The AU is doing its best

For the faithful observing Ramadhan in El Geneina, West Darfur, the sun takes too long to set. Here breaking the fast happens a full 40 minutes later than it does far to the east in Khartoum.

For the faithful observing Ramadhan in El Geneina, West Darfur, the sun takes too long to set. Here breaking the fast happens a full 40 minutes later than it does far to the east in Khartoum.

Ramadhan will be over in the next week and will end with a celebration.

It is hard to imagine people celebrating in this part of the world, but it is easy to understand that they use their faith to keep going.

El Geneina is a stronghold of the Janjaweed, the armed horsemen who have been terrorising Darfur and parts of neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic for several years.

Millions of people have lost their homes and hundreds of thousands have been killed.

The horror story continues.

On the outskirts of El Geneina stands a collection of white tents surrounded by barbed wire.

It’s easiest to notice at night, as it’s the only place within an area about as big as the Free State that has a continuous supply of electricity.

The tents are home to a group of unsung heroes, many of them South African and Rwandans, who make up part of Amis, the African Union Mission in Sudan.

Seven thousand African peacekeepers scattered thinly across Darfur do the best they can with one of the weakest mandates ever negotiated for peacekeeping -- a mandate that allows them only to observe what some call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Amis conducts patrols in some of the areas worst affected by the violence, protecting women collecting firewood, and providing basic medical services to the people in the camps for displaced people who lost their homes when their villages were destroyed.

Amis has spent enough time on the ground, about three years, to know that the people of Darfur crave one thing more than anything else: security.

They haven’t had security for years and they live in fear.

African Union peacekeepers are the first to admit that they wish they could do more than their limited mandate allows them.

In late September at least 10 AU soldiers were killed and another 20 are still missing after an attack by a rebel group on an Amis base at Haskanita in south-east Darfur.

Two weeks prior to that Sudanese government planes reportedly bombed the area.

Haskanita is off the beaten track and the outside world rarely gets a glimpse of what happens in such places.

But because of the AU force’s presence there, we do know something about these attacks.

In mid-September Amis carried a BBC television crew to Haskanita and, chances are, if you’ve seen photos of Darfur, they’ve been taken by the Amis public information department.

Nine months ago as I travelled around Darfur, Amis was referred to as “Africa’s mistake in Sudan”.

The mission needed help.

It needed a stronger mandate, more personnel and much more financial and material support.

Amis also needed to create good will among Darfuris to counter suspicion that the AU force is a Sudanese government tool.

As we enter the last quarter of this year Amis has managed to generate good will and help is on the way.

The hybrid AU-United Nations peacekeeping operation is set to take over command from Amis on January 1 next year.

UNAmid will be bigger and stronger than Amis.

Whether it will be better has yet to be seen. Sudan is insisting that peacekeepers be drawn exclusively from African contributing nations.

Troop commitments from Asian and Latin American countries have been rejected by Khartoum already.

In effect UNAmid will be an AU peacekeeping force, with soldiers changing the colour of their berets from green to blue.

Africa still has a chance to succeed in Darfur.

Whatever Khartoum thinks about the efficacy of an all-African peacekeeping force, with the right support, UNAmid can finish the work that Amis started.

Expectations in Darfur are high and my military colleagues who wait for the sun to go down at the Amis camp in El Geneina know what they have to do once their mandate becomes more robust in a few weeks.

The AU, like the UN, is riddled with problems. But it’s the best we’ve got.

There’s no alternative except making it better. This article is lifted from Mail and Guardian.

 The writer is a media consultant specialising in African conflict zones. He travelled to Darfur to assess the AU’s public information programme.

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