The people of the restive region of Darfur in Sudan have seen the joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) as a “saviour” according to a writer for UN News who grew up in Darfur.
UNAMID is due to begin the process of closing at the end of 2020 after almost 13 years. Conflict has led to the death of some 300,000 people in the region, while millions were displaced.
Abdelmonem Makki from the UN News Arabic team reflects on his life in Darfur and the impact of the United Nations.
“I was born and raised in a small village called Al-Malam in South Darfur and as a child I understood the benefits of living peacefully in a safe society.
My father was the mayor and judge of the village. He was a wise man and was able to solve all sorts of problems that arose. I remember seeing people from all over Darfur come to our house to meet him.
The problems in Darfur were not something new; we were used to occasional fighting between farmers and herders as well as armed robbery. But these issues were resolved within the framework of customs and traditions.
The Native Administration system in Darfur had a unique ability to solve problems, and tribal leaders like my father played a great role in defusing tensions between the tribal groups. These leaders had a huge influence on the people. They were respected and revered.
UN News/Abdelmonem MakkiAbdelmonem Makki’s father (3rd from left) with other tribal leaders of the village of Al-Malam in South Darfur, Sudan.
For many centuries, Darfur was an independent kingdom before joining the present-day Sudan. Before, 2003, it had never experienced any major conflict. Darfuris are described as tolerant, generous, and wise. No one could have imagined that situation would turn out to be the way it is today.
For a long time, people in the region had been talking about injustice and marginalization by the central government. They had complained about the lack of infrastructure and the unequal distribution of wealth and power. For example, to travel from Darfur to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, by land, it takes days and even weeks, due to the lack of paved roads. There are flights, but they are expensive, and many people cannot afford tickets.
For all these reasons, some people in the region decided, in 2003, to take up arms to fight the government. I do not condone the use of arms as civilians end up paying the ultimate price.
But many people felt that the grievances of the people of Darfur should have been addressed by the government in a fair way based on inclusion and human rights, rather than resorting to military solutions.
When the situation escalated, the government sought the help of militias, many of which may not have been from Darfur. There is a common term in Darfur that says “these are Arabs and these are not Arabs”.
Witnessing family tragedies
When the war broke out, I was in Al-Malam, and I witnessed many tragedies. I lost many members of my family.
My uncle was killed along with many other men during an armed attack on the village. Seven of my cousins were kidnapped while they were returning to pay their condolences following the death of my uncle. We still don’t know where they are. We also don’t know the whereabouts of my aunt who was also kidnapped in 2003 while she was herding her cows. It is highly likely that she was killed.
In another incident, armed militias attacked my grandmother’s village and massacred many men; only a few managed to escape. It was one of the most tragic events that happened during the height of war in Darfur.
When UNAMID deployed to Darfur in 2007, the people of the region breathed a sigh of relief and felt hopeful. They saw the mission as a saviour from the pro-government militias that were ruthlessly killing them.
It is true that the killing did not stop with the arrival of UNAMID, but the presence of an international mission gave Darfuris a sense of security. They believed UNAMID was the only organization that could protect and provide them with services. People had lost trust in the government.
When the mission opened, I was studying in Khartoum, but when I returned to Darfur a few months later, I saw how happy and grateful people were for the presence of UNAMID. One of the scenes that remains stuck in my mind is the displaced children on the streets greeting peacekeepers whenever they passed by.
UN Photo/Albert González FarranUNAMID peacekeepers from Ethiopia in a volatile area of South Darfur, Sudan, in July 2012.
The mission personnel became part of the community. You saw them in the markets and public places, interacting with people. People trusted them more than the government itself back then.
It is true that the mission faced many obstacles to fulfil its mandate, but despite that it achieved a lot of things for the people of Darfur.
First and foremost, it saved many lives. Although a huge number of people were killed in the scaled of the tragedy could have been far worse without UNAMID.
The mission did not just protect civilians. It helped Darfur in terms of security and the economy, contributing to building civilian institutions, digging water wells, and providing jobs to unemployed youth.
I was personally inspired by the work of UNAMID to work for the United Nations. I was happy because I saw the reality of the UN, how it served my region and made a huge difference in so many peoples’ lives”.