Special Report

'Now We Will Kill You'

Part 2 in Foreign Policy’s exclusive investigation of the U.N.'s peacekeeping debacle in Darfur.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 2

 

"NOW WE WILL KILL YOU"

Last April, in the dead of night, five men dressed in Sudanese military uniforms and armed with AK-47 rifles swaggered up to the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping outpost in the East Darfur town of Muhajeria and shot open the front gate's padlock.

As they entered the darkened compound, the intruders opened fire, unloading several rounds through the wall of the base's military briefing room, spilling a handful of hot spent cartridges on the ground as they advanced. A lone Nigerian peacekeeper standing sentry at the compound's entrance returned fired as a second Nigerian soldier entered the fray, scuffling with one of the assailants in an attempt to wrestle him to the ground. The attackers finally retreated as reinforcements in an armored personnel vehicle rolled toward the compound, ending the firefight before anyone got seriously hurt.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 1:
'They Just Stood Watching'
Part 2:
'Now We Will Kill You'
Part 3:
A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail

But the night was just getting started. One of the armed intruders shouted out a chilling threat as he walked through the facility, which was operated by an underfunded force called the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID). "UNAMID was observing while our people were getting killed -- now we will kill you," he said, according to one of multiple confidential accounts of the incident obtained by Foreign Policy.

The infiltrators were apparently on a scouting mission, seeking to relay intelligence back to their colleagues about the layout of the compound. "It seems that the troops came to test the waters in a bid to observe the strength and alertness of our troops, as an advance for an impending assault," UNAMID's sector commander warned the Nigerian officer in command of the Muhajeria compound. He was right.

About four hours later, at 1 a.m., a larger contingent of Sudanese troops and pro-government militiamen, armed with Browning machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles, mounted a full-scale attack on the compound, killing one Nigerian peacekeeper and wounding three others. When the sun rose, one Sudanese soldier was also lying dead outside the compound.

On April 17, one day before the initial attack by the five men on UNAMID's compound, hundreds of Sudanese troops in armored tanks and gun trucks had rumbled into Muhajeria, retaking the town from a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) led by Minni Minnawi, a powerful Darfuri rebel leader from the dominant ethnic Zaghawa tribe. One of the assailants who attacked the compound the following day expressed outrage that peacekeepers from UNAMID hadn't come to the Sudanese military's aid during an earlier gun battle with the SLA that had left several Sudanese soldiers dead. That comment led several U.N. officials to later conclude that the attackers were members of the Sudanese military.

From the U.N. police report and other internal reviews, it looked like an open-and-shut case of Sudanese government complicity. As the firefight unfolded, Sudanese officials had refused to respond to UNAMID's calls for help, dismissing the attack as a squabble between local tribes, wrote Landing Badjie, a Gambian peacekeeper, in an internal UNAMID report. "I called the [Sudanese government] security chiefs [and told them] I will hold them accountable for allowing such incident to take place right under their nose," Badjie wrote.

Multiple witnesses, including an Egyptian peacekeeper, confirmed the assailants wore government uniforms. The following morning, Lt. Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Abdallah, a Sudanese officer, arrived at the compound with uniformed soldiers and demanded that the U.N. compensate the family of the Sudanese soldier who was killed during the firefight. "He insisted that UNAMID should immediately pay blood money to the family of the dead soldier," a U.N. policeman wrote in an April 19 report. "Moreover, he threatened that if UNAMID failed to pay they will vacate the area or something terrible will happen to them."

But UNAMID's top brass was reluctant to blame the government. Following a pattern that marked the U.N.'s long-standing response to suspected attacks on its own peacekeepers, U.N. headquarters never pointed its finger at the Sudanese government, instead issuing a noncommittal statement that scrubbed any reference to possible Sudanese complicity. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's statement blamed "unidentified armed assailants," the standard moniker used in a long list of unsolved attacks and ambushes on U.N. personnel over the years. The only detailed public reference to the case is contained in a report by an independent U.N. Security Council panel, which characterized Sudanese government involvement in the attack as "highly probable." The report, which states that the attack likely involved members of a government-trained militia, noted that Sudanese authorities have never even launched an investigation into the incident.

THE DEADLIEST PLACE ON EARTH

The U.N. Security Council established UNAMID in the summer of 2007 to stanch the violence that has made Darfur one of the world's bloodiest killing fields of this century. The mission -- which formally began its work in January 2008 -- replaced the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which had been plagued by a lack of resources.

At the time, UNAMID was the world's largest and costliest peacekeeping mission. Its planners hoped that the mission's sheer size would send a message to armed elements that it was too dangerous to challenge. But the mission -- which is currently composed of about 20,000 mostly African peacekeepers -- has been on the defensive since its birth and has struggled to protect its own soldiers, let alone Darfuri civilians.

