Last August, the U.N. Security Council approved unanimously a resolution to send more than 20,000 peacekeepers to Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. Resolution 1706 stirred up a storm of controversy among Sudanese leaders who accused the United Nations of attempting to colonize Sudan and suggested an international presence in Darfur would attract terrorists to the region. For VOA, Noel King is in Shingil Tobaya in northern Darfur and reports that the lack of U.N. peacekeepers is continuing to destabilize the region.
Asmaa Abdallah Musa remembers well the day she fled her village in the Hafara mountains of north Darfur. Two years ago her village came under attack by Arab militias known as Janjaweed, who are believed to have the backing of the Sudanese government.
She spoke to VOA from a camp for the displaced in Shingil Tobaya, north Darfur.
"My mother was there with my sister, who was 15-years-old," she said. "The Janjaweed tried to abduct my young sister. I do not know what their intentions were. My mother refused to let them have her, she said. So the Janjaweed shot both of them dead."
The horror of Asmaa's story is striking. Even more striking is that there are 2.5 million other Darfuris like Asmaa who have survived the onslaught of Arab militias and Sudan government bombings and fled to camps for the displaced.
Now, after surviving four years of war, many of Darfur's displaced say they live in constant fear.
Rape, abduction and murder continue to this day, despite the presence of the 7,000 member African Union protection force, charged with monitoring the region.
The underfunded force, once hailed as the savior of Darfur, is clearly demoralized.
Dozens of A.U. peacekeepers told VOA they had not been paid since November and many are counting the days until they return home.
Critics charge that the A.U. force has failed to protect civilians. But the A.U. mandate only allows it to act in self-defense.
The international community had hoped that a well-funded U.N. force of at least 10,000 peacekeepers would bolster the struggling A.U. contingent.
But Sudan has called U.N. entry a western attempt to "recolonize" the nation.
Late last year, under intense international pressure, Sudan agreed to allow the United Nations to provide logistical and technical support to the African Union. But Sudan has refused to let the size of the force be notably increased.
A.U. force commander Luke Aprezi spoke to VOA about the limitations.
"We have about one soldier looking after an area of two square kilometers," he noted. "When you are doing peacekeeping you are supposed to dominate on the ground. It is just not possible."
Aprezi said he appreciated that Sudan had agreed to allow U.N. technical support.
"We are talking of over 100 IDP camps. Every day if you have to provide protection for these IDP camps - the force itself cannot do that," he said. "You are talking of providing 24-hour protection for IDP camps, you are talking of leading people to go get firewood, you are talking of escorting people to get grass for their animals. The force cannot do that. It is just not possible."
But it is clear that the undermanned A.U. force cannot properly operate in Darfur's vast, remote terrain.
The displaced in Darfur charge that the force is not helping them at all.
A community leader in Shingil Tobaya, Omda Haroun Bashir Mohammed, spoke to VOA with a government official present for the interview.
"We do not have any objection to the presence of the U.N. in Sudan," he said. "Sudan is a member of the African Union. We consider the African Union and the United Nations one family. But in our area the African Union is not capable of doing their jobs. Anybody who is capable of maintaining security in Darfur is welcome."
Darfur has always been a conflict characterized by complexity. But across the region there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on: instability in Darfur will continue until a large force with a robust mandate is allowed into the region.
Sudanese officials have wavered back and forth in recent months, at times indicating Sudan will allow the United Nations to bolster the A.U. mission. But Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir invariably insists the scale of the Darfur conflict has been exaggerated.
Observers disagree with Mr. Bashir. The scale of devastation in Darfur, they say, needs little exaggeration.