Monday, October 31, 2005

With the Darfur peace talks in recess, the SLA rebels are currently holding an internal leadership conference. Everyone is kind of hoping that the rebel leaders can finally reconcile their oversized egos in this kind of forum - but in the meantime, Darfur remains an angry, explosive mess.

The rumour mill in Nyala this morning is heavy with new arrests in Kalma camp, and everyone is bracing themselves for more unrest after last weekend's riots and hostage taking incidents.

Attacks on buses, trucks and aid convoys (particularly those trying to deliver food to the camps) are not getting any less violent - every day, there are new reports of drivers getting shot and public transport being looted. Brutal new attacks of villages like Tama (South Darfur) are confirming that the militia are still just as active as the looters and the splintered rebel factions behind the (euphemistically termed) 'banditry' incidents.

Reuters reports today that mediators have now arrived to help the SLA leaders iron out their differences. I suppose it's a start. People here are excited about the conference, and hopeful about the results it might produce. I try to share their optimism, but still, I worry that the longer the focus remains on the power struggle between a handful of falsely proud men, the longer it's going to take them to start thinking about the needs of those they claim to represent.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

It's always hard to know where to start when I try to write about Kalma camp - everything in Kalma always seems to be just a little too complicated to explain in a quick blog post.

The bottom line is, living in Kalma camp is not easy: it's overcrowded, it's tense, and it's not particularly safe (it's got the population of a mid-sized city, but no police or any other effective authority to uphold order - riots, assaults, murders and attempted lynchings are not uncommon in Kalma).

The local government authorities hate Kalma camp (they're not so keen on a huge crowd of angry armed men so close to a state capital and major airport) - as far as they're concerned, everyone would be much better off if the people of Kalma camp would just go back home. In this spirit, they have done a pretty impressive job in making people's lives even more miserable than they already are through the economic blockade of the camp, attempted relocations and more recently a stubborn refusal to cary out headcounts that would allow those who are still not registered to finally receive ration cards. (A successful headcount did take place this month, though it was preceeded by yet another failed attempt - for which the police conveniently forgot to show up.)

One of the more worrying decisions in recent weeks has been the Nyala governor's refusal to renew the contract of the Kalma camp manager, a very capable and dedicated NGO. Since the end of August, Kalma has not had a camp manager (the NGO has not even been allowed to enter the camp) - which means the displaced people have no central authority that they can approach with their concerns or grievances.

Instead, people continue to rely on their tribal leaders, the sheiks, to solve their problems. The problem with this is that not all of the sheiks really have their community's interests at heart - while some are genuinely representative and trusted by their people, many of the newly crowned kings of Kalma camps are corrupt, power hungry and overly politicised. Who - as we saw this week - won't stop short of detaining aid workers to make a point.

As usual, it's the regular residents of Kalma - particularly the women, children, elderly people and other marginalised groups - who are suffering the most. Because of the riots, two sectors of Kalma are currently without water (not surprisingly, the state water company whose staff were taken hostage have not yet returned to the camp). Tensions continue to rise, trust between all actors is eroding, and addressing the needs of those who are the most vulnerable is becoming increasingly difficult.

The international community - led by the UN agencies and the African Union who have a mandate for this sort of thing - are currently trying to negotiate some solutions and ideas for restoring order in Kalma camp. The sooner they find them the better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Just a quick post to say I am still here and have not been 'extremely kidnapped' (as some of you suggested in your mails following a news story on the BBC about this weekend's riots in Kalma camp).

In fact, I am happy to confirm that no aid workers are being 'held hostage' in Kalma anymore (most were able to return to their homes Sunday night after the riots calmed down). It seems that the IDPs are still detaining a handful of government employees from the state water company, but everyone is hoping this will also soon be resolved with the help of the African Union and the United Nations.

The most important part of the BBC news coverage, to me at least, was the statement that angry reactions and corrupt power structures are nothing unusual in Darfur's camps.

It may not be news anymore, but it's important to understand that the 2 1/2 years they have spent living inside temporary camps and cramped conditions are taking their toll on people. And while I've blogged about the breakdown of the normal social order and community structures as a result of the conflict before, I suppose it's worth pointing out that this precarious existence of not knowing when they can return to their normal lives is still a daily reality for 1.8 million men, women and children in Darfur's camps.

Will try to write more about the latest from Kalma camp - where all these issues tend to come together and violently explode - when I find some time tomorrow.

