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It’s difficult to be a peacekeeping force when there’s no peace to keep. It’s difficult when the international community promises you 26,000 peacekeepers, then struggles to give you 10,000. It’s difficult to make much progress when the number of rebel movements involved in the conflict has risen from a handful to more than 30 in the space of two years. And it’s especially difficult to succeed when government militias take it upon themselves to start killing your peacekeepers.

These are the unenviable challenges facing Unamid, the joint United Nations-African Union force charged with bringing peace to Darfur. Created by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 a year ago, Unamid is somehow expected to end a conflict that has lasted almost as long as the Second World War, killed as many as 300,000, according to the UN (10,000 if you prefer the Sudanese government’s estimate), and displaced around 2.5m people, a third of Darfur’s population. Rarely have expectations and realistic possibilities been so ill-matched.

Under the leadership of Rodolphe Adada, former foreign minister of the Republic of Congo, and its Nigerian force commander General Martin Luther Agwai, Unamid is doing a manful job. I spent three months assisting the mission as a communications adviser this summer and saw at first hand the brave work being done in virtually impossible circumstances. With a force of only 10,000 and no armed helicopters it’s hard to protect six million people spread across an area the size of France. One of Unamid’s simplest yet most important tasks is conducting daily firewood patrols, during which peacekeepers escort Darfurian women gathering fuel to cook meals for their families. The patrols are needed to provide security to the women who are otherwise at the mercy of militiamen who rape them with impunity. Ask the Sudanese government about the use of rape as official policy and they’ll tell you it’s a Western invention unknown to Sudan.

Khartoum does a nice line in Doublespeak. On July 8, seven Unamid peacekeepers from Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana were killed in a vicious ambush, the mission’s worst loss of life in its six months. The attack bore the hallmarks of a well-organised Janjaweed attack. In New York, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN’s outgoing head of peacekeeping, pointed the finger at Khartoum. A couple of weeks later, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir suddenly popped up in El Fasher, Darfur. “We want to send this message to the world: we are the people of peace, we want peace .?.?. we are the only ones who can achieve peace in Darfur,” he told the usual rent-a-mob gathering.

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