The mid-January attacks on civilians in west Darfur were the Sudanese government’s first big test of its readiness and ability to protect Darfuri civilians. It failed miserably.
No one should be surprised. On December 22, the United Nations Security Council unanimously decided to terminate the mandate of the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). This decision was taken despite evidence of mounting intercommunal violence in the region.
The Security Council was repeatedly warned that a full pullout of UNAMID peacekeepers would leave Darfuris even more vulnerable to renewed violence. It did not listen.
Just two weeks after the mission ended, the expected happened.
On January 16, armed ethnic Arab militia attacked ethnic Massalit residents of al-Genaina city. They also attacked Kirindig camp, which houses internally displaced ethnic Massalit. The violence, which started as a personal fight between two men from each community, lasted two days.
One man saw his relative shot dead by Arab militias. “My relative tried to help a wounded friend,” he said. “Militiamen appeared and shot him eight times and left him there. By the time we reached him, he was dead.”
Doctors put the death toll at around 150, with 190 injured, including many children. Doctors fear the number will rise as many of those injured could not get adequate medical care. The UN reported that the fighting displaced 50,000 people.
This event was horrific, but completely predictable. The Security Council ended UNAMID’s mandate without ensuring that civilians had reliable protection. And the new UN political mission, UNITAMS, tasked to support Sudan’s political transition, has no mandate to provide physical protection and is still not fully operational.
The Sudanese government forces responsible for protecting these communities have problematic rights records, notably in Darfur. On the fatal day, they were largely absent, allowing Arab militias to attack unchecked.
The UN Security Council can still do right by Darfur. It should strengthen the mandate of UNITAMS to protect Darfur’s vulnerable communities. And the Council and other concerned governments should press the Sudanese government to provide justice for Darfuris harmed by holding those responsible for abuses against civilians to account.