The African Union's peacekeeping mission in Sudan is one of the organization's largest and most ambitious, with 3,300 troops to be deployed in western Sudan. Still, the mission has been widely criticized for its too-small force and its too-limited mandate. Raymond Thibodeaux accompanied AU monitors on one of their missions to see first-hand the difficulties they face, trying to keep Sudan's fragile peace.
After an hour-long helicopter flight from Al Fasher, passing over dozens of villages, more than half of them abandoned, many of them destroyed, the wheels touch down at the African Union's Sector Four base in Kabkabiyah, in one of the most volatile regions of Darfur.
Sector Four extends from Al Fasher and opens out almost to the Chadian border. It includes Mistiria, the heartland of the Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, that have carried out a 21-month campaign of terror, killing as many as 70,000 people and uprooting nearly two million people from their villages and farms.
Sector Four also covers the rugged Jebel Mara Mountains, headquarters of Darfur's largest rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army. At least two Sudanese army battalions and a reconnaissance brigade are stationed within Sector Four.
Team Golf is one of two African Union monitoring teams operating from here; roaming the region's vast desert in their Land Cruisers, investigating reports of cease-fire violations and, when possible, keeping up with troop movements.
Each Team Golf mission includes up to six AU monitors from various African nations and a liaison officer from the United States or Europe, plus representatives from the Darfur conflict's three factions: the SLA, the Justice and Equality Movement rebel group and the Sudanese military. The monitors are protected by a team of eight Rwandan soldiers -- sharpshooters, mainly -- who follow in a flatbed truck at the back of the three-vehicle convoy.
On this morning's mission, Team Golf plans to visit Khara Al Zawiyah, an Arab village about 35 kilometers northwest of Kabkabiyah, to see if there has been trouble in recent days.
Less than a half hour after starting out, the JEM representative, a 25-year-old soldier named Ibrahim Hassan, spots something moving slowly on the horizon of bushes and sand. He alerts the driver, US Army Major Patrick Christian, a liaison to the AU mission in Sudan. He is from Portland, Oregon.
"Stop them. We have to stop them," Mr. Hassan says, but no one else sees anything.
The AU monitors the approach a group of men riding camels, 18 in all. Some are wearing green uniforms, some are not.
Before the AU monitors even step from their vehicles to talk to the men, the Rwandan soldiers have already fanned out into a circle around the entire scene, watching for an ambush.
The men remain on their camels, with whips hanging from their saddles, as the monitors ask them questions. The two rebel representatives suspect they are Janjaweed fighters.
English is Team Golf's one common language, and so an AU-appointed translator works more like a bilingual stenographer, trying to handle the sometimes-confusing barrage of questions and answers in both English and Arabic.
He's asking them, "You said you are policemen and you are going on a mission, you are supposed to dress [in] you're official [clothes] so that we could know you. And, now they are telling them, 'We cannot put [them on] because it is very hot and they can wear it when they reach [Kutum].'
One of the AU monitors, an Egyptian, asks for police identification cards from the group's leader, Abdullah Mohammed Rahman, and at least two others in the group. The Sudanese representative senses Mr. Rahman's hesitation and explains to him that this is the African Union, which Abdullah says he has never heard of.
AU MONITOR: "Do you have your ID card?"
TRANSLATOR: "It was given. He says they have not registered."
AU MONITOR: "I need ID cards from two or three of them."
TRANSLATOR: "He's asking them about the African Union and they say they have never heard about it."
The SLA's Mursal still wants to know if all of them are policemen. He points to a boy on one camel with a knife tied to his left arm. The boy looks to be no more than 12 or 13 years old.
"The question was that whether all of them are now registered policemen," said the translator. "And, he is saying, no they are not all registered policemen. But some of them who are going with them now on this trip are going to be registered. This mission is actually to register them at Kutum."
The SLA representative, Abdullah Musa Mursal, asks them if they are carrying guns. They say no. The JEM representative, Officer Hassan, wants the AU monitors to check their bags for weapons, anyway. The Sudanese Army representative, Lieutenant Colonel Abu Asala, is visibly agitated by officer Hassan's request. Team Golf's leader, Major Jose Manhoco from Mozambique, says it is not in their mandate to check them for weapons. And, if even they had weapons, he says there is nothing the AU monitors can do about it.
The AU monitors explain their mission to the men on camels, thank them for their patience and send them on their way. But, according to the monitors, the encounter reveals what many international observers have suspected, that instead of abiding by a United Nations mandate to disarm and disband Arab militias, which include Janjaweed fighters, Sudan's government is still recruiting them into police and civil defense forces.
Major Christian, the American liaison, explains the significance of the encounter.
"They admitted that they were existing and new recruits for the police version of the Popular Defense Force," he noted. "And, even our government minder admitted that. So, with the mandate and the agreement signed in Abuja [peace accord] that they would downsize the defense force and disarm that defense force, now you're seeing at least evidence that they're still upsizing and still training the Popular Defense Force."
The JEM, SLA, and Sudanese Army representatives usually disagree on places to visit. For this particular trip, the SLA representative pushed unsuccessfully for the monitors to see Shoba, a village where Sudanese authorities reportedly removed more than 60 bodies from a mass grave of mostly civilians killed during an Arab militia attack there two months ago.
Not long ago, after an AU security briefing about troop movements and areas of recent conflict, Lieutenant Colonel Asala was caught phoning in rebel positions to his commanders. The incident earned him a serious reprimand from Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo of Nigeria, head of the AU's mission in Sudan.
AU monitors have been ambushed on at least two occasions. Most recently, an SLA commander and his four bodyguards were killed in an ambush by uniformed Janjaweed fighters, after being escorted by AU monitors to Zalingei, to negotiate the release of 18 Arabs kidnapped by SLA rebels.
Responding to pressure from the international community and the African Union, Sudan's government reluctantly agreed to allow the AU to increase the number of its troops in Darfur. Still, the purpose of the AU mission in Sudan is monitoring, not peacekeeping.
As the conflict in Darfur showed signs of escalating in recent weeks, many analysts expect the AU to beef up its mandate, possibly to include more AU troops and a go-ahead to protect those displaced by the fighting and aid workers. However, analysts say the likelihood of an AU mandate to pursue and disarm combatants in Darfur's conflict is remote.