The fate of the mission also has important foreign-policy implications for the United States, which played a critical role in creating the force and covers more than 27 percent of its $1.3 billion annual budget. Washington has long pointed to the peacekeeping force as evidence of its commitment to addressing the suffering of Darfuris. A collapse of the peacekeeping force would ratchet up pressure on the United States, which is unwilling to send its own troops into the country, to do more to stop the killing, potentially through the use of air power or CIA operatives.

When the UNAMID operation was launched in 2008, Darfur seemed to be emerging from the darkest years of a government-orchestrated campaign of genocide which raged between 2003 and 2005 and led to the deaths of more 200,000 civilians. The mission's first leader, Rodolphe Adada, a politician and diplomat from the Republic of the Congo, declared in 2009 that Darfur's war was effectively over. But the upbeat appraisal proved illusory as Darfur descended into successive rounds of violence. It also belied the grim fact that Darfur was gaining the distinction of becoming the deadliest place on Earth for a U.N. blue helmet.

During the past year, unidentified fighters carried out major strikes against UNAMID troops, killing seven Tanzanian peacekeepers last July in an ambush on a road west of Khor Abeche and three Senegalese peacekeepers last October outside Geneina. Neither case has been solved.

As of Feb. 28, 2014, a total of 191 U.N. peacekeepers have died in Darfur since January 2008, when the U.N. and African Union jointly took charge of the operation in Darfur. Only a handful of U.N. operations since the 1960s -- including the original Congo operation (249) and those in Lebanon (303), the former Yugoslavia (213), and Sierra Leone (192) -- have exacted a higher toll.

Sixty-two of those 191 deaths were a result of violent attacks, including ambushes, carjackings, and robberies. Sudan's special prosecutor for Darfur has opened numerous investigations, but as of today, not a single person has been held accountable for killing a UNAMID peacekeeper.

"Peacekeepers are killed every other day, and no investigation seems to go forward. The government promises to go deep and investigate and prosecute, but we don't see anything coming out," Olivier Nduhungirehe, a senior Rwandan diplomat, told Foreign Policy. Briefings by Ban and other senior officials provide few clues. "We are never briefed about anyone who was held accountable," Nduhungirehe said.

While suspicion has primarily focused on Sudanese-backed forces, the African peacekeepers have also faced attacks by bandits and rebel forces who stole UNAMID vehicles, communications equipment, and other gear. In fact, the sole international prosecution for attacks against peacekeepers targeted a rebel group, not Sudanese government troops. In 2007, the International Criminal Court prosecutor launched an investigation into allegations that Sudanese rebels had killed 12 Nigerian peacekeepers in the town of Haskanita. One Darfuri rebel is set to face trial in The Hague later this year.

On Dec. 20, 2012, a delegation from the SLA faction headed by Minnawi paid a visit to the UNAMID outpost in Khor Abeche, where the delegation acknowledged that the faction had occasionally fired on UNAMID troops, saying these incidents were accidents. "They admitted that sometimes they open fire on UNAMID -- mistaking them for [Sudanese government] convoys," according to the report. "They also accused UNAMID of not sending enough reports of the facts and happenings in Darfur (such as burning of villages and murder cases) to higher authorities." UNAMID, they noted, "was supposed to be a neutral body."

Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, recently voiced frustration at Sudan's failure to adequately investigate crimes against peacekeepers, and she prodded the U.N. and African Union to share their own internal investigations with her office. "Attacks on peacekeepers appear to have become the norm with a record number of 57 killings," Bensouda told the U.N. Security Council in December, noting that attacks against peacekeepers are a crime under the Rome Statute, which established the court. "Sadly, not enough seems to have been done to identify those responsible, despite the repeated insistence of the United Nations and the African Union that the government of Sudan must duly investigate."

A MISSION BORN UNDER THE WRONG STAR

Assaults on UNAMID peacekeepers date back to the mission's earliest days. Sudanese government forces, as well as their proxies, are suspected of carrying out several of these attacks, according to internal UNAMID documents. But the U.N. has been reluctant to disclose its suspicions, presumably out of fear that Sudanese forces would react even more violently or that Sudan would expel the peacekeepers from the country, a move that would expose Darfur's civilians to even greater peril and mark the utter failure of the international peace strategy in Darfur. Instead, UNAMID has routinely said it is simply impossible to know with any certainty who was behind any of the attacks.

On Jan. 7, 2008, a week after the U.N. and African Union assumed joint control over the mission, elements of the Sudanese armed forces opened fire on a UNAMID resupply convoy near the town of Tine in North Darfur state. Sudan's U.N. envoy denied it at the time, but the Sudanese commander admitted his troops had fired on peacekeepers, though he claimed it was an accident.