Monday, October 24, 2005

As of yesterday, I am 'extremely single' again.

I'm finding this quite amusing, particularly after I recently received a flood of emails asking why on earth I still kept the words "extremely single" listed in my profile (above right) after miraculously managing to snag myself a real-life aid worker last month. Well...let's just say that a bit of realism (or is it cynicism - I can't tell anymore) seems to come with the job.

So what happened to my aid worker? Ehhhm, he' aid worker. A hero out to save the world and carve out a place for himself in history. Busy pouring over height-weight-body mass tables at all hours of the night or rushing off for days to risk life and limb as intrepid leader of an aid convoy or humanitarian delegation or what-not. Desperate to do a good job and help people...all of which is well and good of course (not to mention extremely attractive), but seems to leave him with precious little time to add any lovely new people - aka me - to his life.

I'm can practically hear you sympathise with the man here. Ok - so he has an important job. A selfless one even. And he is doing a lot of good. So what if he doesn't call, doesn't write or doesn't notice the people trying to save the world with him?

No, you're right. No big deal I suppose - the only slight drawback being that he's going to have to spend his nights alone from now on (to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure he has noticed yet). Because eventually (and after much grumbling to the other Darfur girls who have suffered a similar fate), this girl simply gave up and decided that being 'extremely single' was marginally more bearable than being 'extremely ignored'.

They may have better intentions and objectives than other men, and they may have much more noble aspirations in life. Clearly, they even have better excuses for not calling you over here in Darfur - but at the end of the day, they're still men who don't call.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Aid workers in El Geneina, West Darfur, are yawning and complaining this morning following a night of particularly loud and violent shoot-outs. As usual, there is little clarity about who is shooting at whom (though the Janjaweed feature as the most popular character in any tale), or even why - but anyone with a pair of ears can confirm that the shelling did not let up until the early hours of the morning. Today Geneina, as so often over these past few weeks, once again seems like a lawless outpost in a wild, wild west scene.

A dusty little town only 30kms from the Chadian border, Geneina does actually look like it belongs in some kind of country and western movie: horses and donkeys meander through the streets, men with big guns saunter through the market, and there isn't a single paved road in sight (and this includes the airport runway, where aid workers regularly sit inside little HAS planes after a heavy rain, waiting for the gravel air strip to dry enough for the planes to take off).

While people somehow still manage to joke about the night's events, there is no denying that everyone is tense. There are rumours that the bandit networks that have been terrorising cars and trucks on the roads of West Darfur (the UN has recently declared all roads leading outside of Geneina off limits for travel) have started moving inside the state capital itself to continue their looting sprees. Aid agencies are struggling to decide what this means for their operations and whether or not it's safe to stay put and continue operating.

But for the moment - and, as usual - the only thing that people seem to be agreeing on is that Darfur's still a mess, and that anything could happen next - and that the only way of not dwelling on it too much (at least for those of us not making any of the big political and security decisions) is simply to get back to work.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I've been accused of blogging too much about the problems of Darfur and the mistakes that people are making - and not offering any bright solutions myself.

While it's a sad fact that there simply ARE lots of problems and very few successful solutions in Darfur, I am taking this criticism on board - and here is my solution for the day:

Send us those Canadian armoured personnel carriers.

There are currently 105 armoured personnel carriers stuck in a warehouse in Senegal - waiting to be transported to Darfur so that the African Union soldiers can use them in their patrols. Unfortunately, the Sudanese government - which has very little concern about the safety of people in Darfur - is refusing to let the shipment come into the country unless it gets a certain degree of control over their use. After much negotiation, it seems that 35 have now been granted permission to come here.

While I have not seen these big new trucks arrive here yet (or know much about the negotiations and lobbying that are taking place behind the scenes about this), I do know what sort of impression a fully-equipped military can have on the perceptions of people on the ground.

Over the past few months, I have repeatedly heard Darfurians - be they IDPs, SLA commanders or government officials - snicker at African Union cars or helicopters that have run out of fuel and make throwaway comments about the soldier's ability to fight back when threatened.

Especially in the volatile areas affected by recent clashes, every kid in town knows that the armed groups that the AU are trying to deter quite simply outnumber and outgun the peacekeepers - and I can't say it's making anyone feel particularly safe.

