Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

In Darfur, Tiny Steps Toward Policing a Lawless Land

by Marc Lacey, New York Times, February 5, 2006

In many cases, the police have joined with the outlaws, turning a blind eye to crimes or even engaging in criminal behavior themselves. Their victims are most often members of African tribes, who are regarded as rebel sympathizers unworthy of government assistance. [We are waiting for the realization that this sort of behavior by the Sinhala police occurs in Tamil areas, particularly in the East. If organizations like Amnesty International, that should know better, were to realize that authorities in the East are not neutral upholders of the law, their reports would be substantially strengthened. -- Editor]

MENAWASHEI, Sudan, Feb. 2 — It is no longer surprising in the heart of Darfur when men on camelback attack defenseless civilians, when the civilians grab what they can and run for their lives or even when people linked to Sudan's security forces are implicated in the violence.

In Darfur, Tiny Steps Toward Policing a Lawless LandBut after the attack that took place just west of Menawashei recently, something surprising did happen to the law enforcement officers who were supposed to protect the tens of thousands of refugees chased from their huts. They were reprimanded for colluding with the attackers and sent packing.

Darfur is a battlefield in the conventional sense, and an increasingly violent one where rebels intent on toppling the government square off against Sudanese troops. But it is also a giant crime scene littered with shell casings and full of suspects on the run. There are assaults and homicides and rapes and larcenies across Darfur, but there is hardly anyone, it seems, seriously trying to solve the crimes.

Two years ago, the Sudanese government responded to international pressure over Darfur by sending police units to the region to stamp out attacks on civilians. The government then touted the patrols as proof that it was reining in the militias — known as the janjaweed.

But as the war has stretched on, militia attacks on civilians have continued and the government has acknowledge that nobody, least of all the police, controls large swaths of Darfur's countryside. "Go at your own risk," a guard at a government checkpoint told a visitor heading here through a desolate stretch of desert.

In many cases, the police have joined with the outlaws, turning a blind eye to crimes or even engaging in criminal behavior themselves. Their victims are most often members of African tribes, who are regarded as rebel sympathizers unworthy of government assistance.

The African Union force in Darfur, made up of nearly 7,000 soldiers and police officers from across the continent, is meant to fill some of the void, but it is far too small to stem the lawlessness by itself.

The United Nations Security Council agreed Friday to bolster the force with thousands of additional peacekeepers, but it may take almost a year for them to arrive.

Resources are thinner for the Sudanese police force. Even those officers committed to policing frequently find it hard to do their jobs. Some police posts lack vehicles, while victims must sometimes provide their own pen and paper to fill out a report.

The office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights issued a stinging report last week that accused Sudan's police of dereliction of duty in case after case across Darfur. Officers have committed crimes such as rape and assault, the report found. But crimes of omission were more common, such as failing to record women's claims of rape or to respond to ongoing attacks. The government condemned the report as a fabrication.

The people who were chased out of Mershing, now gathered by the bank of a dried-up river a few miles away in Menawashei, know the problem better than most. They went to the local police commander when they began hearing whispers of a looming raid. He scoffed at them, threatened them and ordered them away.

Soon afterward, on Jan. 24, janjaweed militiamen circled the settlement with their guns blazing. They looted the market, stole whatever livestock they could find and assaulted anyone who dared resist.

Estimates by the United Nations put the number of raiders at 55 and the number of fleeing residents at 55,000, a 1-to-1,000 ratio that illustrates the terror people have experienced in this three-year war that has displaced a third of Darfur's six million people. Many who ran from Mershing had run before and were finding themselves refugees yet again.

"We knew what would happen," said Kamal Muhammad Yogob, head of the sheiks. "We all knew."

The police did not participate directly in the attack on Mershing, residents said, but the officers did meet with janjaweed leaders before the attack and stood by watching as it was carried out. They ignored pleas of the terrified residents and even taunted some of them as they fled. "The police said, 'You are a man and he is a man. Deal with him man to man,' " said Yasif Ahmed Muhammad, a local sheik who ran with all the rest.

Remarkably, the attack on Mershing does not appear to have been brushed under the rug like so many others. The governor of South Darfur visited the scene and the police chief disbanded much of the force.

"We have bad men and good men," Maj. Gen. Abden Altaher, who oversees the police in South Darfur, said, "but we're searching out the good officers."

Most notably, he replaced the commander whom the residents had linked to the janjaweed with Fatihy el-Rahman, who was already known by the local residents as a fair-minded officer who did not reflexively side with the outlaws.

"It is my duty to protect them," Mr. Rahman said of the displaced villagers. "I will protect them."

Mr. Yogob, the head sheik, walked up to Mr. Rahman and tapped him on the shoulder in a traditional Sudanese greeting. The two men praised Allah together and when they parted, Mr. Yogob said of the new chief, "He's good." He recalled an incident from late last year when Mr. Rahman, who is from an Arab tribe, had helped Mershing's residents, who are from African tribes, recover some stolen goats.

But even with some trust restored and an offer from the governor to help transport the victims home, the people of Mershing remain wary. Before they go back, they insist that the governor call in some of the African Union police officers now stationed in Darfur so they can watch over Mr. Rahman's men.

Darfur's police forces are a mishmash of officers. The regular ones wear blue uniforms and have a better reputation among the displaced people of Darfur than their "special reserve" counterparts, who dress in tan and receive their marching orders from Khartoum, the capital. Many victims have given up on the authorities altogether, no matter what color they are wearing.

"The government has been burning our villages and killing us," said Asha Abakar, a mother of nine. "These police are part of the government."

At Kalma, the largest camp of displaced people in the area with a population pushing 100,000, local police officers are not allowed inside. After violent clashes broke out last year between camp dwellers and local government officials, the police moved their substation out of the camp to a patch of sand nearby.

They venture into the maze of makeshift huts only with members of the African Union police force, which is a collection of patrol officers, detectives and upper brass from throughout Africa. "We haven't come to take their jobs," F. K. Cosmos, a detective from Accra, Ghana, said of his Sudanese counterparts. "It's their job to police this area."

The African Union officers do not carry guns or make arrests, but they do keep a watchful eye over their counterparts. When a woman comes into the African Union police post complaining of an attack by a man on camelback, as one woman did this week, an officer from Ghana or South Africa or Egypt escorts her to the Sudanese police and watches as she makes the report.

The African Union officers track the case's progress. Rarely, though, do such attacks result in arrests.

Major General Altaher said he intends for that to change. "We feel like all the world is watching us," he said. "I want us to treat the people well. I say that again and again."

There is some policing going on in Darfur. On the outskirts of Kalma, hundreds of women headed out into the lawless countryside the other day in search of firewood, a regular trek for them that brings a serious risk of attack. Behind them this time were three pickup trucks, two carrying smartly uniformed African Union police officers and one with a more threadbare bunch of Sudanese.

The women made clear which officers they considered to be their protectors. "There's no difference between the janjaweed and the police," said Hawa Tebin Suleiman, 30, a mother of four who lost her mother to a janjaweed attack last year. "I'm scared of them both."

Farther out, another woman, Mariam Isis Adullah, recoiled when the Sudanese officers drew near. "I stay away from our police," she said. "I wish they were like the other ones.

  • Publication date: