Gereida, South Darfur - "I know how many women and children have been killed. That is ethnic cleansing, and it should stop," UN envoy Pronk declared
The perimeter of Gereida town in South Darfur is rapidly expanding outward, with row after row of makeshift shelters filling the plains adjacent to the town.
The general security situation around Gereida has deteriorated rapidly due to clashes between the Fallata and the Massalit, and has drawn in other communities as well. It has led to casualties and displacement of civilians in more than 20 villages surrounding the town.
The African Union (AU) announced that Gereida was home to nearly 90,000 IDPs, one of the largest concentrations in Darfur.
"It is not just the number that is a problem, it is the rate at which it has been increasing," said Lt-Col Barukinamwo Canisius, AU commander in Gereida.
Photo: Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) fighters on patrol near Gereida, South Darfur, Western Sudan (Derk Segaar/IRIN)
The Sudanese government reportedly armed Fallata and other Arab militia to fight the Massalit, who are accused of supporting the rebel SLA. The rebel movement, too, has violated the ceasefire, having moved troops into Gereida in March 2005, despite a November 2004 agreement to demilitarise the town.
"The continued illegal occupation of Gereida by the SLA is a constant source of provocation," said Baba Gana Kingibe, head of the AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS).
"The SLA must abide by the decision of the Joint Commission for Gereida to be demilitarised and neutralised, and thus pave the way for AMIS to establish a presence as was done in other similarly contested towns like Labado, Marla, and Ishma," Kingibe added.
A community leader noted, however, that the Massalit had opposed the decision to demilitarise Gereida. As they had expected, the AU had not been able to provide sufficient protection, and the SLA was providing security instead, "for the time being".
"We are here to protect the citizens, on the invitation of the people of Gereida," said Col Mubarrak Hamed Ali, SLA commander of Gereida, on 25 February. "Without the SLA, Gereida would already have been turned into ashes."
The colonel pointed out that the Sudanese government had officially agreed to disarm the Arab militia, known as the Janjawid. As long as no such effort was being made - and the government continued to arm militia and incite attacks - the SLA could not be asked to stop protecting their people.
"This is not a tribal problem, it is an effort to take over Gereida," he noted.
"The area has experienced sustained Janjawid attacks since December, resulting in the killing of 300 members of the Massalit," said AU commander Canisius. "The recent attacks pose a serious threat, and an attack on Gereida town itself cannot be ruled out."
The latest Janjawid attacks had taken place only 5 km from the outskirts of town, he said.
"That is ethnic cleansing, and it should stop," Pronk declared
Jan Pronk, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Sudan, has called on the international community to strengthen its ability to protect civilians in Darfur and place greater emphasis on interethnic reconciliation.
Photo: The UN special envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, attending a meeting at Mershing, South Darfur.
"The civilians of Gereida and the villages around it need protection from continuous attacks by the Janjawid and militias," Jan Pronk recently told a crowd of over 10,000 people in the town square.
An observer noted that there was no evidence of the militia engaging with the SLA directly. Rather, they targeted civilian locations with the apparent intention to destroy the villages of perceived rebel supporters.
"I know how many women and children have been killed. That is ethnic cleansing, and it should stop," Pronk declared.
Shaeria, South Darfur, Western Sudan
Photo: SLA, Minni Menawi, right, and the AU representative to the Sudan, Baba Gana Kingibi, left, talk at a press conference in Muhagiria, south Darfur Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. (AP/Sudan Tribune/Sudan Watch archive Feb 2006)
Tensions have also risen in Shaeria in South Darfur since SLA rebels associated with commander Minni Minnawi attacked the town on 19 September and held it for a few days. Minnawi is of Zaghawa origin, and ethnic Zaghawa are blamed for providing the SLA intelligence to launch a successful attack.
"For a lot of people it has become personal. It has become a matter of self-defence," said Mansur Hassan Omar, the recently appointed commissioner of Shaeria.
The fact that the Zaghawa population only arrived in Shaeria to escape the 1986 drought does not help. The sentiment that the "guests" are abusing the hospitality they were given fuels local resentment.
Following the re-entry of government forces on 22 September 2005 and the withdrawal of SLA rebels to positions in the immediate vicinity, the Zaghawa population faced increasing harassment, violence and intimidation. Many fled the town. A Zaghawa community leader claimed that the government had armed Messiriyah and Birgit militia and that Birgit leaders had publicly called for the displacement of "all Zaghawa from the area of Shaeria".
"You can see the women and children [who fled Shaeria] near the AU compound, but where are the men?" a town resident asked. "They are in the bush."
Although a reconciliation agreement was signed between Birgit and Zaghawa community leaders on 4 December 2005, Birgit militia soon returned to town. Harassment of the Zaghawa, as well as apparent retaliations and targeted killings of Birgit by alledged SLA sympathisers, increased significantly.
The leaders of both ethnic groups fled to Nyala, leaving a vacuum of civil authority in Shaeria. Sudanese National Security and the military are now in charge of the town, collaborating with irregular armed groups.
