About the Author: Major General (Ret) Scott Gration currently serves as the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan.
For too long, Darfur has been a place of human failing and despair. For too long, the people of Darfur have suffered. And for too long, they have lived without peace and security. I just returned from another trip to Darfur — my fourth. I went back to assess the current situation on the ground and to listen directly to the people living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. The capacity of humanitarian aid workers to deliver life-saving assistance is making slow gains, Darfuri armed movements are beginning unification efforts, and UNAMID is gaining strength in terms of force deployment and in fulfilling its protection mandate.
We are also making progress on agreements and promises—with rebel groups as well as the Government. These are critical, but the proof lies in the pudding. What really matters is what the parties to these agreements do in implementation. We are at a crossroads. We are moving forward, but we need to stay diligent and focused on ensuring that the agreements are followed through. We will hold all parties accountable for their actions. We will help where we can, but ultimate responsibility lies with the parties in Sudan.
Since I just returned from this visit, I wanted to take a moment to share with you some of our observations. You can also take a look at my flickr photo album to see pictures from our trip album.
My first stop was in the Abu Shouk camp, which is home to a staggering 54,000 people. I met with camp leaders from Abu Shouk, along with others from four nearby IDP camps. I stressed my long-held view that all IDP returns must be voluntary, at a time and to a location of peoples’ choosing, and only when sufficient security exists. I further clarified that I do not advocate the lifting of sanctions against the Government in Khartoum. Finally, I made clear that I have not called for Sudan to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terror. Despite their remoteness, camp residents remain particularly well plugged in to global debates on these issues. Regrettably, they have also been influenced by the politics of their leadership and by mischaracterizations of my statements. So while it is unfortunate that there was this need to set the record straight, I will continue to return to these camps and engage with the millions of people trapped in these humanitarian prisons. It is their lives we are all trying to change.
A particular source of inspiration on my trip was my visit to a women’s center in Abu Shouk that provides psychological support and skills training for victims of gender-based violence. While I was there, I saw the women weave baskets to sell and watched a demonstration of the use of new solar cookers that are reducing the need for these women to leave the safety of the camp to search for firewood. These gracious women also shared with me their specific concerns over security, health, and education. Women will play a central role in the future of Darfur, and we in this administration will work to help bring women in Darfur the tools they need to rebuild their lives.
I was also encouraged by a return visit to Zam Zam camp. I came to this camp five months ago, and coming back showed me that while humanitarian gaps still remain (and some new ones have opened) there have been significant improvements in health, water and sanitation, and food distribution. We need to continue to buttress these efforts with greater humanitarian capacity and access, but we are on the right path and are making positive steps. Meanwhile, I was discouraged to hear that many of the aid workers who had been promised complete freedom of movement and access by local government authorities, and agreement I helped to broker back in April, was not being fully respected. It’s unacceptable that this far into the crisis aid workers are still encountering the slightest resistance in carrying out their work. Regardless of the cause of this circumstance, I am pressing for its resolution at the highest levels.
In Darfur we also went to UNAMID’s headquarters, where we met with General Patrick Nyambumba, the UNAMID Force Commander, and Mohamed Yonis, the Deputy Joint Special Representative for UNAMID, both of whom have both been appointed within the last two weeks. UNAMID confirmed that the current conflict in Darfur largely hinges around the lack of local law enforcement, which has resulted in an unacceptable number of kidnappings, carjackings, along with generalized banditry. . Despite major challenges ahead, I am encouraged by the prospects for more robust peacekeeping in the coming months as needed personnel and equipment arrive. I have been told by my UN colleagues that by the end of the year, it is expected that 85% of the force will be deployed. As we reach a critical mass of troops, it will be essential to translate those numbers into a more effective security force that can begin to change the fundamental dynamics on the ground.
In addition to the IDP camps, I also traveled to Ain Siro, a small village in North Darfur. It is a place that has largely been unaffected by the conflict, and it showed me how life in Darfur used to be. The armed movement commanders I met there expressed their willingness to unify and engage in the peace process. I have said it before, but it really is crucial that we work towards armed movement unification if we hope to have a successful and sustainable peace in Darfur. In these coming weeks my team will be stepping up these efforts, along with a parallel outreach towards civil society, in the hope that we can relaunch formal talks with the government before the end of October.
Darfur is at a critical crossroads. Armed movements can join together at the peace table, or they can remain fractured; civil society can remain in the shadows of the peace process, or we can make them a centerpiece of peace negotiations; humanitarian efforts can shift from emergency response to sustainable development, or IDPs can remain dependent on NGOs and without local capacity; local law enforcement can step up to provide the security needed to protect civilians, or lawlessness and banditry can continue to reign.
The United States will play a central role in setting the right course, but the responsibility for peace and security ultimately lies with the Government of Sudan and its people.
As always, thank you for your continued interest and dedication, Scott.
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