‘They Just Stood Watching’

After the Darfur genocide, the United Nations sent in 20,000 peacekeepers with a single mission -- to protect the region's civilians. A Foreign Policy investigation details why they failed, and what the U.N. knew about it.


At 6:20 p.m. on March 24, 2013, a convoy of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers escorting three buses of displaced residents of Darfur to a peace conference was stopped by a group of uniformed men in a pair of Toyota Land Cruisers.

At 6:20 p.m. on March 24, 2013, a convoy of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers escorting three buses of displaced residents of Darfur to a peace conference was stopped by a group of uniformed men in a pair of Toyota Land Cruisers.

Mistaking the heavily armed men for government soldiers, the convoy commander, Lt. Paulinus Ifeanyi Nnadi, stepped out of his armored vehicle to talk them into allowing the vehicles through. As he walked toward the SUVs, five gun trucks filled with armed rebel fighters opposed to the talks roared out of the bush.

The rebels boarded the buses and ordered the drivers to follow them away from the main road. The captives were driven to a rebel stronghold where insurgents opposed to the peace talks stole their cell phones, bags, clothes, watches, and cash. They were then separated into groups of men and women and put into small cells where, according to several victims, they were beaten. Six days later, the rebels released their captives to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Nnadi, the peacekeeper’s commander, later told U.N. investigators that his forces had attempted to prevent the abductors from heading off with the civilians. The victims and bus drivers, though, said they were handed over without a fight. Several said they even saw the U.N. soldiers flashing “thumbs up” signs to the kidnappers as the buses drove off. The U.N. personnel peacekeepers, one of the bus drivers told investigators, “did nothing.”

“[The peacekeepers] made no visible effort to prevent the abduction of IDP [internally displaced persons] conference participants from the convoy,” an unreleased assessment by other U.N. personnel later concluded. “They just stood watching as the gunmen drove away the buses carrying the IDPs.”

The mass March 24 kidnapping — the details of which have never been publicly disclosed by the U.N. — marked a humiliating setback for troops from the African Union/United Nations hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID), a beleaguered, U.N.-funded force that was established specifically to protect Darfur’s citizens from a renewal of the genocide that had raged in the region years earlier, leaving more than 200,000 dead. The peacekeepers, though, have been bullied by government security forces and rebels, stymied by American and Western neglect, and left without the weapons necessary to fight in a region where more peacekeepers have been killed than in any other U.N. mission in the world. The violence that once consumed Darfur, meanwhile, has returned with a vengeance, resulting in civilian casualties and the large-scale flight of terrified men, women, and children.

Drawing on a massive trove of highly confidential UNAMID documents — including thousands of pages of emails, police reports, internal investigations and diplomatic cables — Foreign Policywill over the next three days publish a series of articles that shed light on how Darfur’s combatants, particularly the Sudanese government, have effectively neutered the U.N. peacekeeping mission, undermining its capacity to fulfill its primary duty to protect nearly 2 million civilians displaced by Sudan’s genocide. During the past year alone, more than 500,000 terrified men, women, and children have poured into the region’s already overcrowded refugee camps.

The mission’s former spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri, provided FP with the documents to draw attention to what she sees as UNAMID’s failings and unwillingness to call out Khartoum for what she views as its deliberate targeting of Darfur’s civilians and UNAMID peacekeepers.The documents — which track the period from 2012 through the end of 2013 — constitute perhaps the largest single leak of internal documents on an active U.N. mission in the world body’s history.

“It is fair to say that UNAMID peacekeepers largely failed to protect Darfur civilians, and their presence didn’t deter either the government or the rebels from attacking the civilians,” Elbasri, a dual U.S.-Moroccan citizen, wrote last May in an end of mission report weeks after she resigned from the mission in protest. “They sometimes helplessly witnessed the attacks and harassment of civilians, some of which took place near UNAMID team sites.”

U.N. officials concede that the Darfur operation is deeply flawed. The mission, which is administered jointly by the U.N. and the African Union (A.U.), has been hobbled since its birth by a range of disabilities: conflicting visions of its role between U.N. headquarters and African leaders; a lack of cooperation by the Sudanese government; poor leadership; and badly-equipped troops that lacked the helicopters, trucks, and other military hardware needed to patrol a region as vast as France.

“[UNAMID’s] effectiveness is seriously constrained by access restrictions and, in case of the uniformed components, mobility constraints and shortfalls in the operational capabilities of several troop and police contingents,” according to a strategic review produced in February by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In a statement to FP, the U.N.’s top peacekeeping official, a former French diplomat named Hervé Ladsous, said that it was “no secret that the relationship with the government has always been challenging.”

