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EL GENEINA, West Darfur—While aid workers and journalists struggled for months to gain entry into Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, I received the red-carpet treatment on my first visit.
The U.N. plane touched down on the graveled airstrip and rolled to a stop in front of a caterpillar of gleaming white Land Cruisers, their black antennae standing to attention. Stone-faced security guards dashed for the door as the ambassadors and U.N. officials spilled out of the aircraft, rushing them past the TV cameras to their assigned vehicle. As the engines revved in unison, I began to panic, realizing I could soon be stranded.
I grabbed my bags and made a run for the closest car. Although I was the press officer for the United Nations in Sudan, it was sheer coincidence that I had arrived at the same time as this high-level mission. Shrugging my shoulders, I decided to piggy back. Let the games begin.
And the stakes of this particular game were enormously high. It was the most important mission to land in Darfur since U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally visited the region in early July—16 months after a bloody wave of violence began its sweep across this vast western frontier.
An ethnically African-led rebellion composed of two groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement, emerged in February 2003 after years of regional marginalization. In response, the government in Khartoum armed paramilitaries to help quash its enemies. As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, mainly from the Muslim African tribes, had been “cleansed” from their villages by the government-supported nomadic Arab militias known as “Janjaweed,” or devils on horseback.
On July 30, following Annan’s visit, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1556. It required that the secretary-general report back every 30 days on the progress the Sudanese government had made to end the crisis, on issues such as providing unhindered humanitarian access to the more than 1 million (there are now closer to 2 million) homeless people living in camps for the “displaced,” disarming the Janjaweed militias, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and ending the violence.
On Aug. 26, when I landed in El Geneina, Kofi Annan’s homework was nearly overdue. A joint mission—including Annan’s Special Representative to Sudan Jan Pronk, Sudanese Foreign Minister Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, and a handful of foreign ambassadors—was there to do his research on the ground.
The Land Cruisers weaved out of the airport, kicking up dust as they headed to the headquarters of the wali—the state governor—for a courtesy call. After milling around the mint-green compound for a couple of hours, the delegation emerged from behind closed doors, and the engines revved again, steering through the underdeveloped town to the U.N. humanitarian headquarters for a briefing. White-robed men, colorfully draped women, and hordes of children squealing “khawaja!” or “foreigner” looked on in bewilderment from the garbage-strewn dirt roads as we passed.
After a few more stops, including a visit to one of the many displaced persons camps that ring El Geneina, the delegation ended up at the shabby U.N. compound to meet with staff from foreign nongovernmental organizations working in West Darfur. The delegation had arrived a little early because a visit to one of the most decrepit camps in El Geneina had been abandoned at the last minute due to a “hiccup.” Although the suave foreign minister known simply as ‘Mustafa’ was not supposed to attend the NGO meeting, he insinuated himself into the group anyway, smiling serenely at his audience.
Yet when these seasoned aid workers were asked to share any hurdles they were facing in providing relief to the desperate civilians, no one, except for a newcomer, said a word. Finding this odd, I asked a colleague why nobody expressed their concerns. His response was one, simple phrase: “Mustafa was there.”
The Sudanese government virtually sealed off Darfur from the outside world for nearly an entire year after systematic scorched earth tactics began in the spring of 2003. Perhaps Khartoum hoped it could stamp out any sign of the rebellion and the dirty response carried out by the Janjaweed—including mass execution, rape, and the looting and destruction of entire villages—before international meddlers could intervene. In August, many aid agencies had only recently been granted access to the region and dared not risk having their hard-won work permits revoked. This was sensitive business. Overall, obstacles were finally crumbling in the wake of Annan’s visit, but it was obvious that nobody dared voice any lingering concerns for fear of the consequences.
Squeezed into every spare corner in the guest houses of the various U.N. humanitarian agencies, the delegation turned in early in preparation for the next day’s exhausting schedule. Not that they had a choice. There is an 8:30 curfew in El Geneina for good reason. Gunshots are occasionally heard in the streets at night.
The next day began with a trip to the sprawling Krinding camp, just outside the town’s borders. Here, the delegation met with camp leaders, or sheiks, to inquire about security conditions in the camps. One of the requirements laid out for the government was to provide greater protection to camp residents from outside attacks. Armed men often assaulted the displaced population, especially women who venture out to collect firewood for cooking or to sell as their only form of income. Men rarely took the risk of leaving the camps for fear of being killed.