"We don't have any problems with the other tribes - we have problems with the militia," said the Zaghawa community leader. "Where do they get their uniforms and their Kalashnikovs?"
The militia have targeted Zaghawa neighbourhoods, harassing and occasionally killing civilians, burning houses, looting livestock and denying access to water points. Although the AU conducts bi-weekly water patrols for displaced people near its compound, it is largely ineffective in providing protection to the civilian population.
"They [the militia] come during the day, and you can see them carry the belongings of the IDPs - whole beds sometimes - from their shelters [near the AU compound] towards Shaeria town," an AU soldier said.
Tensions further escalated between 25 and 28 January after a number of joint attacks by government forces and Arab militia on encroaching SLA positions. On 14 February, SLA forces shot down a helicopter gunship during a heavy government bombardment 10 km south of town. According to government sources, the Antonov plane and two helicopters present at the scene had been called in to "pre-empt" an impending SLA attack.
As a result of the ongoing insecurity, the entire Zaghawa community as well as people from other ethnic groups have left the town, reducing its population to a fraction of its original 32,000 inhabitants. They have started arriving in locations as far away as Nyala and El Fasher, the capitals of South and North Darfur respectively, after journeys of nearly 100 km through the desert. Others are still camped near the AU compound or dispersed to the countryside or nearby towns such as Labado or Muhagiriya.
"Please make a distinction between fighters who are armed and women and children, who are not armed," Pronk recently told 1,000 inhabitants of Shaeria. "They are also citizens of Shaeria, just like you.
"We need peace between the government and the SLA, and we need tribal reconciliation," he added. "There is no need to wait for a result in Abuja [the Nigerian capital where peace talks are being held]. You can start here. At some point you have to stop the killing and reconcile."
Protection and reconciliation
An Arab community leader observed that the Darfur conflict started for political reasons but had given way to community conflicts. "It has brought us back 100 years in terms of development, and it has destroyed the social fabric of Darfur," he said.
Pronk, however, urged the local community not to lose sight of the fact that the war started for political reasons.
"Some people felt that they were being treated unfairly. Feelings of injustice led to this war, and the rebels will not stop if they don't reach part of that objective," he observed.
Militia would often use weapons given to them by the government to defend their communities against individuals, he said. This blurred the line between regular and irregular forces. Pronk noted that the counter-attacks had been very vicious and created their own problems and dynamics. As a result, almost 2 million people, or one-third of the population, now lived in IDP camps - the majority of whom were afraid of militia and the government, not the rebels who had started the war.
Photo: A displaced woman sheltering under the trees in Gereida with the belongings she was able to salvage from her destroyed village.
Warlordism on the increase - Pronk calls on Sudanese government to stop arming the militias
The UN envoy urged the SLA to stop its attacks, as they provoked counter-reactions with "bad consequences for their people". He also called on the government to stop arming the militias.
As local commanders did not necessarily take orders from their leaders anymore and "warlordism" was on the increase, the solution to certain conflicts had to be found at the local level.
"I believe more and more in reconciliation talks on the ground in Darfur and not only in Abuja," Pronk added. "You cannot replace Abuja, but now that the rebel movements are so fragmented, you could also have some regional reconciliation efforts in order to solve local conflicts."
"The UN could support and participate in such processes," he said, "but only when the process is fair and tribes can themselves decide who will represent them, and as long as all parties welcome the participation of the UN."
In the meantime, the UN would continue to support the AU and help its peacekeepers strengthen their protection activities.
"They now have 7,000 troops on the ground and wanted to expand it to 12,000," Pronk said. "I think we need more than 12,000 troops and that is a way in which the UN could help."
Even if the international community decided to take stronger action to protect the civilian population, however, it would take time before tangible changes would be seen on the ground.
Things do not always go from bad to worse, however. Approximately 55,000 people recently returned to Mershing after having fled to nearby Menawashi - on the road between Nyala and El Fasher - at the end of January.
Tensions had risen in this area of South Darfur after armed men ambushed a convoy on 18 January and killed four Sudanese police officers. In apparent retaliation, armed militia on camels and horses - supported by Sudanese police forces - attacked and looted Kaile camp for displaced people as well as Mershing market on 22 January. A similar attack took place on 25 January. In total, an estimated six people were killed.
As a result, most people - approximately 20,000 town residents and 35,000 displaced people - left Mershing and moved to Menawashi, claiming they no longer trusted the police.
Farrah Mustafa, deputy governor of South Darfur, acknowledged that the police force in Mershing "had not done its best".
"The displaced residents said they would only go back if we would replace certain police officers, but instead we replaced the whole police force, 80 people in total," he noted. "The first week of February, the population decided to come back to Mershing."
Indeed, when Pronk visited Mershing at the end of February, he was greeted by thousands of recently returned town residents.
But here, too, the situation is far from resolved, and Arab militia around the town still pose a potential threat. Continued reconciliation efforts are needed, as illustrated by the crowds chanting "John Garang, John Garang" - invoking the name of the late southern Sudanese rebel leader - when Sudanese state authorities paid a recent visit.
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