Part 2 in Foreign Policy’s exclusive investigation of the U.N.'s peacekeeping debacle in Darfur.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
Last April, in the dead of night, five men dressed in Sudanese military uniforms and armed with AK-47 rifles swaggered up to the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping outpost in the East Darfur town of Muhajeria and shot open the front gate’s padlock.
As they entered the darkened compound, the intruders opened fire, unloading several rounds through the wall of the base’s military briefing room, spilling a handful of hot spent cartridges on the ground as they advanced. A lone Nigerian peacekeeper standing sentry at the compound’s entrance returned fired as a second Nigerian soldier entered the fray, scuffling with one of the assailants in an attempt to wrestle him to the ground. The attackers finally retreated as reinforcements in an armored personnel vehicle rolled toward the compound, ending the firefight before anyone got seriously hurt.
But the night was just getting started. One of the armed intruders shouted out a chilling threat as he walked through the facility, which was operated by an underfunded force called the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID). “UNAMID was observing while our people were getting killed — now we will kill you,” he said, according to one of multiple confidential accounts of the incident obtained by Foreign Policy.
The infiltrators were apparently on a scouting mission, seeking to relay intelligence back to their colleagues about the layout of the compound. “It seems that the troops came to test the waters in a bid to observe the strength and alertness of our troops, as an advance for an impending assault,” UNAMID’s sector commander warned the Nigerian officer in command of the Muhajeria compound. He was right.
About four hours later, at 1 a.m., a larger contingent of Sudanese troops and pro-government militiamen, armed with Browning machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles, mounted a full-scale attack on the compound, killing one Nigerian peacekeeper and wounding three others. When the sun rose, one Sudanese soldier was also lying dead outside the compound.
On April 17, one day before the initial attack by the five men on UNAMID’s compound, hundreds of Sudanese troops in armored tanks and gun trucks had rumbled into Muhajeria, retaking the town from a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) led by Minni Minnawi, a powerful Darfuri rebel leader from the dominant ethnic Zaghawa tribe. One of the assailants who attacked the compound the following day expressed outrage that peacekeepers from UNAMID hadn’t come to the Sudanese military’s aid during an earlier gun battle with the SLA that had left several Sudanese soldiers dead. That comment led several U.N. officials to later conclude that the attackers were members of the Sudanese military.
From the U.N. police report and other internal reviews, it looked like an open-and-shut case of Sudanese government complicity. As the firefight unfolded, Sudanese officials had refused to respond to UNAMID’s calls for help, dismissing the attack as a squabble between local tribes, wrote Landing Badjie, a Gambian peacekeeper, in an internal UNAMID report. “I called the [Sudanese government] security chiefs [and told them] I will hold them accountable for allowing such incident to take place right under their nose,” Badjie wrote.
Multiple witnesses, including an Egyptian peacekeeper, confirmed the assailants wore government uniforms. The following morning, Lt. Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Abdallah, a Sudanese officer, arrived at the compound with uniformed soldiers and demanded that the U.N. compensate the family of the Sudanese soldier who was killed during the firefight. “He insisted that UNAMID should immediately pay blood money to the family of the dead soldier,” a U.N. policeman wrote in an April 19 report. “Moreover, he threatened that if UNAMID failed to pay they will vacate the area or something terrible will happen to them.”
But UNAMID’s top brass was reluctant to blame the government. Following a pattern that marked the U.N.’s long-standing response to suspected attacks on its own peacekeepers, U.N. headquarters never pointed its finger at the Sudanese government, instead issuing a noncommittal statement that scrubbed any reference to possible Sudanese complicity. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement blamed “unidentified armed assailants,” the standard moniker used in a long list of unsolved attacks and ambushes on U.N. personnel over the years. The only detailed public reference to the case is contained in a report by an independent U.N. Security Council panel, which characterized Sudanese government involvement in the attack as “highly probable.” The report, which states that the attack likely involved members of a government-trained militia, noted that Sudanese authorities have never even launched an investigation into the incident.
THE DEADLIEST PLACE ON EARTH
The U.N. Security Council established UNAMID in the summer of 2007 to stanch the violence that has made Darfur one of the world’s bloodiest killing fields of this century. The mission — which formally began its work in January 2008 — replaced the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), which had been plagued by a lack of resources.
At the time, UNAMID was the world’s largest and costliest peacekeeping mission. Its planners hoped that the mission’s sheer size would send a message to armed elements that it was too dangerous to challenge. But the mission — which is currently composed of about 20,000 mostly African peacekeepers — has been on the defensive since its birth and has struggled to protect its own soldiers, let alone Darfuri civilians.
