As Peace Mission Nears End, War in Sudan Intensifies

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 18, 2006

EL FASHER, Sudan, Sept. 17 -- As the African Union prepares to abandon its troubled peace mission to Darfur, the region is descending ever more steeply into war.

Fresh Sudanese government troops with machine guns slung over their shoulders patrol the streets of El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state. Helicopter gunships based here rumble off into the countryside almost every day, loaded with rockets. And Darfur's fractured and frustrated rebel forces increasingly are fighting back against government forces.

The intensity of the combat in Darfur, the western Sudanese region the size of Texas, has forced a new flood of civilians to flee their burned and bombed-out villages for sprawling camps on the outskirts of this and other cities. The estimated 2 million people already in such camps are settling in for the long haul, losing hope that they will ever return home.

Hawab Abdallah Osman, 50, said her village about 45 miles northwest of here is now empty. Asked when she planned to return, she said, "Never."

"There is bombing there," she said. "I don't think peace will come."

Hundreds of thousands of people have already died in three years of war, which began when rebels attacked government installations in Darfur. The government responded by sending in army troops and arming a militia, called the Janjaweed, that has attacked rebels and civilians.

The African Union, which launched an ambitious but poorly funded peace monitoring mission in 2004, is scheduled to leave Sept. 30, when its mandate expires.

A proposed United Nations force of about 20,000 -- over three times the size of the African Union's -- has been blocked by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who says it is part of an effort by Western nations to "re-colonize" Sudan.

"We don't want the United Nations back to Sudan no matter the conditions," he said Saturday in Havana, where he was attending an international summit of developing countries.

A cease-fire agreement for Darfur was reached in May but has collapsed in the four months since it was signed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The government has repeatedly violated terms prohibiting military flights over Darfur and new troop deployments.

The government also has failed to restrain the Janjaweed, which continues to rape, kill and pillage. Increasingly, the militiamen are doing so while wearing crisp green uniforms, distributed by the government.

Civilians here say militiamen gallop their horses and camels into the camps for displaced people, sometimes within site of African Union troop positions. Rarely have the troops responded with force. In some cases, Darfur civilians, still smarting from deaths of friends and family members, have demonstrated angrily in front of African Union encampments.

"This African Union, if there is fighting, they are running away," said Halima Idriss, 55, gesturing furiously as her orange head scarf flapped in the hot wind of a camp outside of El Fasher.

The African Union's Peace and Security Council plans to review its decision to depart at a meeting in New York on Monday. But with its current mandate and resources, African Union officers express despair about their ability to keep peace when both the government and rebel forces are determined to return to war. Field commanders from the only rebel group that signed May's peace deal say they, too, are likely to resume fighting soon unless the United Nations sends its peacekeepers to Darfur.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the African Union officers muttered angrily about their failure to enforce calm while expressing greater fears. They used the words "genocide" and "Rwanda" to describe what they expect will follow their departure.

Outside analysts also say that the African Union, while ineffective at peacekeeping, is serving as vital eyes and ears for the outside world at a time when the Sudanese government is making it more difficult for aid groups and journalists to operate here. With the African Union gone, they say, the last buffer will be lost against a bloodier assault in Darfur.

"All predictions are that without witnesses, the slaughter will begin," said Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has closely monitored the Darfur conflict, speaking from Northampton, Mass. "As long as the A.U. stays in, they are powerless but they are witnesses."

The African Union pullout would come shortly before the end of the rainy season, when flooded dirt roads typically dry out, allowing full-scale military maneuvering to resume after many weeks of limited mobility for both sides.

John Prendergast, an Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the United States and the United Nations have allowed the Sudanese government to outmaneuver them diplomatically. He acknowledged that the United Nations would have trouble deploying troops over the objections of the government but said tougher actions would persuade officials to allow the peacekeepers.

"If we start acting, they will change their behavior," said Prendergast, speaking from New York, where he was preparing for a Darfur rally in Central Park. "It's very sad that the U.S. has not mustered the political will to head down that path."

Little news of the political maneuvering reached displaced civilians in Darfur. They passed the day much as they have for months, in some cases for years. They took long, dangerous walks into the Janjaweed-controlled countryside to gather firewood. They rode their donkeys in search of grass for the animals to eat. They sought shade from the blistering sun under makeshift shelters made with reeds and plastic tarps distributed by international aid groups.

And they waited for a peace few expect to come.

Idriss, the Darfur woman who said she had lost faith in the African Union, expressed tentative hope that U.N. peacekeepers might do better. If they don't come, she said, she knows what will happen.

"We will lose all the people of Darfur," Idriss said. "The killing is always going on."

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