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Piggy in the middle
UN peacekeepers straddle shakey ceasefire between Darfur rebels and Sudanese Government - 04 Mar 10
Rough ride for the UN peacekeepers in Darfur


Surviving in Sudan's volatile province where an estimated 300,000 people have already died since fighting began in 2003, is a lottery - for everyone living or working there.

The stark contrast between the black ash grids that were once villages and yellow semi-desert is the simplest illustration of the tightrope that six million people here walk between life and death. Almost half the population have fled the ongoing mass killing and gang rape.

Two years ago and after protracted negotiations, UN peacekeepers were sent to Darfur to bolster a beleaguered African Union mission (AMIS) trying to address what was described as "history's worst nightmare" by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Increasing numbers of UNAMID troops - the hybrid UN-AU mission in Darfur - struggle to protect civilians from the spiralling conflict, which has been Darfur's grinding reality since fierce fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel forces broke out seven years ago. The Sudanese Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement cited lack of power- and wealth-sharing as the reason for their attack on Sudan's capital, Khartoum, which ignited the conflict.

Deploying the 19,555 blue helmets into an area the size of France 1,250 miles from the sea has been a logistical nightmare, especially when the main road is no more than a track, one of the principle runways is a gravel strip and the railway a single line. Throw in the rainy season from July to October that makes many of the roads impassable, temperatures that exceed 50 degrees, and a deteriorating security situation with frequent attacks against UNAMID, and sitreps detailing death and destruction become common: ten people killed in the space of three months, helicopters being repeatedly fired on and car-jacking increasing exponentially with hundreds of vehicles taken from non-governmental organisations and the UN and sold on the black market or used for spares by the warring factions.

The urban streets of North Darfur's state capital El Fasher looked like Somalian capital Mogadishu before it collapsed in the early 1990s. Young men wearing mirror-sunglasses brazenly hung off the back of the pimped-up spoils of prolific car-jacking wielding automatic machine guns. Armoured personnel carriers barge their way around the narrow roads as a twitchy Sudanese Army further entrenches itself. The ICC decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir heightened the tension. Personnel, military and civilian, fear it could ignite the lawless state that hovers dangerously on the brink of anarchy because people confuse the identities of the UN and ICC. Despite having nothing to do with The Hague, UNAMID could rapidly become the focus of any resentment.

The small, isolated UNAMID bases scattered across Darfur, which is five times the size of France, are often surrounded by tens of thousands of desperate people taking refuge from the carnage in the swelling camps for internally displaced persons. These blue helmets remain vulnerable to attacks from any of the men who rampage and slaughter with impunity. They are already taking increasing numbers of casulties for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Should they become a pseudo-ICC target, the body count could reach the same levels as seen in neighbouring DRC.

And it's difficult to tell who is committing the atrocities, who is working with which group and who is pulling the strings. Random clashes between the numerous indigenous ethnic groups sparked by the centuries-old tradition of cattle-rustling escalate into bloody battles between the rebels and government forces. As the rebel groups splinter into rival factions, alliances become blurred and can bear little relation to religion, Arab or non-Arab. Most international workers witness the Sudanese Government's daily bombing raids, claimed by the government to be against the rebels but destroying many villages and killing civilians in the process. But, aside from the Sudanese government, only one of the many rebel factions has signed the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement.

Few would question that those responsible for what are now accepted as war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur must be stopped and face justice. But those working in Sudan's most broken state might have cause to question if the potential fallout from ICC Chief Prosecutor's Luis Moreno-Ocampo relentless pursuit of the president had been thoroughly thought through. Front line humanitarian NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres have already been ordered to leave Darfur along with the International Committee for the Red Cross. Current terms only allow the UN to remain in Sudan if President Bashir agrees to have an international military presence on his sovereign soil.

Some might argue that the UN were onto a hiding to nothing anyway - deploying almost 30,000 people into a vast semi-desert with no infrastructure would be considered ambitious by even Nato's standards. But if the arrest warrant turns into a death warrant for UNAMID, the struggle to survive endured by the Darfur people might have an unwanted grisly ending.

Photos are courtesy of the UN