Equally, I have seen the impact that a few new trucks and guns, or a newly deployed group of enthusiastic and professional African Union soldiers can have in a previously unpatrolled area - women feel more protected, thugs become more wary of showing their faces and the townspeople nod their heads approvingly. "Now they have real power, now they look professional. Maybe now they can protect us," a sheik recently told me after the AU deployed a full battalion of troops to his town, which had previously seen little more than a few sorry-looking tents and a dozen glum, confused men.

The African Union troops in Darfur have struggled to have an impact - some argue that they have failed miserably in their mission to protect civilians (though others, of course, would argue that this was not their role in the first place and they are only there to monitor and report breaches of ceasefire...but more about that another day).

Personally, I believe there's still a lot of hope for the African Union Mission in Sudan, and they have done more good than many people will give them credit for. But in those instances where they have failed to do their job or acted incompetently, much of the blame deserves to be spread to those who have refused to equip and prepare them properly for their mission (AMIS is still suffering from a funding shortfall of more than $150 million - a fact some international donors continue to blissfully ignore), and those who try to undermine them in other ways (like the GoS refusal to let them have their equipment).

The Canadians have been kind enough to provide the troops with some important gear at this crucial moment - and if the international community could now push just a little bit more to make sure these trucks actually arrive in the place where they're meant to have an impact, that - for me - would be a small solution in today's minefield of problems.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Just seen the latest Eric Reeves article on the strain that insecurity is having on humanitarian operations in Darfur.

While I sometimes whine about the fact that the media pays more attention to attacks on NGOs and humanitarian actors than it does to those on civilians in Darfur, Reeves makes is very clear why the two are always linked. He's a smart guy - read the article.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

News that the United Nations is pulling all non-essential staff out of West Darfur sends my mother into hysterics again today. It takes me a while to understand what the faraway voice on the other side of the satellite phone is going on about, but finally I remember that I heard about this in one of the aid agency coordination meetings.

"Mother, I spoke to some friends in Geneina (the capital of West Darfur) yesterday. NO ONE has left - they've still got the same 15 or so people there that they always do. Yes, I'm fine, well, at least nothing has changed in the place where I'm working."

I don't add 'not yet', and of course I don't mention that the gunshots at nights have become alarmingly regular over the past few days.

While I still doubt that the UN agencies (most of whom are safely tucked away in the state capitals of Darfur, nowhere near the actual fighting) are in any danger of either being attacked or having to evacuate, I can't say that things are calming down either.

I have little time to catch up with the news these days, but I gather the Darfur peace talks in Abuja are grinding along more slowly than ever. And more and more groups seem to be shouting about not getting their seat at the negotiating table - including the two rebel splinter groups involved in last week's abductions of African Union troops in Tine.

And while the story of the kidnap itself still manages to amuse me with its sheer absurdity, the thought that these random rebel groups are now roaming through Darfur in their looted fleet of shiny new AU vehicles with oodles of ammunition, rocket launchers and other military kit is not exactly comforting - for either my mother or for me.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A furious frenzy of activity seems to have broken out across the aid agency compounds of Darfur over the past few weeks. Not that we weren't stressed and overworked before - it's just reached absolutely ridiculous levels. Updating this site becomes more of a challenge for me every day.

Clashes, banditry and abduction continue to plague not just the African Union, but also the aid agencies. There are so many people fleeing from the new attacks on villages that all we can do is scramble to keep up with registrations and emergency distributions for the new arrivals: people are coming to the camps, particularly the bigger ones clustered around state capitals, in droves.

Families - mostly women and children - have just plopped themselves down underneath some shady trees with their meagre bundle of belongings, usually some sleeping mats and a few old cooking pots. They hang their clothes and blankets in the branches and wander around the camp looking for the rest of their family and their tribe. It's obvious they need services - food, water, medical attention - but when you speak to them all that they ask for is security. "It's good to be here. No we are safe."

What's equally disturbing is the fact that the scenes I am describing are merely those playing out in the camps and the areas that we can reach - and many more camps remain completely cut off from humanitarian aid because they have become too dangerous to use. Every single road leading out of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, has now been classified as unsafe.

I'm too exhausted today to write any more than this today - but I am hoping that a cold shower and a slice of lovely local watermelon will give me the energy to face another day in Darfur tomorrow. And write about it - if I can find the time.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

So now the African Union sends in a rescue team to secure the release of the hostages taken yesterday in North Darfur - and the RESCUE TEAM GETS KIDNAPPED TOO? (Well, at least that's what the news wires are saying. Of course, the African Union soldiers I ask in the market this morning have no clue what I'm talking about.)

