moment but they would have been all killed if they had really tried to fight back so they had to withdraw.

And when I asked the question of, well, why didn’t you send a reaction force to respond and hunt down the people that had attacked you, let alone to try and go out and protect the civilians who were falling into the internally displaced camps, the response was, well, that’s not in our mandate.

Right now they’re not a peacekeeping force. They’re actually a monitoring force and the primary objective of the force is to simply verify when violations of the cease-fire have been committed.

RAY SUAREZ: Sally Chin, were there episodes during your visit, things that you saw happen that sort of illustrate the tight spot that the AU force is in?

SALLY CHIN: Most definitely. As you were talking about this monitoring of the cease-fire commission — they are there to monitor violations of the cease-fire — they send out teams; these teams are made up of military observers of the African Union as well as representatives of all the warring factions, that’s the SLA, the GEM and the government of Sudan.

So as a team they go out to investigate what’s happened, whether it’s been a killing or people being displaced. This is a really problematic. For example, when we were in West Darfur, there was supposed to be an investigation team to go out and take a look in an area where there had been an attack by the GEM. And the GEM representative –

RAY SUAREZ: One of the anti-government rebel armies –

SALLY CHIN: Exactly. And the GEM representative didn’t want to go. He refused to go and basically the team was held hostage to that. They couldn’t go and they couldn’t investigate.

We also saw while they were having their investigation teams that when they’re interviewing witnesses sometimes these witnesses feel intimidated by the fact that they’re saying I saw the Janjaweed, I saw the government of Sudan, and that person is sitting right in front of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Clearly marked as being representatives of the government or one of the rebel armies.

SALLY CHIN: And this is how it was organized from the beginning. But really recently the African Union is starting to say this isn’t working. Just this weekend Ambassador Kingibe, who is the head of the mission, he put out a really scathing press statement which said, you know, this could work if there was good faith between the warring parties but there is not good faith, and so this kind of system has to be changed.

And he also said that he always came out quite strongly against the government of Sudan in terms of its involvement in attacks. And this is something that’s very new for the African Union who has been maybe accused in the past of being a bit passive when it came to the government of Sudan.

And I think we’re at a really important moment right now because this month in October is the renewal of the mandate of the African Union. And what we think is really important is for the mandate to be stronger.

RAY SUAREZ: Stronger in what way? Would it mean simply more troops or a rewriting of the whole rule book that they’re working under?

SALLY CHIN: It would mean all of this. And we’re not alone in thinking this. There are many people – and what was interesting for us were a lot of the African Union officers on the ground felt this as well. They said to us, we want to be here to protect civilians. With this mandate we can’t protect civilians practically.

I mean, something that’s interesting is that the Rwandans have given a large number of troops to this mission. And a lot of the Rwandans we spoke to say that they feel a real personal attachment to this mission because of the genocide that happened in Rwanda. They feel very much so that they don’t want to see something like this happen again.

And so there is a strong feeling on the ground amongst the officers that the mandate has to change. It has to become more — stronger for civilians. At the political level there isn’t necessarily that understanding.

RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Morgenstein, do Sudanese civilians understand that the people in the white armored personnel carriers are looking out for them?

JONATHAN MORGENSTEIN: There is actually a lot of confusion among not only the Sudanese civilians but even humanitarian aid organizations about exactly what the role of the African Union mission is supposed to be. That’s one issue that really the African Union needs to take a hold of better, which is publicizing what specifically their role is and how they’re executing it.

We spoke with a number of displaced people who said things such as, well, aren’t they the same as the African — I’m sorry, the Sudanese government or they didn’t know the difference between the African Union and NGO’s, humanitarian aid organizations, because they have similar looking vehicles.

One woman apparently told Sally that she understands that they are different than the Sudanese government because they’re the men in the uniforms who don’t shoot the displaced people. But it’s clearly a situation that the African Union needs to have a public information campaign and in that way even let the humanitarian aid community understand that they are not peacekeepers. Their role, as Sally said, right now is not to protect the civilian population.

RAY SUAREZ: But is it rough to do that kind of public information campaign in an ocean of transient people who are living in reed huts covered in canvas?

SALLY CHIN: I would say most of the population unfortunately now are in camps. I mean you have a population that is there that can be informed, that can be educated. I think it’s really important. One of the worst things that can happen is that the population has wrong expectations of what the African Union can do for them. And because if those expectations are frustrated, that can lead to unrest and attacks, which we’ve seen in peacekeeping missions in other countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Sally Chin, Jonathan Morgenstein, thank you both.