From there, the attacks only escalated.

On July 8, 2008, a group of 200 fighters on horseback, reinforced by more than 40 vehicles mounted with machine guns, carried out a deliberate and well-organized attack on a smaller UNAMID convoy, killing seven peacekeepers, most of them Rwandan, and wounding 22 others, according to a confidential briefing to the U.N. Security Council by the U.N.'s then outgoing peacekeeping chief, Jean-Marie Guéhenno.

In his briefing -- a copy of which I reviewed at the time for the Washington Post -- Guehénno strongly hinted that Sudanese government troops participated in the attack. The ambush, which targeted the convoy's communications, occurred on Sudanese government territory and involved the use of powerful weapons not previously used by Sudanese rebel groups.

It was the closest a top U.N. official had come to blaming the Sudanese government for killing U.N. blue helmets.

"I was never a fan of that mission," Guéhenno recalled in a recent interview. "It was not born under the right star."

Guéhenno said that the Rwandan force commander "believed" the Sudanese government was behind the attack. "The commander had a tough call to make," he said. "The government, of course, had infinitely superior firepower, and it could have been suicidal to retaliate. It was the first of many where the weakness of UNAMID was tested. I think the mission has never recovered."

Guéhenno said the refusal to engage the attackers reflected a deeper flaw with the mission. While the Sudanese government had been forced to accept the peacekeepers, it had never committed to seeing the mission succeed.

Khartoum blocked U.N. efforts to deploy advanced military contingents, including better-trained and better-equipped Norwegian soldiers and Nepalese Gurkhas, insisting that only peacekeepers from friendly African governments that wouldn't challenge the Sudanese government could serve.

"It wanted the mission to be as weak as possible," he said. "[Sudanese President Omar] Bashir never accepted the notion of losing any control in Darfur. He could not prevent the deployment of peacekeepers, but he had to make sure the mission would not have any decisive influence on the situation."

SUDAN'S STEALTH WAR OF INTIMIDATION

Darfur's violence roared back to life in 2012, when several Darfuri rebel factions, backed by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, established the Sudan Revolutionary Front, inflicting heavy losses on government forces and putting the government on the defensive. According to U.N. analysis, 362 Sudanese troops died in 2012, up from 160 the previous year.

Sudan has responded with a counterinsurgency campaign that bears many of the hallmarks of earlier operations -- aerial bombardment of villages combined with a ground assault by Sudanese forces and Arab militias.

"The last quarter of 2012 saw [Sudanese] forces losing out in almost all the land encounters they had with the [Sudan Revolutionary Front] and this is weighing heavily [on] the morale of the troops," reads a Jan. 13, 2013, memo drafted by the Joint Mission Analysis Center, which provides mission analysis to UNAMID's top brass. "This has made [Sudanese] forces [retaliate through] the use of its air power." In the rebel stronghold of Jebel Marra, indiscriminate air bombardment raids have caused "widespread collateral damages and large scale displacement," according to the report.

Khartoum has effectively blocked UNAMID from investigating reports of abuses carried out in the course of the conflict by blocking access to the scene of fighting or, in some cases, threatening UNAMID peacekeepers. Peacekeeper deaths, meanwhile, have crept steadily higher. The death toll from violent attacks has increased from five in 2010 and nine in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and 16 in 2013.

In one recent example, UNAMID peacekeepers came under fire on Oct. 25, 2012, while on patrol near the town of Abu Delek, the scene of fighting between government forces and rebels from the Sudan Revolutionary Front. At the time of the attack, UNAMID was trying to assess the impact of the fighting -- which led to heavy losses on the government side -- on civilians.

As the UNAMID convoy neared the village, warning shots rang out. Minutes later, two Sudanese military Land Cruisers mounted with 12.7 mm machine guns bypassed the patrol team and disappeared without saying a word. Shortly after they left, the mission came under fire from surrounding hills. "The gunfire is suspected to have come from the [Sudanese] military, who did not want the team to proceed further for fear of interaction with the locals," noted an internal U.N. police report.

But the U.N. leadership has routinely withheld information linking Khartoum to threats -- let alone violence -- against UNAMID personnel.

In the case of Abu Delek, any suspicion of Sudanese government complicity was scrubbed from the account that UNAMID relayed to headquarters in New York. Ban's report to the Security Council on the incident made no mention of the peacekeepers' suspicions that Sudan's forces shot at them. It simply noted that the UNAMID team had "encountered gunfire by unidentified assailants in the surrounding area. Unable to assess the security situation ahead, the patrol was aborted."

