Last week I was in New York to discuss the so-called transition from African Union (AU) peace forces in Darfur to a peace force led by the United Nations. The decision has not yet been made. Some planning has started, but only in the capitals, New York, Addis and Khartoum. In Darfur itself people are waiting. I wanted to go to some of the most difficult areas in Darfur, before flying to New York. I need to see the most recent developments in the field, to hear the most recent stories from the people over there: rebel commanders, local authorities, tribal leaders, displaced persons, humanitarian workers, military peace keepers, villagers. Without continuous contact with the field everything becomes pretty abstract and theoretical. Decisions have to be made on the basis of a rational analysis, but those who are looking only from a distance tend to loose sight for the reality on the ground, the sorrow, the fears, the emotions.
In February I had had difficult encounters with tribal and traditional leaders in Nyala and El Fashr. Most of them were strongly against a UN force in Darfur. They accuse the United Nations of being manipulated by the United States. They fear that Western countries and NATO want to re-colonize and occupy Sudan. They speak about a conspiracy against Islam and against Arab nations. They referred to Irak and Afghanistan. They threatened with a war to defend their territory. Since mid January I have had many similar discussions with Sudanese. They are less friendly than before. Sudanese leaders do not hesitate to influence public opinion with strong wordings. Vice President Taha has publicly said that the UN should stay away. Minister of Foreign Affairs Lam Akol has declared himself a fervent opponent of UN peace keepers in Darfur. This is remarkable, because he belongs to the SPLM in the Government of National Unity. One might expect that in particular SPLM, having experienced a Khartoum led war against Africans in South Sudan, would take a different position. I still remember how the late John Garang criticized the United Nations for not taking action against what he, without any hesitation, called genocide in Darfur. This week President Beshir has said that the United Nations will find their graveyard in Darfur. So far no SPLM politician has argued otherwise.
No wonder that opinion leaders in Khartoum and traditional leaders in Darfur speak out very negatively against a transition from the AU to the UN. However, so far, the demonstrations are non-violent and the discussions orderly, though heated and emotional. I can still argue that the UN is not the same as the US or NATO, that Irak has not been invaded by the UN, that the international forces in Afghanistan are not led by the UN, that Sudan is a member-state of the United Nations, that the UN is bound by its Charter, with two pillars: respect for the sovereignty of nation-states and protection of human rights. That Charter has also been subscribed by Sudan. “The UN”, I argue, “is Sudan plus two hundred other countries. Sudan cannot illegally occupy itself”. The audiences will not easily be convinced, but people are listening. And I understand very well that many Sudanese are really afraid for a repetition of the events in Irak.
Talking politics with the Commissioner of Mershing
Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)
I also try to make clear that the UN is exactly the opposite of what they are afraid for. Peace-keeping by the UN is a guarantee that the sovereignty of a nation is respected, that the protection of the people is the sole objective, that there is no second agenda or, at least, that the second agenda of other nations can be neutralized.
The protection of the people requires robust action. During my most recent visit to Darfur, before going to New York, I saw again how robust the action has to be. In one of my previous weblogs ( I referred to the situation in Gereida and Sheria, two towns in South Darfur and in the mountains of the Jebel Mara (see weblog nr 13). I visited these places again. In the Jebel Mara I stood at the grave of the young Sudanese girl who had died in the helicopter crash. The SLA commanders in that region expected new attacks and requested assistance. They said that they could defend themselves, but we knew that the army in conjunction with the militia would have more sophisticated weapons and that an attack would make many victims.
In Sheria all citizens belonging to the Zaghawa tribe had been expelled from the town. Minnie Minawi has recruited many Zaghawa's into his wing of the liberation army. Presently all Zaghawa, including all women, children and elderly people, are seen as belonging to a fifth colon. I addressed a rally of about thousand citizens, all belonging to the Birgit and the Miserya tribe. They were not very friendly. Armed youngsters in fancy uniforms, clearly belonging to militia's, formed a silent threat in the background. Others were carrying posters against “occupation by the UN”, warning me “not to play with fire”. I said that instead I had come to stop the fire and that according to the Sudanese constitution all Sudanese people have the right to live wherever they choose to live. The audience listened and the authorities promised me to stop giving arms to groups who claim the need for self-defense, but have chased women and children out of their homes and out of town. I said that I would return to see whether the situation would have improved. I promised the Wali of South Darfur assistance in his tribal reconciliation efforts, in particular with the Zaghawa's. But whom can we trust?
Banners against a potential UN peacekeeping force in Darfur at a public rally in Sheria, South Darfur, 25 February 2006
Photo's: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)
The situation in Gereida is even worse. In my weblog two weeks ago I described how the SLA rebels had taken Gereida, violating agreements to demilitarize this town. Colonel Mubarak, their leader, whom I had met quite a few times in the field, denied ever having agreed to keep his troops out of town. “We only made some remarks”, he said. He also denied having made a new agreement with the African Union to leave Gereida as soon as the AU would have enough troops to protect the people. According to the AU he had indeed agreed, but later on refused to sign….
Mubarak claimed that he and his troops are in Gereida at the invitation of the
population. I responded that such claims have been made by all occupying forces, always and everywhere. But he convinced me by inviting me to come to a rally of about ten thousand people, who hailed the UN - a scarce experience in Darfur - and yelled that SLA should stay. I knew from AU reports that thousands of militia had cleansed all villages in the neighborhood and had killed hundreds of unarmed civilians during the last two months. The town harbors tens of thousands of citizens and displaced people who have sought refuge. Most of them belong to the Masalit tribe, who are in conflict with the Rizeigat, the Miserya and the Falata. The AU commander told me that he had neither the capacity nor the mandate to protect the population in case of a militia attack. No wonder that the people, shouting that they no longer trusted the AU, wanted the SLA to stay and called for the UN to come to their rescue. I addressed this rally too. (video)
I could not guarantee protection by the international community, but got away with a strong denouncement of the ethnic cleansing and the killings and with the promise to raise the need for effective protection in New York.
Banners at a public rally in Gereida, South Darfur, 26 February 2006. The Arabic banner, from a women's IDP group, demands, amongst other things, the entry of European forces into Darfur.
Photo's: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)
So I did. But I brought two messages to my colleagues in New York and to the ambassador members of the Security Council. First: the people must be protected and we can no longer wait. Second: do not organize the protection in such a way that the peace keepers become part of the problem, rather than the solution.
In Sheria and Gereida my thoughts went back to Srebrenica, 1995. Will we make the same mistakes, or other, with similar consequences?