KABKABIYAH, Sudan -- Two vehicles full of African Union soldiers, sent here to defuse a crisis of violence and mass displacement, roared across the brown desert on patrol.
A line of camels appeared in the distance, carrying robed men and bulging saddlebags. The military vehicles lurched to a halt, and the members of Team Golf jumped out.
Camel riders traveling through Darfur told African Union monitors that they were police officers. The peacekeepers suspected that the riders were Janjaweed, or Arab militiamen, but were not authorized to arrest or search them.
(Photos Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Sudan Calls for Normalized U.S. Ties (The Washington Post, Dec 6, 2004)
Danforth Says He Left Position At U.N. for Personal Reasons (The Washington Post, Dec 4, 2004)
Ambassador to Leave U.N. Job Next Month (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
Darfurians Could Lose Land They Fled (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
For a Small Girl in Darfur, A Year of Fear and Flight (The Washington Post, Nov 26, 2004)
The camel riders appeared to be Arab Janjaweed militiamen, a group accused of causing havoc across the African tribal lands of Darfur. The riders displayed no guns, but some had knives tied to their wrists and whips dangling from their saddles.
One African Union officer asked if the riders were police, and they said yes. The officer explained that the riders should be wearing uniforms, but they said it was too hot to put on heavy clothing. The patrol members remained suspicious, but they had no powers to arrest or search the men. All they could do was take notes and send the men on their way.
As the camel convoy departed, several of the riders turned and waved, distinct smirks on their faces.
The brief encounter on a desert ridge was a small illustration of the impotence of the African Union forces sent to Darfur to monitor a cease-fire agreement between the government and rebel fighters. The deployment has been widely viewed as a test case for Africa's ability to police itself. But as the region unravels in a spiral of conflict and flight, it has become increasingly evident that the multinational mission -- the only foreign force on the ground after 22 months of fighting -- can do nothing to stop the violence.
Since the troops first arrived last spring, they have faced difficulties that have not abated. They are disliked by Sudan's government, which initially rejected the idea of African intervention. They are grossly undermanned, with a force of 3,300 troops expected to monitor a rugged, undeveloped area the size of France.
They also face language difficulties. The troops come from such diverse countries as Nigeria, Rwanda, Egypt, Ghana and Chad. Some do not speak Arabic and thus cannot communicate with many Sudanese, or even with some of their foreign colleagues.
And they are constrained by a weak official mandate, which prohibits them from using their weapons except to defend themselves, from taking Sudanese into custody and from physically intervening in the conflict in any way. Their daily rounds are officially described as "confidence patrols."
"You have to talk, talk, talk to each other, and that's about it," said Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, a Nigerian officer who heads the mission, speaking in his office in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. "This is not a peacekeeping mission where you can exert force when there needs to be force. And I will tell you, that is not an easy job. That's not an easy thing to be asked to do."
In the past month, violence and conflict have flared repeatedly within miles of the African Union's green-tented outposts. There have been clashes between rebel and government forces in the town of Tawila, raids by government troops on camps for displaced families and reports of growing lawlessness.
Team Golf is assigned to patrol an especially violent part of Darfur known as Sector 4, where sandy tracks wind through abandoned villages. It includes a large desert area called Mistiria, known as a heartland of the Arab militias, and the craggy red Jebel Marra mountains, the base for Darfur's largest African rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army.
One South African officer described Sector 4 as possibly the most dangerous place in Africa. U.S. Army Maj. Patrick Christian, an adviser working with the African Union, calls it "ground zero."
Each Team Golf patrol includes six African Union monitors, a liaison officer from the United States or Europe and a representative from each of Darfur's three warring parties: the Sudanese Liberation Army, the Justice and Equality Movement rebel group and the Sudanese government. The parties' conflicting agendas sometimes interfere with the monitors' impartial mission.