The United Nations has also never publicly acknowledged that the Sudanese Air Force threatened in September 2012 to bomb a U.N. convoy transporting a U.N. investigator probing reports of government airstrikes against a village in Kushina district. Shortly after the convoy headed out, UNAMID's military headquarters radioed the convoy commander, warning that Sudan had threatened to bomb the convoy unless it stopped immediately.

As the convoy awaited further instructions, two Sudanese attack helicopters swooped over the convoy at low altitude, a violation of a U.N. Security Council ban on offensive flights in Darfur. In this case, the U.N. did protest the flights. But it scrubbed any reference to internal reports claiming that the Sudanese government had threatened to attack the convoy.

In October 2012, UNAMID received reports that the Sudanese Air Force had bombarded the rebel-controlled town of Hashaba during a clash with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, killing 70 to 100 civilians. Arab militias aligned with the government reportedly looted the town and carried out atrocities against local civilians suspected of supporting the rebels.

Sudan's government initially blocked UNAMID from conducting a fact-finding mission to Hashaba, saying it was too dangerous. The government relented after UNAMID's acting force commander, Tanzanian Maj. Gen. Wynjones Matthew Kisamba, a stout 61-year-old officer, arrived in the area to personally lead the investigation. But shortly after departing for Hashaba, the team was blocked by members of an Arab militia, forcing the blue helmets to travel along an alternate route that traversed a parched, low-lying river bed. They were ambushed by unidentified assailants perched on high ground and armed with heavy weapons -- including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and 12.7 mm high-caliber rifles -- not previously used by Darfur's militias. UNAMID officials said that only the Sudanese army had been known to be using such heavy weapons.

"It is likely that the attack was perpetrated by the Arab Militias probably with the support of [the Sudanese] military as the militia until then had not employed 12.7 mm caliber weapons or mortars in their operations," noted an internal UNAMID report. "It is pertinent to mention that earlier attempts by UNAMID to access Hashaba was consistently refused by [Sudanese] authorities with the excuse that the area was not safe due to the presence of uncontrolled armed factions."

EYES WIDE SHUT

Perhaps the most perplexing question surrounding Sudan's alleged role in attacks is why the United Nations, the African Union, and the U.N. Security Council have responded so feebly.

Attacks on U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers constitute an international crime, prosecutable by the International Criminal Court. But no credible prosecutions have been carried out against the Sudanese government for alleged crimes against UNAMID peacekeepers. And neither the U.N. Secretariat nor the U.N. Security Council has asked The Hague-based prosecutor to investigate.

The U.N. and African Union leadership -- perhaps fearful that accusing Sudan of wrongdoing could provoke an even more violent response or get them thrown out of the country -- have downplayed the significance of evidence suggesting government responsibility for such attacks. And UNAMID-sanitized public statements on such incidents rarely assign responsibility. "The Sudanese government has found an effective form of deterrence; if you accuse Khartoum of complicity in these attacks it may well respond with a larger scale of attacks," says Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

Whatever their motivation, UNAMID bureaucrats have exercised a kind of self-censorship when it comes to confronting possible Sudanese government responsibility for attacks. In the case of Muhajeria, a series of internal email exchanges sheds light on how the U.N. bureaucracy came to scrub Sudan's role from its public statements on the incident.

The morning after the attack, UNAMID's chief of staff, Karen Tchalian, moved quickly to make sure that as few people as possible knew about the attack. Tchalian advised the head of mission not to include any references to the Sudanese military in the public statements, even while harboring suspicions that the Sudanese government had concocted a cover story -- that the peacekeepers in Muhajeria had been caught up in intertribal fighting -- to conceal its own role. "At this point we need to release a one-two sentence initial, holding (feed the beast) statement describing two things: the attack on the TS [team site] and our losses," Tchalian wrote. "A few days later, when we have clarified the picture to our satisfaction (something that in this moment's fog-of-war situation has not yet been done) we can issue a fuller report. Let's not jump the gun. It's too early to let it all hang out."

A U.N. spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri, made the case for disclosing more details, arguing that UNAMID had an obligation to do so and that its reputation could be damaged by withholding critical details. She appealed for backup from UNAMID's communications director, Michael Meyer, a former Newsweek correspondent who had previously served as Ban's communications chief. Meyer had experienced his own difficulties with the Sudanese government, which had declined to grant him a visa to work in Darfur, forcing him to operate out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Meyer agreed with Tchalian that it was wiser to limit the disclosure of critical details from the incident, saying, "I would beware of publicly describing the people who broke into the base as wearing GoS [government of Sudan] uniforms. Anyone can secure those, bona fide or not."

