CAIRO/KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Ahlam Hamid fled from her home in Sudan’s Darfur region 17 years ago when government troops and militiamen, some on horseback, raided her village and clashed with rebels.
Now she worries she will be at the mercy of those forces once more, as an international peacekeeping mission deployed to contain the conflict abruptly pulls out.
UNAMID, a joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force established in 2007 to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian assistance in Darfur, stopped patrolling on Jan. 1, days after a vote by the U.N. Security Council to end its mandate.
After signing a peace deal with some rebel groups, Sudan’s transitional government is starting to deploy a national force that it says will protect civilians. But thousands have protested across Darfur against UNAMID’s exit in recent weeks, saying it will leave them more vulnerable.
The United Nations has reported a rise in violence across Darfur including tribal clashes, militia attacks on protesters, and renewed fighting involving rebel forces led by Abdel Wahed el-Nur, who is yet to sign onto the peace deal.
Hamid has been living since 2003 with her family at Kalma in South Darfur, a camp that is home to some 200,000 of the estimated 1.5 million still displaced across Darfur’s five regions.
Men risk being killed if they leave Kalma, so women venture out to collect firewood, work on farms or clean homes in the nearby town of Nyala, said Hamid, a 55-year-old who makes a living handweaving inside the camp.
“There’s a high chance they’ll assault you or rape you,” she said by phone from the camp, referring to the militias. “But otherwise you’ll die of hunger.”
Darfur’s conflict escalated from 2003, as mostly non-Arab rebels rose up against Khartoum. Government forces and mainly Arab militia that moved to repress the revolt were accused of widespread atrocities. An estimated 300,000 people were killed.
The war subsided over the past decade and in April 2019 former president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) under charges of genocide and war crimes in Darfur, was forced from power after an uprising.
Darfuris say UNAMID offered a weak but necessary deterrent against militias originally armed by Bashir to fight rebels.
The peacekeeping mission has been gradually drawn down in recent years, but its full withdrawal has been delayed due to security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic.
“UNAMID makes us feel like we’re seen by the world. But now they are leaving us with the criminals,” said Sheikh Mousa Bahar Adam, a community leader in Kalma.
As UNAMID repatriates its 7,000-strong force over the next six months, Sudan is starting to deploy its national force in Darfur.
Half of the initial 6,000 peacekeepers will be police, with the rest coming from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the army, and the general intelligence service, according to officials. It will later absorb former rebels and civilians.
Rebel groups have agreed with the government to eventually increase the force to 20,000, said Nour Aldayim Taha, a leader in a Sudan Liberation Army faction that signed the peace deal.
“We hope that the national protection force created by the government of Sudan will be able to maintain the gains that were achieved by UNAMID in terms of protecting civilians and security,” said Ashraf Eissa, a UNAMID spokesman.
FEAR AND DISTRUST
Sudan’s information minister Faisal Salih said it was natural for there to be a vacuum in the first phase after UNAMID’s exit, but the new force would “work together with the armed groups that have signed the peace agreement to maintain security in Darfur”.
But Western diplomats have expressed concern about the nature of UNAMID’s withdrawal. They say long-standing opposition by Sudan’s military to the presence of U.N. peacekeepers played into the Security Council vote.
Britain said it regretted the resolution did not allow UNAMID to continue its activities as it draws down, in line with other recent U.N. peacekeeping missions.
“It was the largest peacekeeping mission in the world and to have it end this way is not ideal,” said one Western diplomat.
Camps handed over to Sudanese authorities over the past three years with equipment worth tens of millions of dollars have been looted. Since the start of January, some Darfur residents have reported heightened insecurity, with an increase in incidents of theft.
Kalma residents remain deeply distrustful of government forces, in particular the RSF, which incorporated members of the “janjaweed” militias that terrorised Darfuris during the war and has cemented its role in the security forces in the transition.
The government says the targeting of civilians ended with the former regime.
“There might be fear among the refugees towards the military as a result of what the previous regime used to do, but it is possible to rebuild trust by raising awareness that the government has changed and there is a new government whose goal is to protect civilians,” said Salih.
Hamid is not reassured.
“When you go into the city and see a khaki uniform or the RSF uniform, your heart stops,” she said.
(Editing by Aidan Lewis and Raissa Kasolowsky)