Peacekeepers in Darfur Hobbled by Need

U.N. and African Union peacekeepers are faced with a challenging mission in Darfur, where hijackings and banditry pose a constant threat to humanitarian efforts. Video by Miguel Juarez for The Washington Post, Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 4, 2008

EL FASHER, Sudan -- Nearly a year after its creation, a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur is struggling, with fewer than half the soldiers promised, broken-down equipment, government obstacles, and what commanders say are the unrealistically high expectations of a world that has failed to support them.

The mission, the largest peacekeeping force in U.N. history, was to have been the robust replacement for an underfunded, poorly equipped A.U. force that had been on the ground since 2004. But of the 26,000 police and soldiers who were to deploy to protect civilians in this region of western Sudan, only 140 Bangladeshi police and a smattering of officers, engineers and U.N. bureaucrats have arrived.

The rest of the 8,000 or so troops in the field are holdovers from the old A.U. mission -- soldiers who merely painted their green helmets U.N. blue.

"We've just re-hatted -- changed the green hat to blue and put on the U.N. patch," said David Senanu, a police superintendent from Ghana who was among those who made the switch when the new mission officially took over Dec. 31.

The mission is charged with protecting Darfurians in imminent danger and facilitating humanitarian assistance, among other tasks. The hope is that a beefed-up peacekeeping force could eventually enable some of the 2.5 million displaced Darfurians to return home safely.

But the mission is taking over at perhaps the most chaotic point in the five-year-old conflict, in which about 450,000 have died. While the first years were defined by one-sided attacks by government forces on civilians, the conflict is now a multi-sided scramble for weapons and trucks in which humanitarian groups and peacekeepers are increasingly targeted. That makes the mission as critical, and precarious, as ever -- if it can only get off the ground.

Logistical and bureaucratic obstacles imposed by the Sudanese government, which has tried to block the force from the start, have prevented the full deployment of the new battalions. But Western nations that pushed for the force have also caused delays by failing to provide basic equipment -- including helicopters, armored personnel carriers and trucks -- that the African countries providing most of the troops cannot afford. Officials say it costs about $45 million to equip one battalion.

"We still have no helicopters. We still have no medium transport. This is not the responsibility of UNAMID," said the mission's top military commander, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai of Nigeria, referring to the hybrid force by its acronym. "This is the responsibility of the whole world."

What has changed is the force command structure. Agwai said he is attempting to improve the way his soldiers operate, especially by eliminating a siege mentality that hobbled his predecessors, whose troops were frequently attacked by rebel and militia groups and criticized for spending too much time in their barracks.

Security patrols have increased in and around most refugee camps, where Darfurians live under constant threat of attack, including sexual assault.

Despite the lack of support, commanders have devised novel ways to build peace. Soldiers recently organized an evening soccer match between Sudanese government soldiers and a rebel faction, for instance. The mission police are training displaced Darfurians to patrol their own camps.

But inside the camps, people who had high hopes that a U.N. force would do more to protect them are growing skeptical. Though some peacekeepers said they were greeted with cheers as they headed out on their first patrols in January, that enthusiasm is waning in some places.

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