At the same time, Meyer was mindful of the political ramifications, conceding Elbasri had a point. "Aicha is right as well: word of the initial [report] WILL leak. If we do not deal with it straightforwardly, it will once again appear as though we are covering up. Not good for our credibility."

Top to bottom: Albert González Farran - UNAMID; UNAMID; Albert González Farran - UNAMID; AP Photo/UNAMID, Albert Gonzalez Farran; Albert González Farran - UNAMID

Special Report

'They Just Stood Watching'

After the Darfur genocide, the United Nations sent in 20,000 peacekeepers with a single mission -- to protect the region's civilians. A Foreign Policy investigation details why they failed, and what the U.N. knew about it.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 1

 

"THEY JUST STOOD WATCHING."

At 6:20 p.m. on March 24, 2013, a convoy of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers escorting three buses of displaced residents of Darfur to a peace conference was stopped by a group of uniformed men in a pair of Toyota Land Cruisers.

Mistaking the heavily armed men for government soldiers, the convoy commander, Lt. Paulinus Ifeanyi Nnadi, stepped out of his armored vehicle to talk them into allowing the vehicles through. As he walked toward the SUVs, five gun trucks filled with armed rebel fighters opposed to the talks roared out of the bush.

Blood Oath: Inside the United Nations' Darfur Debacle

Part 1:
'They Just Stood Watching'
Part 2:
'Now We Will Kill You'
Part 3:
A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail

The rebels boarded the buses and ordered the drivers to follow them away from the main road. The captives were driven to a rebel stronghold where insurgents opposed to the peace talks stole their cell phones, bags, clothes, watches, and cash. They were then separated into groups of men and women and put into small cells where, according to several victims, they were beaten. Six days later, the rebels released their captives to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Nnadi, the peacekeeper's commander, later told U.N. investigators that his forces had attempted to prevent the abductors from heading off with the civilians. The victims and bus drivers, though, said they were handed over without a fight. Several said they even saw the U.N. soldiers flashing "thumbs up" signs to the kidnappers as the buses drove off. The U.N. personnel peacekeepers, one of the bus drivers told investigators, "did nothing."

"[The peacekeepers] made no visible effort to prevent the abduction of IDP [internally displaced persons] conference participants from the convoy," an unreleased assessment by other U.N. personnel later concluded. "They just stood watching as the gunmen drove away the buses carrying the IDPs."

The mass March 24 kidnapping -- the details of which have never been publicly disclosed by the U.N. -- marked a humiliating setback for troops from the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID), a beleaguered, U.N.-funded force that was established specifically to protect Darfur's citizens from a renewal of the genocide that had raged in the region years earlier, leaving more than 200,000 dead. The peacekeepers, though, have been bullied by government security forces and rebels, stymied by American and Western neglect, and left without the weapons necessary to fight in a region where more peacekeepers have been killed than in any other U.N. mission in the world. The violence that once consumed Darfur, meanwhile, has returned with a vengeance, resulting in civilian casualties and the large-scale flight of terrified men, women, and children.

Drawing on a massive trove of highly confidential UNAMID documents -- including thousands of pages of emails, police reports, internal investigations and diplomatic cables -- Foreign Policy will over the next three days publish a series of articles that shed light on how Darfur's combatants, particularly the Sudanese government, have effectively neutered the U.N. peacekeeping mission, undermining its capacity to fulfill its primary duty to protect nearly 2 million civilians displaced by Sudan's genocide. During the past year alone, more than 500,000 terrified men, women, and children have poured into the region's already overcrowded refugee camps.

The mission's former spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri, provided FP with the documents to draw attention to what she sees as UNAMID's failings and unwillingness to call out Khartoum for what she views as its deliberate targeting of Darfur's civilians and UNAMID peacekeepers. The documents -- which track the period from 2012 through the end of 2013 -- constitute perhaps the largest single leak of internal documents on an active U.N. mission in the world body's history.

"It is fair to say that UNAMID peacekeepers largely failed to protect Darfur civilians, and their presence didn't deter either the government or the rebels from attacking the civilians," Elbasri, a dual U.S.-Moroccan citizen, wrote last May in an end of mission report weeks after she resigned from the mission in protest. "They sometimes helplessly witnessed the attacks and harassment of civilians, some of which took place near UNAMID team sites."

U.N. officials concede that the Darfur operation is deeply flawed. The mission, which is administered jointly by the U.N. and the African Union (A.U.), has been hobbled since its birth by a range of disabilities: conflicting visions of its role between U.N. headquarters and African leaders; a lack of cooperation by the Sudanese government; poor leadership; and badly-equipped troops that lacked the helicopters, trucks, and other military hardware needed to patrol a region as vast as France.

