UNAMID peacekeepers patrol lawless Darfur nights
Peacekeepers patrol lawless Darfur nights
The peacekeepers' convoy enters the alleyways of Ardamata refugee camp, stirring up a cloud of dust amid the last rays of the Darfur sun. After dark, the camp's residents want all the protection they can get.
"The difference between a night patrol and a day patrol? The night is more risky," says a blue helmeted Nigerian soldier armed with a machine gun.
The two armoured cars and three jeeps in the convoy of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) do a circuit of the refugee camps around the town of El Geneina, capital of West Darfur and near the border with Chad.
"Here, in the evening after sunset, we hear shooting," complains Toril Mohammed, a resident of Ardamata camp, where a lack of electricity means vehicle headlights are the only illumination at night.
"But I don't know who is firing," adds the 37 year-old, dressed in a white tunic and surrounded by a gaggle of children, some of them born in the camp where thatched huts have started to appear alongside the makeshift canvas first erected by the refugees when they fled their homes.
"The refugees complain of gunfire at night. So that they feel safe, we send patrols," said UNAMID Lieutenant Colonel Hamza Kaoje.
Six years after ethnic minority rebels in Darfur rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government, the situation in parts of the region remains tense after dark.
At El Geneina in particular, Sudanese soldiers, pro-government militiamen, rebels, highway bandits and small-time thugs all go around heavily armed.
"There are a lot of problems here at night... It is better not to leave your home," says young taxi driver Mohammed Mussa.
At the end of March, unidentified arsonists set fire to the Abuzar camp just outside El Geneina one night, burning around a hundred makeshift shacks and killing two people.
"The refugees want us to visit often but with the number of men at our disposal, we cannot be there 24 hours a day," Kaoje said regretfully.
UNAMID is supposed to become the world's biggest peacekeeping mission but 15 months after its launch only 15,700 of the 26,000 soldiers and police mandated by the UN Security Council have actually been deployed.
The peacekeeping force also struggles with a shortage of equipment, compounded by frequent hijackings of its 4X4 vehicles.
The cars are vital for navigating the difficult roads of a region the size of France, but are much prized on the black market for the same reason.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died since the conflict began in 2003 and another 2.7 million fled their homes. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
Peacekeepers say levels of violence have dropped over the past two years, although the conflict has become much more complicated with rebel groups and pro-government militias alike fragmenting into small armed factions.
"Civilian populations live in relative security. Women can go and fetch wood outside camps and return without being attacked like before," says UNAMID commander in West Darfur, General Balla Keita of Senegal, alluding to the widespread reports of rape by marauding militiamen in previous years.
But Keita warned that maintenance of the security improvements was heavily dependent on the continued provision of relief supplies, which has been imperilled by the expulsion of 13 foreign aid groups by the Khartoum government in March.
If the humanitarian situation worsens in coming months "perhaps the security situation will do the same," he said.