EL FASHER, NORTH DARFUR, 8 June (IRIN) - As he peers down the barrel of his ancient, Russian-made machine gun, Emanuel Ndagijimana epitomises the constraints and expectations faced by the African Union's (AU) first-ever peacekeeping force.
At 22, the Rwandan soldier is one of 2,370 AU peacekeepers helping to maintain a shaky ceasefire in Darfur, western Sudan, the scene of what the UN has called "one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters". Around him are peacekeepers from Chad, Senegal, Kenya and South Africa.
The AU force is an army that has begged and borrowed its way into existence. But the peacekeepers, who many wrote off even before they set foot in dusty Darfur, are beginning to win international praise.
Although the peacekeepers are stretched beyond their limited capacity in trying to cover a region the size of France, violence has actually tapered off in the areas where they have been deployed.
"The African Union team is playing a critical leadership role in trying to solve what we all know has been a very terrible problem," Robert Zoellick, the US Deputy Secretary of State, said during a one-day visit to the region on 3 June.
"Where you have AU forces conflict doesn't occur," he said. "These are the guys who are making it happen."
In a matter of weeks, the AU force is due to triple its ranks to 7,700 troops and civilian police, at a cost to the international community of US $466 million.
When the AU troops first arrived in 2004, they had no equipment or logistical support.
"We didn't even have maps," Baba Gana Kingibe, the AU's special representative to Darfur, said. "But it didn't stop us, we didn't shy away from the challenge."
It was the adaptability of this military force that was its greatest strength, the Nigerian-born soldier added.
"We have learned to respond instantly to changing situations, and this has been our success. Other peacekeeping forces would not have managed in the conditions we faced," he said.
Kingibe said the force's flexible nature had also helped the peacekeepers tackle the ever-changing nature of Darfur's complex conflict, which he said was now moving away from fighting between rebels and government forces to include other dimensions. For instance, he said, food shortages had begun to influence the trend of the war, with banditry and robbery on the rise as armed groups searched for food.
Violence in Darfur erupted in February 2003 when rebels took up arms against what they saw as years of state discrimination and marginalisation of the region's ethnic African inhabitants.
The government is accused of responding with a counterinsurgency in which the ethnic Arab militia, known as "Janjaweed", have committed wide-scale abuses against ethnic Africans.
At least 180,000 people have died - many from hunger and disease - and more than two million others have fled the region.
The commander of the AU force in Darfur, Maj Gen Festus Okonkwo, said his lightly armed troops were no match for Sudanese rebels and government soldiers, whom he said were armed with rocket launchers and truck-mounted heavy machine guns.
Since the start of the operation, two of his men have been shot and ten others kidnapped and held for a day and a half. Aid workers were increasingly falling victim to attack, he said.
He dismissed criticism that his peacekeepers were failing to curb assaults, blaming a lack of equipment for hampering their effectiveness.
In the coming months, the peacekeeping force is expected to receive attack helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft to transport troops and more than 100 armoured personnel carriers, which Okonkwo hoped would swing the balance of power.
"Even so, the situation has improved, and the last two months have been limited to a few skirmishes," he said from an air-conditioned portable cabin that serves as the troops' headquarters in El Fasher, Darfur's regional capital.
Zoellick said the security situation in the region was improving, but that more police were needed to protect civilians in and around the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
He also said a "strong message" must to be sent to the Khartoum government to disarm the militias operating in Darfur.
He said: "One of the lessons we have all learned is that the AU military forces can provide a generally secure environment - but there have still been problems in the camps. The key is to get the police forces operating within the camps."
Currently, there are 462 AU police in the region, a force the AU hopes to expand to 815 by the end of June. By September some 1,500 police should be in the region.
Mura Defayala, a mother of eight, fled the fighting in 2004 for the relative safety of ZamZam IDP camp, on the outskirts of El Fasher. She said the peacekeepers offered some hope.
"When we see them we know we are safe, but we wish there were more," she said, sitting just a stone's throw away from a group of Sudanese soldiers armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Rape is less frequent in areas under the protection of the AU troops, but even so, the safety offered does not match the protection needs of Darfur's residents. In May, a woman was raped when she left ZamZam to collect firewood.
"We cannot be everywhere with our current number of soldiers - but when we expand so will our presence," Okonkwo said.
The police return to the safety of their bases at night, and patrols begin again the following morning. By the end of the month, however, AU police are expected to be deployed round the clock in half of the region's 65 main camps, which are home to an estimated 1.6 million IDPs.
Many agree that the best hope for security in Darfur lies in a political solution.
Zoellick said: "While it is important to deal with the humanitarian and basic security issues, we have to push forward with the political reconciliation process."
Political talks, which have stalled at least twice before, are due to restart in Abuja, Nigeria, on 10 June.
The hope is that the trickle of people returning home will increase by October if the political talks gather pace and security conditions improve.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," Okonkwo said.
The AU is the only governing body to put troops on the ground in Darfur, an operation that could determine the fate of the 53-nation block.
Kingibe said: "We stand or fall in Darfur. If we fail here, nobody is going to look to the African Union for a solution to other conflicts on the continent."
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