"[UNAMID's] effectiveness is seriously constrained by access restrictions and, in case of the uniformed components, mobility constraints and shortfalls in the operational capabilities of several troop and police contingents," according to a strategic review produced in February by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In a statement to FP, the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, a former French diplomat named Hervé Ladsous, said that it was "no secret that the relationship with the government has always been challenging."

"In every mission there is a tension between the necessity to preserve the consent and good will of the host government required to allow our peacekeepers to do their jobs and the sometimes contradictory imperative to report accurately and candidly on any and all incidents of violence," he wrote. "Bad relations with any host government can make it impossible for a mission to operate -- to move around the country, to have their equipment cleared by national customs, to deploy new personnel."

Some officials say the mission's failings are beyond repair, but that the political leadership in African capitals and on the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to shut it down while violence is surging in Darfur. "That would require them to do something about it," one U.N.-based diplomat said.

Others say that UNAMID -- despite its failures and limitations -- is vital to the well-being of Darfur's most vulnerable civilians. "The problems of Sudan can't be solved by a U.N. peacekeeping mission," Princeton Lyman, President Barack Obama's former special envoy to Sudan, said in an interview. "But if you withdraw UNAMID, I would fear for the people in the [refugee] camps. They would have no protection at all; and it's not even clear they would be fed." 

 

"WE ARE FAILING OUR MANDATE."

A decade ago, Darfur was at the heart of one of the world's bloodiest ethnic cleansing campaigns. Between 2003 and 2005, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir orchestrated a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the region's key rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement. Sudanese bombers bombed suspected rebel positions from the air, while fighters from an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed stormed through local villages on horses and camels, burning homes and killing men, women, and children. Members of Darfur's ethnic Fur and Zaghawa tribes took the brunt of the violence because they were suspected of supporting the rebels.

The slaughter drew widespread international attention, with movie stars such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow using their personal celebrity to raise awareness about the obscure region and apply pressure on governments to deploy peacekeepers in Darfur.

UNAMID was supposed to end the killing. For a while, U.N. and A.U. officials claimed that the peacekeeping army's 20,000 troops were doing just that. Just before leaving his post, Rodolphe Adada, a Congolese politician and diplomat who ran the mission from May 2007 to late 2009, said Darfur's darkest years of mass killing were effectively over.

"We can no longer talk of big conflict, of a war in Darfur," he told the Associated Press in September 2009. "I think everyone understands it. We can no longer speak of this issue. It is over."

Adada's optimism was badly misplaced. The current violence hasn't approached the levels of violence seen during the genocide, but peace remains elusive. The Janjaweed -- that iconic symbol of Darfur's darkest days -- have never disappeared. They have simply been given uniforms and integrated into government auxiliary forces, including the Border Guards, the Central Reserve Forces, and the Popular Defense Forces.

The nature of the conflict, meanwhile, has grown increasingly complex as Darfur's fractious rebel groups formed a coalition, including fighters from outside Darfur, to topple the government. The Sudanese government, facing severe financial constraints, has been unable to meet its payments to the Arab militias, testing its proxies' loyalty and prompting them to fight other tribes for control over Darfur's limited natural resources, including farmland and gold mining concessions. Last year alone, there were six major outbreaks of fighting over natural resources. In some cases, the Sudanese government fought alongside the militias, and in others they turned against one another.

But the gravest threat to Darfur's civilians remains largely the same as it was a decade ago: a government-backed offensive, supported by the Janjaweed, that has used a combination of air power and ground attacks to depopulate large swaths of Darfur, swelling the ranks of the region's displaced from about 1.2 million people late last year to nearly 1.7 million in 2014.

While UNAMID has helped provide some measure of support to the displaced, it hasn't been able to fully protect them. In one poignant expression of local frustration with the peacekeepers, victims of a November 2012 massacre by a government-backed militia in the town of Sigili delivered the corpses of 10 civilians, wrapped in white cloth, to UNAMID's headquarters in the nearby town of El Fasher to protest its failure to act. When UNAMID visited the town of Sigili the following day they were greeted by an angry mob that blocked their movement with burning tires and pelted their vehicles with stones, according to an internal UNAMID document.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, a Ghanaian diplomat who took over the mission in early 2013, conceded that UNAMID has struggled to protect civilians. But he said in an interview that the presence of armed peacekeepers near Darfur's largest camps for the displaced has nevertheless deterred attacks. When violence strikes, Chambas said, Darfuris turn to UNAMID for protection. "When the population living in villages outside of the IDP camps are threatened where do they run to? To UNAMID team sites," he said. "There have been problems but one cannot speak of systematic intrusions [by armed groups] into the IDP camps to harm the people. In that regard we are fulfilling our mandate."

