Somewhere in the harsh landscape around the North Darfur town of Kutum, some 30,000 people have effectively vanished. It's a semi-arid area that hovers between desert and savannah, with thorn trees and grass and dry riverbeds that fill in the brief rainy season with just enough water to support either the pastoralists, like the Arab nomads known here as the Janjaweed, or the agriculturalists, who are the majority of the Darfur population, non-Arab Africans from a variety of tribes.
The dispute over how to use that land is at the root of the Darfur conflict, and with the Sudanese government supporting and arming the Janjaweed, it's easy to see who is losing. Flying over that area earlier this week in an African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) helicopter (a Russian-made Mi-8 leased by Canadians from an American company and flown by Ukrainian pilots for the South African Army), one village after another appears with mud-brick buildings and grass huts burned, fields untended, animals and people alike completely missing. It's easy enough to estimate how many had been there, but in a broad area of northern Darfur, only 2,000-3,000 of them have trickled into Kutum's refugee camps since the fighting ratcheted up in this area last month.
Kutum is the sector headquarters for AMIS, the African peacekeeping mission, and the sprawling area is policed by a battalion of South African troops. Their commander, Lt. Col. Gary Lloyd, is aboard the chopper with a Sudanese colonel and a variety of representatives of rebel groups who have signed the Darfur Peace Agreement, negotiated last May 5 in Abuja, Nigeria—an agreement that famously led to even more fighting before the ink was even dry. That fighting has increased steadily ever since, and a recent 60-day ceasefire negotiated by Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has yet to materialize. The soldiers are on their way to a meeting place at a grid coordinate southeast of Kutum, 45 minutes by chopper; below, Lloyd’s armed troops got a two-hour head start in four South African-made Mamba armored personnel carriers to establish security at the planned landing zone. The Mambas wend their way along the soft sand of riverbeds, between round boulders perched improbably along what passes for a road. Along the way, they go through the town of Abu Sakim, with some 700 habitable structures deserted and not even a chicken in sight. Anything permanent, such as a building, or modern, such as a car, has been torched and burned; the homes have all been stripped of their possessions. The AMIS hasn’t been to Abu Sakim recently, and it's a surprise to them how deserted it is.
The Mambas have set up a security perimeter at the landing zone. A few raggedly dressed men stand nearby, a couple with rifles but most with sticks and hoes. But within an hour hundreds of men, and a few women, trickle out of the bush—a surprise because they had not been spotted from either air or ground. They're here for the meeting that the AMIS colonel has arranged with other parties; they represent the Free Decision Movement, one of Darfur's dozen or so rebel factions, and one of those that has signed the peace with the government. But they're also largely made up of the men of Abu Sakin village, hopping mad because their settlement was sacked Dec. 2 by Janjaweed from neighboring Abu Salaya.
The meeting stretches on for a few hours, and afterward the Free Decision leader, who calls himself Gen. Ali Mukhtar, says he's not satisfied but still wants to stay in the peace process. His followers want to return to Abu Sakin, but they don't feel it's safe. Many of their women have fled to refugee camps, others are living in the bush with the men. Mukhtar says the village was destroyed in a combined attack by local Janjaweed and government troops, supported by helicopters and airplanes. Many villagers were raped and killed. Throughout this area, rebel forces have accused the government of bombing villages, often with crude incendiary devices pushed out the back of Antonov aircraft. Mukhtar is worried they'll just attack again; assurances from the Sudanese colonel don't convince him otherwise. Most of the refugees from Abu Sakin remain scattered and had last seen relief workers, from the World Food Program, on Oct. 16, Mukhtar said. "We have never attacked humanitarian workers," he said. "We need them to come back. We can't find water. Our children can't go to school. No one has enough food."
Lloyd agrees that the need for relief workers in this area is desperate. Nearly all of the international humanitarian workers in the area pulled out of Kutum after an attack on the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Dec. 8 and the killing of an ICRC driver. "There's a serious need for the international community to return to this area," said Lloyd. The meeting may have disappointed the Darfur rebels, but Lloyd sees it as a positive step. "I feel I have accomplished my mission because they have agreed to meet with the leaders in Abu Salaya." The next step will be to get agreements of safe conduct—without which the AMIS troops are not allowed to move—from all the various parties so they can go to the Janjaweed village and set up a meeting, then get the Free Decision folks to it, as well. There will be more convoys and chopper trips, and this is only one of many destroyed and contested areas. And in other areas, there are nonsignatory rebels who haven't even made "peace" as yet with the government. Darfur is the size of France; the South Africans' sector, patrolled by 500 men in all, the size of the Benelux countries. "There's a process, and it will be very slow, but we can't wait for the politicians if we want to make a difference," says Lloyd.