The fate of the mission also has important foreign-policy implications for the United States, which played a critical role in creating the force and covers more than 27 percent of its $1.3 billion annual budget. Washington has long pointed to the peacekeeping force as evidence of its commitment to addressing the suffering of Darfuris. A collapse of the peacekeeping force would ratchet up pressure on the United States, which is unwilling to send its own troops into the country, to do more to stop the killing, potentially through the use of air power or CIA operatives.
When the UNAMID operation was launched in 2008, Darfur seemed to be emerging from the darkest years of a government-orchestrated campaign of genocide which raged between 2003 and 2005 and led to the deaths of more 200,000 civilians. The mission’s first leader, Rodolphe Adada, a politician and diplomat from the Republic of the Congo, declared in 2009 that Darfur’s war was effectively over. But the upbeat appraisal proved illusory as Darfur descended into successive rounds of violence. It also belied the grim fact that Darfur was gaining the distinction of becoming the deadliest place on Earth for a U.N. blue helmet.
During the past year, unidentified fighters carried out major strikes against UNAMID troops, killing seven Tanzanian peacekeepers last July in an ambush on a road west of Khor Abeche and three Senegalese peacekeepers last October outside Geneina. Neither case has been solved.
As of Feb. 28, 2014, a total of 191 U.N. peacekeepers have died in Darfur since January 2008, when the U.N. and African Union jointly took charge of the operation in Darfur. Only a handful of U.N. operations since the 1960s — including the original Congo operation (249) and those in Lebanon (303), the former Yugoslavia (213), and Sierra Leone (192) — have exacted a higher toll.
Sixty-two of those 191 deaths were a result of violent attacks, including ambushes, carjackings, and robberies. Sudan’s special prosecutor for Darfur has opened numerous investigations, but as of today, not a single person has been held accountable for killing a UNAMID peacekeeper.
“Peacekeepers are killed every other day, and no investigation seems to go forward. The government promises to go deep and investigate and prosecute, but we don’t see anything coming out,” Olivier Nduhungirehe, a senior Rwandan diplomat, told Foreign Policy. Briefings by Ban and other senior officials provide few clues. “We are never briefed about anyone who was held accountable,” Nduhungirehe said.
While suspicion has primarily focused on Sudanese-backed forces, the African peacekeepers have also faced attacks by bandits and rebel forces who stole UNAMID vehicles, communications equipment, and other gear. In fact, the sole international prosecution for attacks against peacekeepers targeted a rebel group, not Sudanese government troops. In 2007, the International Criminal Court prosecutor launched an investigation into allegations that Sudanese rebels had killed 12 Nigerian peacekeepers in the town of Haskanita. One Darfuri rebel is set to face trial in The Hague later this year.
On Dec. 20, 2012, a delegation from the SLA faction headed by Minnawi paid a visit to the UNAMID outpost in Khor Abeche, where the delegation acknowledged that the faction had occasionally fired on UNAMID troops, saying these incidents were accidents. “They admitted that sometimes they open fire on UNAMID — mistaking them for [Sudanese government] convoys,” according to the report. “They also accused UNAMID of not sending enough reports of the facts and happenings in Darfur (such as burning of villages and murder cases) to higher authorities.” UNAMID, they noted, “was supposed to be a neutral body.”
Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, recently voiced frustration at Sudan’s failure to adequately investigate crimes against peacekeepers, and she prodded the U.N. and African Union to share their own internal investigations with her office. “Attacks on peacekeepers appear to have become the norm with a record number of 57 killings,” Bensouda told the U.N. Security Council in December, noting that attacks against peacekeepers are a crime under the Rome Statute, which established the court. “Sadly, not enough seems to have been done to identify those responsible, despite the repeated insistence of the United Nations and the African Union that the government of Sudan must duly investigate.”
A MISSION BORN UNDER THE WRONG STAR
Assaults on UNAMID peacekeepers date back to the mission’s earliest days. Sudanese government forces, as well as their proxies, are suspected of carrying out several of these attacks, according to internal UNAMID documents. But the U.N. has been reluctant to disclose its suspicions, presumably out of fear that Sudanese forces would react even more violently or that Sudan would expel the peacekeepers from the country, a move that would expose Darfur’s civilians to even greater peril and mark the utter failure of the international peace strategy in Darfur. Instead, UNAMID has routinely said it is simply impossible to know with any certainty who was behind any of the attacks.
On Jan. 7, 2008, a week after the U.N. and African Union assumed joint control over the mission, elements of the Sudanese armed forces opened fire on a UNAMID resupply convoy near the town of Tine in North Darfur state. Sudan’s U.N. envoy denied it at the time, but the Sudanese commander admitted his troops had fired on peacekeepers, though he claimed it was an accident.
From there, the attacks only escalated.