COWED INTO SUBMISSION

Few outside observers share Chambas's confidence in the mission, and the documents make clear that many U.N. officials on the ground are just as critical of UNAMID's capabilities. The failure of the peacekeepers to protect civilians can be attributed to multiple factors. Internal UNAMID documents say that troop-contributing countries supplied their blue helmets with broken vehicles and low-grade weaponry, while more powerful foreign powers declined multiple U.N. appeals to give the peacekeepers helicopter gunships to reinforce the mostly African infantry battalions. U.N. headquarters in New York, according to the documents, has also routinely rebuffed UNAMID commanders' requests that underperforming peacekeeping contingents, or those that decline to carry out direct orders, be sent home and replaced by other troops. Sudan's government forces and militias, meanwhile, have tormented the blue helmets, hampering their effectiveness.

On Sept. 25, 2012, for instance, a Sudanese warplane bombed a series of rebel targets in the remote town of Hashaba, where the military had been battling insurgents for control of a gold mining camp. The strikes killed 70 to 100 civilians, according to internal U.N. estimates. Fighters from a pro-government Arab militia followed with a ground attack on local villages that killed several civilians and led to the mass rape of others, according to a preliminary investigation into the incident by UNAMID.

After news of the attack spread, Sudanese military intelligence personnel allowed a UNAMID patrol to visit the area on Oct. 3. Rebel commanders there showed the peacekeepers three decomposed bodies, a series of plots they contended contained 16 graves (the rest of the dead, they said, had been taken away and buried by their families), and a single "crater which could have been the result of an aerial strike," according to an internal UNAMID report. But top UNAMID officials determined that they needed to send a larger team of security personnel and civilian specialists to conduct a more thorough assessment of what had happened.

"There are a great many rumors and allegations concerning the facts of the Hashaba incident as well as considerable conjecture as to the motives of the sides involved," reads the report. "That there was an assault by armed Arab groups on the town and outlying gold fields during which civilians died is not in doubt. It is also fairly certain that while a SAF [warplane] may have done some bombing on 25 September, SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] ground forces were not involved."

The rebels initially urged UNAMID not to send the team, "warning that UNAMID would be responsible for any untoward consequence of an attempt to go through." Sudanese government forces also warned UNAMID to stay out of Hashaba. On Oct. 17, a convoy of peacekeepers finally headed to the area, but they never made it.

The blue helmets were instead lured into what appeared to be a "pre-meditated" ambush by Arab fighters armed with mortars and other weaponry. The quality of the armaments led UNAMID to later conclude that Sudanese troops had taken part in the attack, according to an internal U.N. report. One South African peacekeeper was killed and three were seriously wounded. The convoy returned to Kutum. Senior U.N. officials pressed the South Africans to try again, but the local commander refused.

"Based on the security situation and sources of information, I find it extremely unbecoming let alone uncalled for to ignore the information from the reliable sources and insist that the assessment must go on. Hashaba is NOT SAFE for any UNAMID component's visit presently," the South African commander, Lt. Col. Thembinkosi Mashalaba, wrote in a memo to UNAMID's military brass.

Reached by email, Mashalaba declined to comment, saying "it's unfortunate that I really cannot discuss such matters with you over emails as the information can easily get distorted." But internal documents indicate that UNAMID's civilian and military leadership considered Mashalaba's action to have constituted a "gross act of indiscipline" and recommended that he be immediately stripped of his command and sent home. There is no evidence that such steps were ever taken.

 

"WE CAN'T SAY ALL WHAT WE SEE IN DARFUR."

Throughout the conflict in Darfur, UNAMID has collected extensive evidence linking Sudanese authorities to serious crimes, notably its use of air power and Arab proxies in attacks on communities suspected of supporting the rebels. But much of that evidence has been withheld from public reports. Lyman, Obama's special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from March 2011 to March 2013, said the UNAMID's refusal to explicitly note the connection between the attacks and Khartoum had long been a source of frustration for American policymakers. "We complained quite a bit about it the human rights reporting was not as vigorous or as public as it could have been," he said.

Sudan's aerial bombardment campaign, which drew widespread condemnation during the early years of the Darfur conflict, was banned by the U.N. Security Council, which adopted a March 2005 resolution threatening Sudan with sanctions if it did not "immediately cease" all offensive military flights in Darfur.

But the U.N. Security Council has never enforced the ban, and the aerial bombing campaign has surged over the past two years. Sudanese warplanes carried out at least 106 bombing strikes in 2012 and 85 in 2013, up from 64 in 2006, according to a study conducted by independent experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council. In 2012, for instance, the largest spike in fatalities occurred between the months of June and September, when 134 civilians were killed during Sudanese air strikes, according to internal UNAMID figures.