After the rebels dispersed and the Sudanese officials climbed aboard the Mi-8, Lloyd told his ground troops to stay behind for a few hours. "There are often reprisal attacks after these meetings," he said. Earlier last week, NEWSWEEK coincidentally encountered some of the women from Abu Sakin, the ruined town of General Mukhtar's followers. They had finally reached the As Salaam camp in El Fasher, a week's donkey ride south—an estimated 1,500 of them in all. Three told NEWSWEEK that they had been raped: Fatima Abdulrahman, 36; her niece Marian Jadu, 15, and another niece, 20. They recounted being taken away at gunpoint the night before the Janjaweed attack on the village while their men looked on helplessly. The women were kept in the Janjaweed village, where they were assaulted repeatedly for two days. Fatima was raped by 15 men, she said, and Marian by six. "We're going to rape you until you don't come back," Fatima says they told her, as she rattled off the names of several of the perpetrators, who she knew as neighbors. Why? Another villager, Fatima Mohamna, who lost her husband and two young sons in the attack, said, "it's because we are blacks and they are Arabs, and they call us slaves and treat us like slaves and we are not slaves."
Now these women have come to a place of refuge, a camp that's reasonably well-staffed, run by the International Rescue Committee and supported by half a dozen other NGOs—although most have had staff cutbacks and evacuations recently, too. By contrast, the three camps around Kutum have only a handful of national staff working in them, and not a single clinic. Still, even As Salaam is an uneasy refuge. On the hill overlooking the Abu Salaam camp is a Sudanese army base. AMIS patrols pass from time to time, especially when women are out collecting firewood—an especially vulnerable time when many have been attacked—but not every day. At night, and sometimes during the day, Janjaweed militants from neighboring villages parade through the camp, sometimes raping and looting. A few weeks ago the Janjaweed even raided the market in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, under the noses of authorities and down the road from AMIS headquarters.
Incidents like that have turned many of Darfur's African majority against the African Union. In El Fasher, the acting AMIS force commander, Brig. Gen. Frank Kamanzi from Rwanda, acknowledged that the African mission has been able to do little to quell the fighting in Darfur. The new peace agreement, he says, gave the AMIS force much more to do, without enough troops to do any of it—and no reinforcements. Technically, AMIS has 7,000 troops throughout Darfur, but in practice it's closer to 6,000—and most of them haven't been paid in months. "We're unable to protect people. We don't have enough resources to satisfy all their needs, and we become targets because we're blamed for this unfavorable outcome." Still, he says, "without us it would be pure chaos."
Everyone agrees that AMIS doesn't have sufficient resources, but donors have turned down African Union proposals to beef up the force with several new battalions. Western countries on the Security Council wanted a United Nations peacekeeping force to replace it but agreed to a Kofi Annan-negotiated compromise in which U.N. forces would reinforce AMIS. Right now, AMIS and the U.N. are in the middle of Phase I of this new hybrid force, known as the "light support package." Some 50 U.N. staff officers and advisers, along with military police and observers, have joined AMIS. Next comes a "heavy support package" with more advisers and heavy equipment. So far, Sudanese and U.N. officials haven't agreed on what the heavy equipment would include, whether weaponry or aircraft, for instance. Then a third phase, still subject to Sudanese agreement, would bring as many as 10,000 U.N. troops into the AMIS force.
General Kamanzi scoffs at the whole proposal. The light support package has given him some capable additions to headquarters staff, he said, "but what we need are not staff officers as much as boots in the field." Phase II is at least six months away, he says; U.N., African Union and Sudanese officials haven't even agreed on what it will include. And Phase III, those boots on the ground, is even more distant. "That hybrid, no one knows what it will look like, and it's never worked anywhere else," he said. And that's if Sudan ever agrees to it. Kamanzi points out that the African Union’s already-extended mandate in Sudan expires in six months' time.
General Kamanzi was a soldier during the Rwandan genocide and fought to oust the Hutu-led regime that perpetrated it. Still, he can't accept the U.S. assessment that Darfur is a calculated genocide by Sudan's Arab-led government against its non-Arab African population in Darfur. "That's too simplistic, there are too many factions and tribal issues," he said. "But it's extreme violence, and anyway you look at it, it's bad to have killings on the scale we've seen here." For many in Darfur, vanishing has proven better than the alternatives.