If anyone was under any illusion that Darfur was more or less resolved or could simply be “managed,” recent developments there should be an abrupt wake-up call. A tense situation that continues to unfold in Kalma camp – one of the region’s largest with upwards of 100,000 inhabitants – is a stark reminder of just how unsustainable the status quo is in Darfur, and how the situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better.
The Sudanese government has shown that it will take full advantage of the fact that what little international attention Sudan receives right now is directed at North-South issues. And its strategy has paid off; from the United States, for one, there has been no public reaction to the Sudanese government’s move to bar aid groups from accessing the camp, threats personally issued by President Bashir to expel peacekeepers from Darfur, or to a Darfuri governor’s call for Kalma camp to be closed entirely – all of which would have a devastating effect on civilians and serve to embolden the Sudanese government.
Fighting erupted in Kalma camp at the end of July, reportedly over tension between camp residents who supported participation in the Darfur peace talks in Doha and those who did not. The violence in the camp exemplified the emergence of diverging opinions among the displaced over whether one popular rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdel Wahid, should take part in the peace talks. Despite overtures to the Paris-based rebel leader, Abdel Wahid continues to refuse to participate. But frustration among his followers is clearly growing, as he too has been unable to deliver on promises.
Now, the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force, or UNAMID, and the Sudanese government are in a standoff over the fate of six camp leaders accused by the government of inciting the recent violence in Kalma and in neighboring camps in South Darfur. The leaders are currently under the protection of UNAMID, which is under strict orders to not release the leaders to Sudanese authorities for fear they will be tortured or worse. The official line from a U.N. spokesperson is that the camp leaders won’t be handed over without assurances that their rights will be respected.
Regardless of how the current confrontation between the peacekeeping force and the Sudanese government plays out, UNAMID will likely emerge even more constrained than it is currently. Longtime Sudan expert and professor Eric Reeves wrote recently about what he sees as the impending demise of UNAMID. The decision to expel UNAMID at this point would likely draw more international attention to the Darfur crisis than the Sudanese government would like while they have the international community’s focus trained (more so, though not sufficiently) on the North-South dynamic. But even if UNAMID stays, it is likely to see itself crippled by government demands. As Reeves wrote:
Khartoum has clearly decided on a policy of both extreme curtailment of movement as well as increasing humiliation and intimidation. UNAMID personnel have often been abused, arrested, and confronted with bureaucratic obstructionism, often resulting in the delay of travel visas and timely deployment of soldiers and equipment.
A U.N. Secretary General report from June 14 provided ample evidence of the increasingly hostile and severely constrained environment for peacekeepers. Given the security concerns in Darfur, the expulsion or forced drawdown of UNAMID would likely compel many aid organizations to withdraw or at least reduce their field presence, thus further altering the delicate humanitarian infrastructure that already took a big hit with the NGO expulsions of 2009.
Of course, there is an immediate concern for the people living in Kalma camp, who have been without any humanitarian assistance since August 2. "We are concerned by shortages of food, and fuel deliveries have stopped and fuel for water pumps has run out," a U.N. official told Reuters. "Sanitation is a major concern, as it is the middle of the rainy season."
“Genocide by attrition” is a phrase used increasingly by Sudan experts to describe what is happening in Darfur. As developments over the past several months make clear, the Sudanese government is determined to eliminate the threat posed by Darfur rebels, both by targeting their fighters with bombardments and by targeting their supporters with increasingly uninhabitable conditions. In a press conference in Khartoum last week, the South Darfur governor revealed plans to close Kalma camp entirely, saying that it serves as a military base for Sudan Liberation Movement rebels. If a government official is willing to admit that it is the allegiance to the rebel group that is prompting the closure, it’s hard to imagine that the government would provide a suitable alternative for the tens of thousands who will be newly displaced as a result. Perhaps more disturbing is that fact that this appears to be part of a greater strategy by the Sudanese government to close down camps for the displaced throughout Darfur and to “domesticate” the solutions to the crisis by, among other things, moving the displaced people into prefabricated “villages” and effectively denying them their right to return to their original lands.
“Expect to see a violent response from the camps,” said a colleague at the Enough Project, Omer Ismail, who is regularly in touch with contacts in Darfur. “People know they have nothing to return to now that many of Darfur’s villages are burned and their land is inhabited by other groups,” he said. “They feel they have nothing to lose.”
As tensions mount and desperation deepens, Darfur looks to be deteriorating rapidly. Whether the current iteration of the Darfur peace process – the Doha talks – has any potential to create a lasting solution is debatable; Jibreel Mohammed, blogging at the Making Sense of Sudan blog, wrote an interesting piece last week about ‘why Doha must succeed.’ But what’s clear is that no matter who plays host to the negotiations, a significant infusion of high-level engagement from international envoys and mediators will be a prerequisite to getting a meaningful, inclusive peace process off the ground.