Khartoum, though, has routinely barred UNAMID peacekeepers from investigating reports of civilian casualties following Sudanese bombardment campaigns. As a result, many bombing operations have gone unreported to the U.N. Security Council.

UNAMID, meanwhile, has been reluctant to cast blame on the Sudanese government -- the only entity in Darfur with air power -- without irrefutable firsthand proof collected by its personnel, an evidentiary standard that has been impossible to achieve. As a result, UNAMID public reporting has often minimized Sudan's violations or withheld strong circumstantial evidence of Khartoum's complicity in, or responsibility for, attacks in UNAMID's reports to the U.N. Security Council.

In March 2013, a Sudanese Antonov warplane bombed a watering hole near the village of Um Agaga in northern Darfur, killing three men, one woman, and a child, according to a UNAMID report. A translator working with UNAMID witnessed the air strike. A local sheikh, meanwhile, later confirmed the attack -- which also killed 280 animals -- in an interview with UNAMID police. But the testimony of local observers did not meet UNAMID evidentiary standards. As a result, the incident -- which constitutes a violation of U.N. ban on offensive air strikes -- was never reported to the U.N. Security Council.

Ladsous, the U.N.'s chief peacekeeping official, also omitted key information collected by UNAMID peacekeepers about a suspected government role in an ethnic cleansing operation by Arab tribesmen in Jebel Amer, a gold mining center in north Darfur, in late 2012. The fighting triggered the flight of more than 30,000 civilians, mostly members of the tribe that had managed the gold mines.

"UNAMID has noted the media reports asserting that some quarters of the government support to the [Arab] militia during the hostilities, but the mission is not in possession of information that could substantiate such an allegation," Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council on March 18, 2013, according to a March 20 cable.

But internal UNAMID reports produced before the Security Council briefing noted that two Sudanese government auxiliary forces, the Border Guards and the Central Reserve Police, provided security for the Arab militia once they seized the gold mines. The Arab fighters launched their attack using heavy weapons that were likely acquired from the Sudanese military. One report claimed that Sudanese troops and border guards participated in an attack. The Arab militia "called supporters for help, and started to attack with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades (RPG). Huge number of armed people in more than 200 military vehicles (border guards, SAF [Sudan Armed Forces]) came to Jebel Amer area and started to attack" the tribe that managed the gold mines, according to an internal report by UNAMID. "During the attack, they shot at people randomly, burnt houses, and looted private properties of the villages," the report said.

It is unclear whether Ladsous was aware of the earlier accounts, or whether they had not been reported through the U.N. chain of command because there was insufficient evidence to prove government involvement. The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy.

But U.S. and U.N. officials have frequently expressed concerns that UNAMID bureaucrats, afraid to run afoul of Khartoum, have routinely withheld key information from policymakers at U.N. headquarters in New York.

In an email exchange with Elbasri, Aichatou Mindaoudou, a top UNAMID civilian official, privately confessed that information describing attacks on civilians was being "manipulated" by a couple of unnamed U.N. staffers who had "hijacked" UNAMID's reporting process.

"A lot of games are being played and people have a different agenda not every time in line neither with the mission's mandate nor with the sake of Darfuris," according to the Dec. 28 email to Elbasri, the former UNAMID spokeswoman who leaked the documents to FP. Mindaoudou did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

In an interview, Elbasri said she encountered serious shortcomings in UNAMID's willingness to report on human rights abuses shortly after she arrived in Darfur.

On August 2012, a convoy of 150 to 180 military trucks transported Sudanese soldiers, as well as armed militiamen, toward a stronghold of the Sudan Liberation Army, raiding three villages in the area of Tawila. They torched homes, stole property, and raped women. More than 5,000 fled their homes in fear, according to an internal UNAMID report.

But the local UNAMID police based in the area had reported nothing. UNAMID subsequently dispatched a fact-finding team to area. The team's report indicated that the raids were a reprisal for the downing of a government helicopter by Sudanese rebels. "They shot in the air and began looting of dwellings, personal belongings and, furniture, money cell phones, valued documents, etc. Persons who did not have anything to give to them were beaten with sticks or gun butts and were asked to tell them which tribe they belonged to," according to the report.

Elbasri says that she raised concerns about UNAMID's refusal to acknowledge the government role with one of the peacekeepers' local commanders, Maj. Gen. Wynjones Matthew Kisamba. She still remains shaken by his answer. The UNAMID forces, she recalls Kisamba saying, had to occasionally massage the truth. "You know, sometimes we have to behave like diplomats," he told her. "We can't say all what we see in Darfur."

Top to bottom: Albert González Farran - UNAMID; AP Photo/Alfred de Montesquiou; United Nations; United Nations; Albert González Farran - UNAMID