Thursday, September 03, 2009

Has war ended in Darfur?

By Eric Reeves

Has Darfur’s war ended? Has the genocidal counter-insurgency launched by the Khartoum regime in 2003 against Darfuri rebels and the non-Arab civilian population of Darfur been halted? Two departing leaders of the current UN/African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) claim that the war is indeed over, and has devolved into a “low-intensity” security problem. General Martin Agwai, the Nigerian force commander, declared on stepping down that, “as of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur,” but rather "very low intensity" engagements. “What you have is security issues more now. Banditry, localised issues….” Rodolphe Adada of Congo, the incompetent joint UN/African Union representative to UNAMID, declared with breathtaking arrogance, “I have achieved results" in Darfur. "There is no more fighting proper on the ground.” “Right now there is no high-intensity conflict in Darfur…. Call it what you will but this is what is happening in Darfur---a lot of banditry, carjacking, attacks on houses.”

How accurately do these self-serving assessments comport with the daily realities that confront Darfuris and the international aid workers who struggle to provide food, clean water, shelter, and primary medical care for some 4.7 million conflict-affected civilians? Over the past 20 months---all on UNAMID’s watch---some 450,000 civilians have been newly displaced in Darfur, a large majority by violence; camps for displaced persons are now home to almost 3 million people. “Low-intensity”? A UN map of areas that have little or no humanitarian access shows virtually all of Darfur as significantly insecure (search “darfur humanitarian access map"+july+2009 at As a consequence, most humanitarian operations and international humanitarian workers have retreated to urban areas, where there are still shockingly violent attacks, official harassment, carjackings, and banditry. There has also been an alarming increasing in the kidnapping of aid workers. Much of this violence is clearly condoned by Khartoum in a ruthless war of attrition against humanitarian operations. Unsurprisingly, it has become harder and harder to attract experienced aid workers to Darfur, an essential task following Khartoum’s March expulsion of thirteen key international aid organizations.

Darfuris wishing to return to their homes and villages to resume agriculturally productive lives cannot: Khartoum’s brutal Arab militia allies, the Janjaweed, continue their predations, often within sight of the camps. Women and girls are raped, men and boys beaten or killed. At the same time, many villages and lands have been occupied by marauding Arab groups, some from as far away as Chad, Niger, and Mali.

Adada and Agwai make much of a decline in violent mortality; but this decline was inevitable for two reasons. First, the actual military conflict in Darfur has drifted into a tactical and strategic stalemate, one that inevitably favors Khartoum---especially if the international community seizes on characterizations such as those offered by Agwai and Adada. Of the rebel movements, only the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has the military resources and disposition to go on the offensive; but even JEM can no longer hold towns or villages it seizes and seems incapable of delivering a truly sustained and punishing blow to Khartoum’s regular military or various paramilitary proxies. Military coordination between the rebel factions is non-existent. Even so, the stalemate might still be broken for a number of reasons, and UNAMID at present would be powerless to halt a new escalation of violence.

Second, given the high levels of previous destruction, there is relatively little that remains in the way of promising new targets of opportunity among the villages and lands of non-Arab or African populations of Darfur, which made up at least two-thirds of the pre-war population. If we assume that the total pre-war population of Darfur was between six and seven million, then approximately 70 - 85 percent of the African population is either displaced or dead. My own survey of informed Darfuris in the diaspora revealed a clear consensus that 80 - 90 percent of African villages have been destroyed. And Google Earth has recently released new data showing more than 3,000 villages in Darfur destroyed or damaged during the period of greatest violence (see These highly detailed photographs of course do not indicate villages that were simply abandoned for fear of impending attacks.

Let us be clear: “low-intensity” does nothing to describe or convey the terrible destruction that the AU and the international community allowed to rage when violence could have been halted by prompt and robust humanitarian intervention. Nor does “low-intensity” describe the present soul-destroying nature of existence within the camps: the relentless privations, the pervasive threats to health, the loss of hope, the acute sense of abandonment, and the anger and despair that relentlessly haunt daily existence. Victims of genocidal violence continue to be victimized, continue to face conditions of life calculated in many ways to bring about their physical destruction.

As to the scale of current violence in Darfur, it must be said first that UNAMID simply isn’t in a position to assess comprehensively the number of violent deaths or deaths that result from civilians fleeing violence. And limited access to much of Darfur is only part of the problem. In February, for example, approximately 100,000 civilians in the Muhajeria area of South Darfur were forced to flee following large-scale fighting between JEM and Khartoum’s forces, as well as subsequent bombing and ground attacks on neighboring towns and villages by Khartoum. We know that many made it to camps to the west and northwest, but a great many fled east and are unaccounted for. The very elderly and very young would have struggled to make it to camps, as would those injured during the fighting; a number of these people would have died. Conditions were appalling on the outskirts of Zamzam camp, to which some 35,000 people fled, overwhelming available resources and creating an immediate health emergency, with inevitable additional morbidity and mortality.

Nonetheless, UNAMID promulgated a figure of 102 violent deaths for all of February, throughout all of Darfur: this represented the number of bodies actually counted and assigned “violence” as the cause of death. But so much is excluded by means of this astringent methodology that it becomes meaningless as a figure for global mortality, particularly when to date perhaps 80 percent of those dying in the Darfur conflict are victims of the after-effects of violence rather than directly perpetrated violent acts. Violence is no less the cause of death, but this hasn’t prevented UNAMID officials from using their own highly circumscribed figures as evidence of the mission’s “success.” The same was true for the large-scale, scorched-earth campaign mounted by Khartoum north of el-Geneina in February 2008 (early in UNAMID’s official tenure): again, many of those killed or displaced were never accounted for.

UNAMID is neither responsible for the diminishment in the levels of violence in Darfur nor capable of halting major conflict should it resume. UNAMID offers some important security to civilians and humanitarians, in some locations, but given the mandate of the force and the size of nominally committed resources, it should be capable of much more, particularly in monitoring and bolstering security in more remote locations. Instead, General Agwai gave us an all-too-accurate account of UNAMID’s ability to monitor developments on the ground when he recently acknowledged that the force was like “very small ink spots on blotting paper. [We currently have] 32 spots, but we’re beginning to expand and spread.” We’ve been hearing a version of this claim since the UN Security Council authorized UNAMID over two years ago (UN Security Council Resolution 1769, July 31, 2007). But as recently as this past April, Special Representative Adada was obliged to concede in his briefing of the Council that UNAMID “was operating at roughly one third of its full capability.”

Moreover, UNAMID is in no position to continue with even its current protection efforts if it must at the same time effectively monitor a cease-fire, were one to be negotiated between Khartoum and the rebels. Yet virtually all observers acknowledge that a well-defined, robustly enforced cease-fire is the critical first step for successful peace negotiations. Adada and Agwai, with considerable (and justifiable) concern for how history will judge them, have done little to explain how UNAMID will meet the challenges of successfully monitoring such a cease-fire. Instead, they are framing the issues in Darfur in a way that deliberately obscures the massive security crisis that only deepens with time, and the extreme challenges of monitoring a cease-fire agreement that would have as one of its signatories a regime that has a history defined by reneging on such agreements.

Large-scale conflict may or may not resume in Darfur; but to focus only on the scale of military confrontation misses the broader issue. If insecurity ---from whatever source(s) --- collapses present international humanitarian operations, there will be hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, and it will not matter whether or not they are described as "low intensity."

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of "A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide"


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