ZAM ZAM CAMP, SUDAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - One of the world's largest peacekeeping forces is being cut back and revamped as it has been failing to protect civilians in Darfur, the vast Sudanese region where gunmen roam in Land Cruisers and on horseback.
While diplomats and U.N. officials feel a smaller version of the joint United Nations-African Union force could be more effective, question marks over its future terrify some of the millions of people caught up in nearly 12 years of bloodshed.
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when mainly non-Arab tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination. The mass killings of a decade ago have eased, but the insurgency continues and Khartoum has sharply escalated attacks on rebel groups over the past year.
Residents of sprawling camps for people displaced by the fighting describe being driven from their homes by Arab fighters from a government militia that Western officials and activists say is a new form of the feared "Janjaweed" brigades.
"They entered houses made from straw and grass and looted all our money and livestock," said Ezdeen Salih, a 37-year-old in Zam Zam, the biggest camp for the displaced in Darfur said of an attack she blamed on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Almost half a million people were displaced last year alone, the highest annual total since the height of the conflict in 2004, U.N. figures show.
"They beat the men with sticks and burned our homes," Salih said. "They told us to never come back, saying that the area had become an Arab area and that we are supporting rebel movements. We fled with our children."
Late last year Khartoum ordered UNAMID out of the country after it began investigating an alleged mass rape by Sudanese soldiers in Darfur. The government denies any wrongdoing by either the soldiers or the RSF.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said it was unlikely the mission would simply pull out of Darfur. But the United Nations says discussions with Khartoum on an eventual exit strategy for the force have begun, even as efforts to make the force more efficient proceed.
UNAMID has faced allegations by Western powers it has not done enough to protect civilians and withheld information on the scale of violence against civilians and peacekeepers by the Sudanese army and allied militias. U.N. officials acknowledge shortcomings and note that this is one reason for their push to overhaul the mission and improve its effectiveness.
"What is happening at the moment is not working," a Security Council ambassador said. "It's expensive. The mission is dysfunctional in a number of ways."
The ambassador added that the goal was "a sharp refocusing and contraction of the mission."
According to several U.N. officials, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon grew so frustrated with UNAMID last year that he said it should be shut down. The comment was more an expression of exasperation than a recommendation for policy, the officials said.
Asked about Ban's comment, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric referred to Ban's latest report on Darfur to the Security Council and its description of the worsening humanitarian and security situation and challenges UNAMID faces - including movement restrictions and attacks against peacekeepers.
"This is exactly why the Secretary-General believes it is essential for the United Nations to continue to carry out its mandated responsibilities in Darfur, the protection of civilians being chief among them," he added.
Ladsous has been calling for improvements UNAMID for years, though council diplomats say previous success was marginal. And if the latest attempt to restructure the force is unsuccessful, Security Council diplomats say they will consider other options - including a U.N. withdrawal from the mission.
Khartoum has always been reluctant to cooperate with the force. Civilians are paying the price. According to the U.N., about 4.4 million people need humanitarian assistance in Darfur and more than 2.55 million remain displaced.
One of the biggest problems has been the joint nature of the force - the African Union and the United Nations together.
"The hybrid mission experiment has proven to be an abysmal failure," another Security Council ambassador said. Meanwhile, U.N. officials say, the council’s interest in Darfur has waned as more high-profile conflicts like Syria and Iraq take priority.
Last week the U.N. Security Council received a report on a strategic review of the mission conducted by the U.N. peacekeeping department. Reuters obtained a copy.
It said the mission is slimming down its ranks, sending home incompetent units, cutting unnecessary jobs, redeploying troops stationed at dozens of outposts around Darfur and working to improve its capacity to protect civilians. The exact number of peacekeepers to be reduced will be decided in the coming months.
Highlighting UNAMID’s flaws, U.N. officials and diplomats said one group of soldiers sent home from Darfur had surrendered without firing a single shot when confronted by armed militants.
"In light of several incidents in which military units failed to respond effectively to armed attacks, UNAMID has introduced measures that provide for the sanctioning and repatriation of relevant contingent members," the strategic review said, without offering details.
Khartoum’s "Operation Decisive Summer" has given the army an upper hand in the Darfur conflict, it said. Ban told the council the operation had taken an enormous toll on civilians.
Khartoum’s hostility towards the United Nations and foreign aid groups increased dramatically after the International Criminal Court’s 2009 indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide and other war crimes in Darfur.
Sudan expelled numerous foreign aid groups and recently ordered several senior U.N. officials out of the country. The government consistently prevents UNAMID from accessing civilians, while the United States, Britain and other Western countries have publicly accused the mission of being too timid in the face of the Sudanese military.
UNAMID faces no easy task on the ground in Darfur, a vast territory roughly the size of France. The mission has suffered 214 fatalities since deploying in 2007, its website says. And for years Khartoum has denied the mission the right to operate attack helicopters, severely limiting its ability to move quickly to aid civilians.
The U.N. strategic review says that the timing of UNAMID’s departure from Darfur will depend on its ability to meet specific “benchmarks” for its ability to protect civilians. But Khartoum says the time has come for the mission to pull out.
“We decided to pull UNAMID out of Sudan and this is non-negotiable,” Abdallah Alazarq, under-secretary at Sudan’s Foreign Ministry, told Reuters.
“UNAMID troops are a security burden on the Sudanese government. They can't protect themselves. Gangs always take away their troops’ weapons because they have no motivation to fight.”
Despite Khartoum’s demands that UNAMID leave, Omer Ismail of the Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide group, said he thinks the Sudanese government does not really want a complete withdrawal. It wants money from the mission's $1.1 billion budget to continue flowing into Sudan.
"They're bluffing," he said. "They (Khartoum) don't want it to go. They want a weakened UNAMID. That would suit their purposes."
This, Ismail said, is Khartoum's goal across Sudan - a weaker United Nations that would not annoy it with human rights criticism but would continue to spend money and deliver aid where Sudanese - not U.N. - officials want it to go.
However, a leaner UNAMID that could be more aggressive and proactive in implementing its mandate and unafraid to stand up to the military could be effective, he said.
Despite their complaints, civilians have been increasingly seeking out UNAMID team sites in Darfur for protection.
Near Zam Zam camp, more than 800 people gathered in the desert after fleeing recent fighting. Most were women and children, sitting on the ground. Women hung clothes on sticks to shield their hungry children from the desert sun.
People said they escaped after a Janjaweed RSF unit attacked their villages. They slept on the sand without blankets or food, fearful of new attacks from nearby RSF.
Khadija Ismail, a 26-year-old mother of five, is haunted by the attack on her village and says that when she reached Zam Zam, already jammed with some 150,000 people reliant on aid agencies, she and her children received no food or shelter.
But she still felt the United Nations was her only hope.
"If the government expelled UNAMID, we would have to leave Sudan with them, because no one else will protect us," she said.
Editing by Michael Georgy and Philippa Fletcher