Sudan: Attacks, arrests, and obstruction - The people of Darfur continue to suffer

The last week has not been a good one for the people of Darfur. Civilians have been attacked and killed, thousands more displaced, a ceasefire lies in tatters, while in Khartoum, human rights activists were arrested while holding a meeting. This has been taking place while Sudan hosted a multi-million dollar summit of the African Union (AU). The government had been expecting to be awarded the presidency of the AU, which normally goes to the country hosting the summit. But AU leaders broke with tradition and chose the Republic of Congo instead: the long list of gross human rights violations in Darfur made Sudan unacceptable as head of the African Union.

Attacks on civilians continue

One of the most serious attacks on civilians in Darfur of recent times occurred at camps for displaced people around Mershing. About 35,000 have been trying to survive there - Trócaire has been providing them with materials for shelter and other help, through the ACT-Caritas relief operation and our Sudanese partner organisation, SUDO. Like a third of the population of Darfur, the people sheltering around Mershing had fled their homes after systematic attacks on the non-Arab villages by Janjaweed militia, some of which have been armed and supported by the government.

Most of these displaced people have had to flee once more, after their camp was raided repeatedly since Sunday 22nd January by hundreds of armed men on horseback and camels - a term usually reserved for the Janjaweed militia. They took over the camps, looted it, and terrified the people. One person is reported to have been killed and a dozen others injured in attacks in the area. The people at Mershing complained to the government police force and also the African Union observers in the area. But in the end there was no effective intervention, so they fled en masse. Most are sleeping out in the open at Monawashi about five miles away, with severe shortages of water.

More peacekeepers needed

The African Union has about 7,000 peacekeepers in Darfur - a number which is widely accepted as being far too small for an area the size of France with very poor roads. In many of the places where they are able to have a presence, they have made a real difference to the safety of civilians. But there are also worrying reports from places like Mershing that they have failed to act when it's clear that civilians are in danger. More peacekeepers are urgently needed, with a strong mandate to intervene to protect civilians.

The Janjaweed can clearly operate without fear of being caught: nearly two years after the government promised to rein them in and disarm them, they seem to know they will be allowed to go unchallenged. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly highlighted the fact that the Sudanese Government has taken no major steps to bring to justice or even identify any of the militia leaders or others behind the attacks, despite promising to do so.

The rebel groups who have been fighting for greater autonomy for Darfur since 2003 have also been wreaking havoc on civilians and aid operations. They continue to break the ceasefire agreements which all the main groups have signed up to over the last two years. An assault by the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) on Golo in the Jebel Marra area resulted in aid workers having to be evacuated. A UN helicopter involved in the operation crashed on Wednesday (25th January), killing a Sudanese nutritionist who was working for Goal.

Peace talks stalled

While these attacks continue, all the parties are attending the seventh round of peace talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. But the AU-hosted negotiations have been stalled for weeks, and the mediators have complained that the talks are not being taken seriously. The international community, which has dithered over Darfur for two years now, needs to send the clearest signal possible to all parties that they must stick to the ceasefires and other commitments, allow access for humanitarian organisations and peacekeepers so that safety can be restored, and disarm their militias.

Sudan has just marked the first anniversary of the signing of the North-South peace agreement, which ended a different war lasting for more than two decades in South Sudan. It's a great opportunity to address conflict in the country and begin reconstruction after a terrible period. But the signs were not good, when all those taking part in a human rights meeting in Khartoum were arrested on the eve of the AU summit there on Sunday 22nd January. They included a organisation supported by Trócaire, which has been working with survivors of torture and abuse in Darfur. All were released after several hours, but only after participants from overseas refused several times to be separated from their colleagues from Sudan, who are much more vulnerable.

Another of Trócaire's partners in Sudan has again faced restrictions on its work. Despite providing vital services to people in Darfur for the last two years, SUDO was told to halt all operations at Zalingei in West Darfur on January 16th. Their work has included running two health clinics, a nutrition centre, digging wells, and providing seeds and farming tools. SUDO was also told to hand over its vehicles to the authorities.

Where to now?

Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died in Darfur, a third of the population has been displaced, and there is no sign of it being safe enough for them to go home. Many more would have died if it had not been for the massive humanitarian relief operation, which continues to support much of the population despite attacks and restrictions on its operations.

The only long term solution is to end the attacks and insecurity so that people can return to their homes, grow their own food, and find a solution to the underlying tensions in Darfur. For that to happen, the international community must provide adequate peacekeepers, and send the clearest signal to all parties that they will face real sanctions if the do not rein in their forces.