“In every mission there is a tension between the necessity to preserve the consent and good will of the host government required to allow our peacekeepers to do their jobs and the sometimes contradictory imperative to report accurately and candidly on any and all incidents of violence,” he wrote. “Bad relations with any host government can make it impossible for a mission to operate — to move around the country, to have their equipment cleared by national customs, to deploy new personnel.”

Some officials say the mission’s failings are beyond repair, but that the political leadership in African capitals and on the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to shut it down while violence is surging in Darfur. “That would require them to do something about it,” one U.N.-based diplomat said.

Others say that UNAMID — despite its failures and limitations — is vital to the well-being of Darfur’s most vulnerable civilians. “The problems of Sudan can’t be solved by a U.N. peacekeeping mission,” Princeton Lyman, President Barack Obama’s former special envoy to Sudan, said in an interview. “But if you withdraw UNAMID, I would fear for the people in the [refugee] camps. They would have no protection at all; and it’s not even clear they would be fed.”




A decade ago, Darfur was at the heart of one of the world’s bloodiest ethnic cleansing campaigns. Between 2003 and 2005, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir orchestrated a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the region’s key rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement. Sudanese bombers bombed suspected rebel positions from the air, while fighters from an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed stormed through local villages on horses and camels, burning homes and killing men, women, and children. Members of Darfur’s ethnic Fur and Zaghawa tribes took the brunt of the violence because they were suspected of supporting the rebels.

The slaughter drew widespread international attention, with movie stars such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow using their personal celebrity to raise awareness about the obscure region and apply pressure on governments to deploy peacekeepers in Darfur.

UNAMID was supposed to end the killing. For a while, U.N. and A.U. officials claimed that the peacekeeping army’s 20,000 troops were doing just that. Just before leaving his post, Rodolphe Adada, a Congolese politician and diplomat who ran the mission from May 2007 to late 2009, said Darfur’s darkest years of mass killing were effectively over.

“We can no longer talk of big conflict, of a war in Darfur,” he told the Associated Press in September 2009. “I think everyone understands it. We can no longer speak of this issue. It is over.”

Adada’s optimism was badly misplaced. The current violence hasn’t approached the levels of violence seen during the genocide, but peace remains elusive. The Janjaweed — that iconic symbol of Darfur’s darkest days — have never disappeared. They have simply been given uniforms and integrated into government auxiliary forces, including the Border Guards, the Central Reserve Forces, and the Popular Defense Forces.

The nature of the conflict, meanwhile, has grown increasingly complex as Darfur’s fractious rebel groups formed a coalition, including fighters from outside Darfur, to topple the government. The Sudanese government, facing severe financial constraints, has been unable to meet its payments to the Arab militias, testing its proxies’ loyalty and prompting them to fight other tribes for control over Darfur’s limited natural resources, including farmland and gold mining concessions. Last year alone, there were six major outbreaks of fighting over natural resources. In some cases, the Sudanese government fought alongside the militias, and in others they turned against one another.

But the gravest threat to Darfur’s civilians remains largely the same as it was a decade ago: a government-backed offensive, supported by the Janjaweed, that has used a combination of air power and ground attacks to depopulate large swaths of Darfur, swelling the ranks of the region’s displaced from about 1.2 million people late last year to nearly 1.7 million in 2014.

While UNAMID has helped provide some measure of support to the displaced, it hasn’t been able to fully protect them. In one poignant expression of local frustration with the peacekeepers, victims of a November 2012 massacre by a government-backed militia in the town of Sigili delivered the corpses of 10 civilians, wrapped in white cloth, to UNAMID’s headquarters in the nearby town of El Fasher to protest its failure to act. When UNAMID visited the town of Sigili the following day they were greeted by an angry mob that blocked their movement with burning tires and pelted their vehicles with stones, according to an internal UNAMID document.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, a Ghanaian diplomat who took over the mission in early 2013, conceded that UNAMID has struggled to protect civilians. But he said in an interview that the presence of armed peacekeepers near Darfur’s largest camps for the displaced has nevertheless deterred attacks. When violence strikes, Chambas said, Darfuris turn to UNAMID for protection. “When the population living in villages outside of the IDP camps are threatened where do they run to? To UNAMID team sites,” he said. “There have been problems but one cannot speak of systematic intrusions [by armed groups] into the IDP camps to harm the people. In that regard we are fulfilling our mandate.”