What can I say - it's just another morning in Darfur, and nothing makes very much sense.

Seriously though, I am glad to hear that - following the tragicomic development above - the rebels (allegedly a JEM splinter group) have decided to release all but 2 of the African Unions troops that they were holding in Tine yesterday.

Much more worrying though are the statements made by Mohammed Saleh, a former JEM commander and the man the AU thinks is behind the abductions.

"We want the AU to leave and we have warned them not to travel to our areas," Saleh is telling Reuters. "We don't know and don't care what is happening to the AU, they are part of the conflict now," he adds. Saleh apparently claims to be leading a rebel group that will not honour any of the past ceasefire agreements or any future Abuja peace agreements that his group has not been involved in negotiating.

Somehow, I have a feeling people are increasingly starting to agree with me that Darfur is not getting better.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

It's a sad day today for the African Union - after last night's shoot-out in Khor Abeche. South Darfur, that killed three Nigerian soldiers and two Sudanese AU contractors (the AU's first casualties in Darfur), we hear of another incident this afternoon.

It appears that 18 troops (including an international observer) have been abducted near Tine, North Darfur. The latest news this evening indicates that two have been released (and are wandering through the desert as we speak trying to meet up with the AU vehicles out there looking for them).

While everyone has been noticing the increase in attacks against African Union convoys over recent months, it has not exactly been clear whether they were targeted at the troops or just part of the wider looting and raiding sprees that were affecting the NGOs. But incidents involving hour-long shoot-outs with casualties and the abduction of 18 (!) armed, uniformed men are pretty disturbing indeed.

As always, there is speculation. Are people angry at the AU for making such strong statements to condemn the government and the SLA rebels? Are the attacks really the work of rebels or is someone trying to make it look like this to undermine the peace process? Who is behind the planning and organisation - IS there planning and organisation? Who knows?

But, as usual in Darfur, I go to bed with more questions and worries than answers and ideas.

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

There's a rumour going around Darfur at the moment that is simply too good not to blog, even though I have not yet confirmed it with the people in the small field location where the drama is said to be playing out:

I'm told that there has been a lot of tension outside one of the South Darfur IDP camps because a large group of Janjaweed militia recently rocked up on the outskirts of town and began occasionally firing off rounds at people passing by.

Not surprisingly, this was becoming a bit of a nuisance for the camp residents, and community leaders were racking their brains about how to get rid of the militia - until someone came up with the brilliant idea of warning the government authorities that those men over there with guns were in reality a group of SLA rebels.

Eager to dispel the treacherous enemy and obviously too lazy to have a proper look at their opponents, the government soldiers began whizzing a few rounds of ammunition at the men in the distance - who promptly retaliated with some shots of their own. It obviously took a while for both parties to realise that they were in reality firing at an ally of sorts - and by this time, everyone had of course become so engrossed in the intense shooting that there was not much point in stopping just because the target happened to be a friend rather than foe.

While I have heard different versions about how the authorities managed to explain this somewhat embarrassing shoot-out to their superiors, the strategy of dispelling the pesky militia seems to have worked beautifully for the locals. All I can say is that - even if it does turn out to be just a rumour - the approach has certainly planted some ideas on creative problem-solving in peoples' heads over here...

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Strong words again today by Mr. Kingibe from the African Union:

Baba Gana Kingibe, leader of an AU team monitoring a shaky ceasefire, told reporters he had confidence in an AU report that all parties to the conflict were breaking the truce and that the violence had included attacks by government helicopter gunships.

"The report we received from the field said helicopter gunships were observed overhead in two different locations in Darfur," Kingibe told reporters at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. "We have films and pictures. We do not make a statement of that nature, grave as they are, without evidence. If necessary we are ready to show them," he said.

"I do hope the (AU) Peace and Security Council would express total disgust over the very serious situation which is taking place in Darfur, whenever they convene," he added.

Here's hoping the African Union forces on the ground translate these words into stronger action and actually help the people looking to them for protection- like the ones desperately re-arranging their little shelters around the AU compounds in places like Tawila, hoping this proximity to the international peacekeepers may help them escape yet another round of indiscrimate fire at the hands of government soldiers.