On July 8, 2008, a group of 200 fighters on horseback, reinforced by more than 40 vehicles mounted with machine guns, carried out a deliberate and well-organized attack on a smaller UNAMID convoy, killing seven peacekeepers, most of them Rwandan, and wounding 22 others, according to a confidential briefing to the U.N. Security Council by the U.N.’s then outgoing peacekeeping chief, Jean-Marie Guéhenno.
In his briefing — a copy of which I reviewed at the time for the Washington Post — Guehénno strongly hinted that Sudanese government troops participated in the attack. The ambush, which targeted the convoy’s communications, occurred on Sudanese government territory and involved the use of powerful weapons not previously used by Sudanese rebel groups.
It was the closest a top U.N. official had come to blaming the Sudanese government for killing U.N. blue helmets.
“I was never a fan of that mission,” Guéhenno recalled in a recent interview. “It was not born under the right star.”
Guéhenno said that the Rwandan force commander “believed” the Sudanese government was behind the attack. “The commander had a tough call to make,” he said. “The government, of course, had infinitely superior firepower, and it could have been suicidal to retaliate. It was the first of many where the weakness of UNAMID was tested. I think the mission has never recovered.”
Guéhenno said the refusal to engage the attackers reflected a deeper flaw with the mission. While the Sudanese government had been forced to accept the peacekeepers, it had never committed to seeing the mission succeed.
Khartoum blocked U.N. efforts to deploy advanced military contingents, including better-trained and better-equipped Norwegian soldiers and Nepalese Gurkhas, insisting that only peacekeepers from friendly African governments that wouldn’t challenge the Sudanese government could serve.
“It wanted the mission to be as weak as possible,” he said. “[Sudanese President Omar] Bashir never accepted the notion of losing any control in Darfur. He could not prevent the deployment of peacekeepers, but he had to make sure the mission would not have any decisive influence on the situation.”
SUDAN’S STEALTH WAR OF INTIMIDATION
Darfur’s violence roared back to life in 2012, when several Darfuri rebel factions, backed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, established the Sudan Revolutionary Front, inflicting heavy losses on government forces and putting the government on the defensive. According to U.N. analysis, 362 Sudanese troops died in 2012, up from 160 the previous year.
Sudan has responded with a counterinsurgency campaign that bears many of the hallmarks of earlier operations — aerial bombardment of villages combined with a ground assault by Sudanese forces and Arab militias.
“The last quarter of 2012 saw [Sudanese] forces losing out in almost all the land encounters they had with the [Sudan Revolutionary Front] and this is weighing heavily [on] the morale of the troops,” reads a Jan. 13, 2013, memo drafted by the Joint Mission Analysis Center, which provides mission analysis to UNAMID’s top brass. “This has made [Sudanese] forces [retaliate through] the use of its air power.” In the rebel stronghold of Jebel Marra, indiscriminate air bombardment raids have caused “widespread collateral damages and large scale displacement,” according to the report.
Khartoum has effectively blocked UNAMID from investigating reports of abuses carried out in the course of the conflict by blocking access to the scene of fighting or, in some cases, threatening UNAMID peacekeepers. Peacekeeper deaths, meanwhile, have crept steadily higher. The death toll from violent attacks has increased from five in 2010 and nine in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and 16 in 2013.
In one recent example, UNAMID peacekeepers came under fire on Oct. 25, 2012, while on patrol near the town of Abu Delek, the scene of fighting between government forces and rebels from the Sudan Revolutionary Front. At the time of the attack, UNAMID was trying to assess the impact of the fighting — which led to heavy losses on the government side — on civilians.
As the UNAMID convoy neared the village, warning shots rang out. Minutes later, two Sudanese military Land Cruisers mounted with 12.7 mm machine guns bypassed the patrol team and disappeared without saying a word. Shortly after they left, the mission came under fire from surrounding hills. “The gunfire is suspected to have come from the [Sudanese] military, who did not want the team to proceed further for fear of interaction with the locals,” noted an internal U.N. police report.
But the U.N. leadership has routinely withheld information linking Khartoum to threats — let alone violence — against UNAMID personnel.
In the case of Abu Delek, any suspicion of Sudanese government complicity was scrubbed from the account that UNAMID relayed to headquarters in New York. Ban’s report to the Security Council on the incident made no mention of the peacekeepers’ suspicions that Sudan’s forces shot at them. It simply noted that the UNAMID team had “encountered gunfire by unidentified assailants in the surrounding area. Unable to assess the security situation ahead, the patrol was aborted.”
The United Nations has also never publicly acknowledged that the Sudanese Air Force threatened in September 2012 to bomb a U.N. convoy transporting a U.N. investigator probing reports of government airstrikes against a village in Kushina district. Shortly after the convoy headed out, UNAMID’s military headquarters radioed the convoy commander, warning that Sudan had threatened to bomb the convoy unless it stopped immediately.