The United Nations and the government had agreed that Khartoum would identify a number of what are unofficially known as “safe areas.” As part of the agreement, the government would deploy an expanded police force to protect civilians, with a 20-kilometer perimeter encircling the chosen camps. They were mostly displaced settlements surrounding the three state capitals in Darfur—El Geneina in West Darfur, Nyala in South Darfur, and El Fasher in North Darfur. Still, these “safe areas” cover only a few of the 150 or so camps that now punctuate Darfur’s landscape. As Pronk said, “You have to start somewhere, but you can’t stop there!”
Although some camp residents reported a decrease in attacks with the fresh police deployment, most traumatized civilians don’t trust any state forces in uniform. They say they are nothing more than Janjaweed in new clothing.
During the visit to Krinding, a 7-year-old girl was presented to Pronk and Mustafa by one of her male relatives, who claimed she had been raped. Nonetheless, the overall report indicated that that attacks had been on the decline since the deployment of fresh police troops.
The engines revved. Through a cloud of dirt, the convoy soon sped down the road toward the invisible 20-kilometer boundary but screeched to a sudden halt when a woman was spotted in an adjacent field. The passengers dismounted and formed a buzzing swarm as they ran toward her to enquire if she’d experienced any harassment. Satisfied that she hadn’t, the swarm then disappeared back into vehicles, and we returned to town to attend a disarmament ceremony.
“We are not for the Janjaweed, we are for peace!” the camouflaged militias chanted as the small marching band dressed in red pounded away on their drums.
These were the Public Defense Forces, another paramilitary group, that has assisted the army in its fight against the rebellion. The average African Darfuri regards them as Janjaweed, although they are to be distinguished from the traditional nomadic Arab tribes. They were showing us that they were willing to hand over their arms in a conciliatory move toward peace in Darfur. The audience, shaded from the searing Sudanese sun under a bright tarpaulin, patiently listened to the Arabic singing.
Following the opening act, the grand performance unfolded outside as the PDF handed their weapons over to soldiers, who slowly placed them into a flimsy box for the benefit of the news cameras and the attending delegation.
Running late, the engines revved again, and the convoy snaked off on a three-hour drive southeast to Mornei camp, which holds nearly 70,000 displaced people. There, the camp resident who had been selected to speak to the delegation was attacked and nearly bludgeoned to death by fellow residents who allegedly claimed he’d been bought off by the government.
The final stop before the closing press conference and luncheon at the wali’s house was at a local prison, where we were to meet prisoners accused of carrying out atrocities. We entered a wide courtyard strewn with rows of submissive inmates. Some had crude shackles bound to their feet, while others were chained to exposed tree roots. The majority simply sat staring blank-eyed. Scanning the group, a Sudanese aid worker whispered to me that only one of the faces in the crowd appeared to be from an Arab tribe. In the end, it seemed, few, if any, had actually been jailed for their war crimes.
On Aug. 28, the convoy revved its collective engine for the last time, depositing the delegation at the airport. In Khartoum, Special Representative Pronk met with the two other delegations that had traveled to North and South Darfur and left for New York, where he would present his report to the secretary-general. Calling the government’s bluff on many points, the report revealed that while humanitarian space appeared unhindered and security had improved in the designated “safe areas,” no apparent attempt had been made to disarm or apprehend the murderous militias involved in carrying out atrocities. A second Security Council resolution was passed in September threatening sanctions if the government didn’t make a more legitimate attempt to comply.
Meanwhile, still in El Geneina, I was mysteriously invited to visit the offices of the international NGO Islamic Relief Worldwide shortly after the delegation departed. When I arrived, I was confronted by 27 angry sheiks who live in Riyad Camp, which the delegation was supposed to visit but had skipped at the last minute.
Unbeknownst to the United Nations, the government had sent a marching band dressed in red in advance of the delegation’s arrival, though the camp residents were apparently unaware of the upcoming event. Terrified and angered, many of the displaced people interpreted the marching band’s arrival as a call to war and proceeded to destroy IRW’s camp offices and attacked the police based in the camp.
As we sipped scorching hot tea from small clear glasses, I tried to assuage the fears of the men who eyed me suspiciously. Although I wasn’t part of the official delegation and had been a mere spectator of the games, I was immediately transformed into a U.N. envoy and was quick to offer a sincere apology for the confusion, explaining in detail the reason the United Nations and government were planning to visit their camp. Seemingly satisfied, if slightly dubious, they nodded in unison, and I was free to go.