Oh, and please send those armoured vehicles already. They're long overdue.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Finally, the African Union has come out with a strong - and from what I can tell accurate - statement on Darfur. Not only does it condemn last month's SLA rebel attacks on towns like Sheiria, but it also takes a harsh line on recent government attacks on civilians in places like Tawila.

Particularly with its accusation that the Sudanese government is still collaborating with Janjaweed militia (for example in the attack on Aro Sarow IDP camp, which killed 44 people), the statement goes far beyond what President Bashir and his henchmen would like to read while choking on their cups of chai in the morning.

The reaction from Khartoum? Unsurprisingly, a vehement denial. And, somewhat infuriatingly, the throw-away comment that this is simply "unreliable information" from those pesky aid agencies feeding the 2 million Sudanese people in the camps.

Naturally, the government is saying this in the full knowledge that said aid agencies are not in a position to defend themselves: as the anonymity of this blog demonstrates, it is nearly impossible for NGOs (and even to a certain extent UN agencies) to report on what they see without being expelled from Sudan and having their staff harassed, intimidated or even targeted in security incidents.

With their well-known tendency for arresting or deporting NGO staff that do speak out (such as MSF, Oxfam and Save the Children), the government are now finding themselves in a situation where most aid agencies are terrified of speaking about Darfur in public - and even the ones that keep trying are in such a small minority that hardly anyone listens to them in the first place.

In this sense, I am starting to realise it is almost ironic that I am forced to describe the African Union's statement as "strong". What I should say instead is that I read and hear descriptions of killings, rape, indiscriminate shooting and burning of houses or shelters just like the ones in the AU statement on a regular basis. It's just that I cannot share them with colleagues in other countries, with journalists, or the high and mighty policymakers in Brussels, Washington and New York in any format other than a blog that cannot be traced to me or to my employer.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

The US government has decided that Sudan is making progress on preventing sexual violence against women. In fact, they are so convinced that they have moved Sudan (along with Bolivia, Jamaica, Qatar, Togo and the United Arab Emirates) from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on the Watch List in the Department of State’s 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report.

It seems that "Sudan was reassessed based in large part on the government’s commitment to implement a plan of action to end sexual violence against women in Darfur. We will look to the Sudanese government to ensure quick and effective implementation of the plan."

In my experience, the only "plans of action" that the local authorities in Darfur are familiar with are the ones I have described in past posts about rape victims being prosecuted for adultery.

A recent United Nations report on the access to justice for victims of sexual violence mostly agrees with me on this - though something tells me this is one report that never made it into the bibliography of the State Department's study.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

I can usually gauge the amount of public attention that Darfur is getting by the frequency of parental phone calls from faraway lands. "The United Nations says that they might pull out of Darfur - what are you still doing there?" my mother asks me accusingly today. In past jobs, I have tried to address her worries by doing my best to explain the security situation as clearly and honestly as possible, but in this one I can't - not because I don't want to scare her (well, I guess that's always part of it too), but also because the situation is simply too confusing, too complicated and above all too unclear here in Darfur.

While everyone on the ground (including UN staff) agrees that it is highly unlikely that the UN agencies will be saying good-bye to Darfur anytime soon, the tension in most towns and camps is striking. Not only have the past few weeks in Darfur seen a sharp increase in violent hold-ups, lootings and even abductions of UN or NGO convoys (especially in West Darfur)- but we've also witnessed other developments that are a lot more complicated than a simple robbery.

A series of fresh militia attacks in North and South Darfur, as well as fighting between rebel groups and government soldiers, are raising tensions to a completely new level. Regular tit-for-tat retaliations and last week's Janjaweed attack on a camp for displaced people in Aro Sharow, West Darfur, that killed around 40 people are obviously not helping calm people's nerves.

Other camps, particularly those that are likely to be see some of the seasonal North-to-South migrations by Arab nomads (which seem to be occurring a lot earlier than usual this year), are terrified that they will be next target. Even among the local staff, there is an increasing level of anxiety and there are even divisions along tribal lines - no one is really sure any more what is going on and who they want to trust with information.

As with any conflict situation, rumours are rife. Every day we hear new ones: which towns might be attacked next, where there will be cattle-rustling or rebel movements. Some turn out to be true, most aren't - and the whopping majority disappear into a big black hole of confusion that you forget to follow up on and never really establish what happened and how. Everyone is so busy just trying to do their job that it becomes increasingly hard to stay on top of the big picture.

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