On the Road with Darfur’s Hybrid Peacekeeping Force

The helmets have been painted blue, but no-one has got around to removing the Amis logos from the old African Union vehicles

No-one can doubt the enthusiasm of the new UN-AU hybrid force (Unamid) in Darfur.
Morale has risen and its officers seem to have rediscovered the can-do attitude they lost as the old African Union force came to a bloody end. They are back out on night patrols around the aid camps and in West Darfur they are running long-range patrols through some of the worst affected areas.
Our convoy is headed for Sileia. The sandy track twists and turns through towns and past villages that read like a report by Human Rights Watch. This area has been the scene of the worst fighting this year. Last December rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement seized a swath of territory moving ever closer to the regional capital and government stronghold of El Geneina. Then in February the Jem fighters flooded back over the border into Chad to protect their paymaster Idriss Deby from Chadian rebels who were closing on his capital. Khartoum took its chance, sending Antonov bombers and Janjaweed militias to recapture the towns of Sirba, Abu Sirouj and Sileia.
The signs of the fighting are everywhere. Each village has patches of blackened ash where simple houses – built from little more than sticks and prayers – used to stand. The town of Sirba has been rebuilt with tents. And our convoy grinds to a halt just outside Sileia: an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade sits in the middle of the track.
The tactics used in the attacks are eerily familiar. Bombs rolled out of the back of old Russian Antonov cargo planes make up the first wave. Then the Janjaweed loot and destroy everything in sight. Then finally – almost as if they have arrived to restore order – the Sudanese Armed Forces themselves move in and secure the towns.
It is easy to assume we are back to the dark days of Khartoum’s scorched earth policy of 2004 and 2005. But I’m not so sure. One analyst pointed out that retaking a strategic corridor along the Chadian border from rebels was a “reasonable military” objective. And an intelligence officer said that although the MO was the same as the early phases of the conflict, the “collateral damage” was much less this time around.

But comparisons are worthless when your home has been destroyed. For the villagers of Sileia the deployment of the hybrid force has made little difference to their lives so far. It couldn’t stop the Antonovs bombing or the Janjaweed looting. “Today is the first time we have seen them,” said Abubaker Zirgan Adam, 72, as the Unamid convoy pulled out of Sileia. He has made a new home in the MSF compound in the village. He doesn’t want to go back to his old home on the edge of the settlement for fear Janjaweed raiders will find him easy pickings.
Eventually the hybrid force will be back. They plan to build an observation post in Sileia. But for now with only 9000 of their eventual 26,000 police officers and soldiers there is little they can do. And they have to hope that they can make a difference in the coming weeks, before they face the same sort of backlash that crippled the AU once IDPs and rebel groups realised the peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians.
But while we focus on the numbers the crucial issue is being forgotten. The only way to secure peace in Darfur is through peace talks. Without an agreement the hybrid force is once again left with mission impossible and Darfur is left in the grip of misery.