EL FASHER, Sudan -- As the sun set over this desert camp, Pvt. Lambert Sendegeya, an African Union soldier from Rwanda, popped in a tape of music from his country and launched into a series of leg bends. Lt. Eugene Ruzianda peered from his canvas tent and, removing his green beret, joined the evening exercises.
As they stretched, they lamented their daunting task: protecting 80 African Union military observers who are charged with monitoring a rarely observed cease-fire in Sudan's strife-torn region of Darfur, an area about the size of France.
A Rwandan officer and his troops prepared last month to leave for Darfur, where they now make up part of an African Unity force.
(Finbarr O'reilly -- Reuters)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Washington Post foreign correspondent Emily Wax has reported on the dire situation facing the people of Darfur in western Sudan.
Sudan's Ragtag Rebels (The Washington Post, Sep 7, 2004)
Wells of Life Run Dry for Sudanese (The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2004)
Targeting the Teachers of Darfur (The Washington Post, Aug 18, 2004)
In Sudan, 'a Big Sheik' Roams Free (The Washington Post, Jul 18, 2004)
Refugees Moved Before Annan Visit (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)
'We Want to Make a Light Baby' (The Washington Post, Jun 30, 2004)
In Sudan, Death and Denial (The Washington Post, Jun 27, 2004)
Chad Broken by Strain of Suffering (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2004)
Bittersweet Homecomings in War-Weary Sudan (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2004)
They rattled off the reports of violence they had heard and the instances in which victims had handed them handwritten notes about fighting and rapes. But neither the monitors nor the protection forces have enough vehicles or manpower to investigate, the soldiers said.
"Every night you go to sleep thinking, 'I could do more. We could do more with a better mandate,' " said Ruzianda, also a Rwandan, whose family fled to Congo during a civil war in his country in the 1990s. "I hate it, to see people living like this. There are some things that remind me of our country when people were fleeing. It can be a shock to see it all again. This time, the only comfort is that at least we are here. At least there is something."
These men are part of the generation that survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, 100 days of violence in which 800,000 people were slaughtered. The Organization of African Unity, since replaced by the African Union, stood by silently while the carnage unfolded. The United Nations, which had a small force on the ground during the bloodshed, also did not intervene.
Now 155 Rwandans, part of a 305-member African Union force, are being asked to demonstrate that Africans can stop African wars. The United Nations, backed by the United States and the European Union, called for the group's involvement in Darfur, its first serious test.
Burned villages smolder across the region. About 1.4 million Africans who were driven from their farms now live in squalid tent cities that continue to swell. Thousands of people have died in the crisis, which the United States has termed a genocide.
The violence erupted in February 2003, when African tribes rebelled against the Arab-led government. The government responded by bombing villages and arming and supporting an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed to put down the rebellion, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. The government has said the Janjaweed is not under its control.
The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution this month that threatens sanctions against Sudan unless it stops the violence and establishes a commission to investigate atrocities. The council has also threatened to send 3,000 more African Union troops to Darfur if security does not improve.
The monitors and their protectors are key to ending the conflict. Their job is to track violations of the cease-fire by the government and by the African rebels and report them to the union's political wing, which is conducting peace talks between the two sides in Nigeria.
Aid groups say the force's mandate is vague and are pressing for more explicit orders that would allow the soldiers to use force to stop the attacks on civilians.
Sudan's government has said it would reject any role for the force beyond monitoring. In Khartoum, government-owned newspapers are filled with fiery editorials accusing the troops, who represent 12 countries, of bringing HIV/AIDS to Sudan. Other stories have likened the mission to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But Sudan's government may not have a choice. Attacks are continuing in villages and around camps, which refugees describe as "prisons without walls," said Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who recently visited the region.
"People cannot return home because they do not trust the government to protect them," Arbour said. "It's clear they need an increased international presence on the ground."