As the convoy awaited further instructions, two Sudanese attack helicopters swooped over the convoy at low altitude, a violation of a U.N. Security Council ban on offensive flights in Darfur. In this case, the U.N. did protest the flights. But it scrubbed any reference to internal reports claiming that the Sudanese government had threatened to attack the convoy.
In October 2012, UNAMID received reports that the Sudanese Air Force had bombarded the rebel-controlled town of Hashaba during a clash with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, killing 70 to 100 civilians. Arab militias aligned with the government reportedly looted the town and carried out atrocities against local civilians suspected of supporting the rebels.
Sudan’s government initially blocked UNAMID from conducting a fact-finding mission to Hashaba, saying it was too dangerous. The government relented after UNAMID’s acting force commander, Tanzanian Maj. Gen. Wynjones Matthew Kisamba, a stout 61-year-old officer, arrived in the area to personally lead the investigation. But shortly after departing for Hashaba, the team was blocked by members of an Arab militia, forcing the blue helmets to travel along an alternate route that traversed a parched, low-lying river bed. They were ambushed by unidentified assailants perched on high ground and armed with heavy weapons — including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and 12.7 mm high-caliber rifles — not previously used by Darfur’s militias. UNAMID officials said that only the Sudanese army had been known to be using such heavy weapons.
“It is likely that the attack was perpetrated by the Arab Militias probably with the support of [the Sudanese] military as the militia until then had not employed 12.7 mm caliber weapons or mortars in their operations,” noted an internal UNAMID report. “It is pertinent to mention that earlier attempts by UNAMID to access Hashaba was consistently refused by [Sudanese] authorities with the excuse that the area was not safe due to the presence of uncontrolled armed factions.”
EYES WIDE SHUT
Perhaps the most perplexing question surrounding Sudan’s alleged role in attacks is why the United Nations, the African Union, and the U.N. Security Council have responded so feebly.
Attacks on U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers constitute an international crime, prosecutable by the International Criminal Court. But no credible prosecutions have been carried out against the Sudanese government for alleged crimes against UNAMID peacekeepers. And neither the U.N. Secretariat nor the U.N. Security Council has asked The Hague-based prosecutor to investigate.
The U.N. and African Union leadership — perhaps fearful that accusing Sudan of wrongdoing could provoke an even more violent response or get them thrown out of the country — have downplayed the significance of evidence suggesting government responsibility for such attacks. And UNAMID-sanitized public statements on such incidents rarely assign responsibility. “The Sudanese government has found an effective form of deterrence; if you accuse Khartoum of complicity in these attacks it may well respond with a larger scale of attacks,” says Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Whatever their motivation, UNAMID bureaucrats have exercised a kind of self-censorship when it comes to confronting possible Sudanese government responsibility for attacks. In the case of Muhajeria, a series of internal email exchanges sheds light on how the U.N. bureaucracy came to scrub Sudan’s role from its public statements on the incident.
The morning after the attack, UNAMID’s chief of staff, Karen Tchalian, moved quickly to make sure that as few people as possible knew about the attack. Tchalian advised the head of mission not to include any references to the Sudanese military in the public statements, even while harboring suspicions that the Sudanese government had concocted a cover story — that the peacekeepers in Muhajeria had been caught up in intertribal fighting — to conceal its own role. “At this point we need to release a one-two sentence initial, holding (feed the beast) statement describing two things: the attack on the TS [team site] and our losses,” Tchalian wrote. “A few days later, when we have clarified the picture to our satisfaction (something that in this moment’s fog-of-war situation has not yet been done) we can issue a fuller report. Let’s not jump the gun. It’s too early to let it all hang out.”
A U.N. spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri, made the case for disclosing more details, arguing that UNAMID had an obligation to do so and that its reputation could be damaged by withholding critical details. She appealed for backup from UNAMID’s communications director, Michael Meyer, a former Newsweek correspondent who had previously served as Ban’s communications chief. Meyer had experienced his own difficulties with the Sudanese government, which had declined to grant him a visa to work in Darfur, forcing him to operate out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Meyer agreed with Tchalian that it was wiser to limit the disclosure of critical details from the incident, saying, “I would beware of publicly describing the people who broke into the base as wearing GoS [government of Sudan] uniforms. Anyone can secure those, bona fide or not.”
At the same time, Meyer was mindful of the political ramifications, conceding Elbasri had a point. “Aicha is right as well: word of the initial [report] WILL leak. If we do not deal with it straightforwardly, it will once again appear as though we are covering up. Not good for our credibility.”