Few outside observers share Chambas’s confidence in the mission, and the documents make clear that many U.N. officials on the ground are just as critical of UNAMID’s capabilities. The failure of the peacekeepers to protect civilians can be attributed to multiple factors. Internal UNAMID documents say that troop-contributing countries supplied their blue helmets with broken vehicles and low-grade weaponry, while more powerful foreign powers declined multiple U.N. appeals to give the peacekeepers helicopter gunships to reinforce the mostly African infantry battalions. U.N. headquarters in New York, according to the documents, has also routinely rebuffed UNAMID commanders’ requests that underperforming peacekeeping contingents, or those that decline to carry out direct orders, be sent home and replaced by other troops. Sudan’s government forces and militias, meanwhile, have tormented the blue helmets, hampering their effectiveness.

On Sept. 25, 2012, for instance, a Sudanese warplane bombed a series of rebel targets in the remote town of Hashaba, where the military had been battling insurgents for control of a gold mining camp. The strikes killed 70 to 100 civilians, according to internal U.N. estimates. Fighters from a pro-government Arab militia followed with a ground attack on local villages that killed several civilians and led to the mass rape of others, according to a preliminary investigation into the incident by UNAMID.

After news of the attack spread, Sudanese military intelligence personnel allowed a UNAMID patrol to visit the area on Oct. 3. Rebel commanders there showed the peacekeepers three decomposed bodies, a series of plots they contended contained 16 graves (the rest of the dead, they said, had been taken away and buried by their families), and a single “crater which could have been the result of an aerial strike,” according to an internal UNAMID report. But top UNAMID officials determined that they needed to send a larger team of security personnel and civilian specialists to conduct a more thorough assessment of what had happened.

“There are a great many rumors and allegations concerning the facts of the Hashaba incident as well as considerable conjecture as to the motives of the sides involved,” reads the report. “That there was an assault by armed Arab groups on the town and outlying gold fields during which civilians died is not in doubt. It is also fairly certain that while a SAF [warplane] may have done some bombing on 25 September, SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] ground forces were not involved.”

The rebels initially urged UNAMID not to send the team, “warning that UNAMID would be responsible for any untoward consequence of an attempt to go through.” Sudanese government forces also warned UNAMID to stay out of Hashaba. On Oct. 17, a convoy of peacekeepers finally headed to the area, but they never made it.

The blue helmets were instead lured into what appeared to be a “pre-meditated” ambush by Arab fighters armed with mortars and other weaponry. The quality of the armaments led UNAMID to later conclude that Sudanese troops had taken part in the attack, according to an internal U.N. report.One South African peacekeeper was killed and three were seriously wounded. The convoy returned to Kutum. Senior U.N. officials pressed the South Africans to try again, but the local commander refused.

“Based on the security situation and sources of information, I find it extremely unbecoming let alone uncalled for to ignore the information from the reliable sources and insist that the assessment must go on. Hashaba is NOT SAFE for any UNAMID component’s visit presently,” the South African commander, Lt. Col. Thembinkosi Mashalaba, wrote in a memo to UNAMID’s military brass.

Reached by email, Mashalaba declined to comment, saying “it’s unfortunate that I really cannot discuss such matters with you over emails as the information can easily get distorted.” But internal documents indicate that UNAMID’s civilian and military leadership considered Mashalaba’s action to have constituted a “gross act of indiscipline” and recommended that he be immediately stripped of his command and sent home. There is no evidence that such steps were ever taken.




Throughout the conflict in Darfur, UNAMID has collected extensive evidence linking Sudanese authorities to serious crimes, notably its use of air power and Arab proxies in attacks on communities suspected of supporting the rebels. But much of that evidence has been withheld from public reports. Lyman, Obama’s special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from March 2011 to March 2013, said the UNAMID’s refusal to explicitly note the connection between the attacks and Khartoum had long been a source of frustration for American policymakers. “We complained quite a bit about it the human rights reporting was not as vigorous or as public as it could have been,” he said.

Sudan’s aerial bombardment campaign, which drew widespread condemnation during the early years of the Darfur conflict, was banned by the U.N. Security Council, which adopted a March 2005 resolution threatening Sudan with sanctions if it did not “immediately cease” all offensive military flights in Darfur.

But the U.N. Security Council has never enforced the ban, and the aerial bombing campaign has surged over the past two years. Sudanese warplanes carried out at least 106 bombing strikes in 2012 and 85 in 2013, up from 64 in 2006, according to a study conducted by independent experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council. In 2012, for instance, the largest spike in fatalities occurred between the months of June and September, when 134 civilians were killed during Sudanese air strikes, according to internal UNAMID figures.

Khartoum, though, has routinely barred UNAMID peacekeepers from investigating reports of civilian casualties following Sudanese bombardment campaigns. As a result, many bombing operations have gone unreported to the U.N. Security Council.

UNAMID, meanwhile, has been reluctant to cast blame on the Sudanese government — the only entity in Darfur with air power — without irrefutable firsthand proof collected by its personnel, an evidentiary standard that has been impossible to achieve. As a result, UNAMID public reporting has often minimized Sudan’s violations or withheld strong circumstantial evidence of Khartoum’s complicity in, or responsibility for, attacks in UNAMID’s reports to the U.N. Security Council.

In March 2013, a Sudanese Antonov warplane bombed a watering hole near the village of Um Agaga in northern Darfur, killing three men, one woman, and a child, according to a UNAMID report. A translator working with UNAMID witnessed the air strike. A local sheikh, meanwhile, later confirmed the attack — which also killed 280 animals — in an interview with UNAMID police. But the testimony of local observers did not meet UNAMID evidentiary standards. As a result, the incident — which constitutes a violation of U.N. ban on offensive air strikes — was never reported to the U.N. Security Council.

Ladsous, the U.N.’s chief peacekeeping official, also omitted key information collected by UNAMID peacekeepers about a suspected government role in an ethnic cleansing operation by Arab tribesmen in Jebel Amer, a gold mining center in north Darfur, in late 2012. The fighting triggered the flight of more than 30,000 civilians, mostly members of the tribe that had managed the gold mines.

“UNAMID has noted the media reports asserting that some quarters of the government support to the [Arab] militia during the hostilities, but the mission is not in possession of information that could substantiate such an allegation,” Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council on March 18, 2013, according to a March 20 cable.

But internal UNAMID reports produced before the Security Council briefing noted that two Sudanese government auxiliary forces, the Border Guards and the Central Reserve Police, provided security for the Arab militia once they seized the gold mines. The Arab fighters launched their attack using heavy weapons that were likely acquired from the Sudanese military. One report claimed that Sudanese troops and border guards participated in an attack. The Arab militia “called supporters for help, and started to attack with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades (RPG). Huge number of armed people in more than 200 military vehicles (border guards, SAF [Sudan Armed Forces]) came to Jebel Amer area and started to attack” the tribe that managed the gold mines, according to an internal report by UNAMID. “During the attack, they shot at people randomly, burnt houses, and looted private properties of the villages,” the report said.

It is unclear whether Ladsous was aware of the earlier accounts, or whether they had not been reported through the U.N. chain of command because there was insufficient evidence to prove government involvement. The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment on the discrepancy.

But U.S. and U.N. officials have frequently expressed concerns that UNAMID bureaucrats, afraid to run afoul of Khartoum, have routinely withheld key information from policymakers at U.N. headquarters in New York.

In an email exchange with Elbasri, Aichatou Mindaoudou, a top UNAMID civilian official, privately confessed that information describing attacks on civilians was being “manipulated” by a couple of unnamed U.N. staffers who had “hijacked” UNAMID’s reporting process.

“A lot of games are being played and people have a different agenda not every time in line neither with the mission’s mandate nor with the sake of Darfuris,” according to the Dec. 28 email to Elbasri, the former UNAMID spokeswoman who leaked the documents to FP. Mindaoudou did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

In an interview, Elbasri said she encountered serious shortcomings in UNAMID’s willingness to report on human rights abuses shortly after she arrived in Darfur.

On August 2012, a convoy of 150 to 180 military trucks transported Sudanese soldiers, as well as armed militiamen, toward a stronghold of the Sudan Liberation Army, raiding three villages in the area of Tawila. They torched homes, stole property, and raped women. More than 5,000 fled their homes in fear, according to an internal UNAMID report.

But the local UNAMID police based in the area had reported nothing. UNAMID subsequently dispatched a fact-finding team to area. The team’s report indicated that the raids were a reprisal for the downing of a government helicopter by Sudanese rebels. “They shot in the air and began looting of dwellings, personal belongings and, furniture, money cell phones, valued documents, etc. Persons who did not have anything to give to them were beaten with sticks or gun butts and were asked to tell them which tribe they belonged to,” according to the report.

Elbasri says that she raised concerns about UNAMID’s refusal to acknowledge the government role with one of the peacekeepers’ local commanders, Maj. Gen. Wynjones Matthew Kisamba. She still remains shaken by his answer. The UNAMID forces, she recalls Kisamba saying, had to occasionally massage the truth. “You know, sometimes we have to behave like diplomats,” he told her. “We can’t say all what we see in Darfur.”

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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