On 13 Jan 08 at approximately 18:30 hrs a UN WFP driver was shot and wounded in an attempted carjacking. The UN WFP driver picked up a UN WFP radio operator to commence night shift in the Hai Elmitidad area in Geneina town. Four unknown bandits, three armed in military uniform, one unarmed in civilian clothing, approached the vehicle and one of the unknown armed bandits fired without warning a single shot into the vehicle. The bullet went through the side window and injured the upper arm of the UN WFP driver. The driver accelerated to leave the location and communicated the incident to the UN WFP radio room. UN WFP security assistant advised that the driver sought medical treatment immediately at the nearby El Geneina hospital. After initial treatment, the staff member was taken to the UNAMID clinic by UN WFP Security/UNDSS. The staff member suffered a non life-treating gun shot wound without fracture to his upper arm and was admitted to the UNAMID clinic for observation.
The above is a slightly abbreviated entry in the UNAMID Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) dataset from 13 January 2008. The dataset describes security incidents of any kind at the micro level in Darfur, the area of operation for the UN-African Union hybrid mission in Darfur, UNAMID.
The driver in question described in this incident report has possibly many roles: as a local who has secured a good employment position, as working for any UN organisation – in this incident the World Food Programme (WFP) – usually pays well. He – it as a safe bet to assume it is a man, as women do not usually occupy jobs as drivers for any UN entity in the context of Darfur – might be a member of an ethnic group regarded as rebellious by the central government in Khartoum (and thus deliberately targeted). He might simply have been targeted because those who attacked him wanted to carjack the vehicle, a very common occurrence in UNAMID’s deployment environment. Or he might simply have been at the wrong time in the wrong place. Maybe he was targeted within a broader scheme to make work difficult for any UN entity, eventually forcing them to leave or at least put enough pressure on them to abstain from certain activities. Indeed, a former employee of UNAMID’s human rights section told me in February 2016 that at some point during his employment with UNAMID, patrols to check reports on human rights abuses had largely ceased – due to fear of cars and equipment being hijacked (he showed me pictures of a huge car-park full of white landcruisers at Nyala supercamp in Darfur that he said were not moved sometimes for weeks).
The driver on this occasion can be considered lucky, as he had no life-threatening wounds. But attacks like this raise a number of wider questions, not only about the protection of civilian mandates that is at the centre of most peacekeeping missions. It also raises profound questions about the actual conflict missions like UNAMID intervene in, and questions about what drives local populations to behave in particular ways: to either seek employment with the UN, to stay put and carry on with their lives as if UNAMID was not there, to move to an IDP camp within the region, or to up sticks and go on the well-travelled track to neighbouring Chad (or somewhere else).
It also raises important questions about the encounters that happen between UNAMID and the populations that are to be protected. Datasets like those in the JMAC database depend on forms of interaction between local communities and UN missions, UNAMID in this case, but how do such encounters happen? Evidence suggests that most encounters with UNAMID are highly choreographed and mostly either with people who themselves are sheikhs or organized through sheikhs, and in addition complicated by the language issue.
As a Darfuri interviewee in a Chadian refugee camp said in May 2015, representative of wider perceptions in this regard: ‘They [UNAMID] met the sheiks and when people see them at the sheikh’s house everybody can come [ … ] if somebody is good in English they can talk to them directly.’ This distance from normal civilians and their grievances is only one facet of a wider story of incomprehension, not necessarily from lack of trying, but partly caused by the wider parameters behind the deployment of UN peacekeeping missions. As one of the sheikhs who had frequent encounters with UNAMID said in Chad: ‘Their [UNAMID’s] questions were naïve and came too late […] sometimes they carried out investigations two weeks after an incident.’
And then there are incidents like the one described from the JMAC dataset in the vignette above, even if in this case we saw not a direct attack on UNAMID but on another UN entity – but for many locals this difference is rather peripheral. In reflection on the wider usefulness of UNAMID in terms of bringing security violations out in the open and potentially address those, another Darfurian interviewee in Chad said: ‘They [UNAMID] were unable to protect people, but when informed about an incident they come to investigate and report it. [ … ] Sometimes they were unable to protect themselves. It is good to provide them [UNAMID] with information because they have the means to report to the outside world and put pressure on the government. I trust UNAMID more than the police in Sudan’.
In fact, many of those interviewed in Chad in 2015 who had fled Darfur around the time the above vignette was recorded, around 2008, had a number of concrete experiences when they witnessed attacks on UNAMID. One such attack that featured in a number of accounts was in broad daylight at the market of Furbaranga. A UNAMID vehicle with five staff inside was attacked according to those eye- witnesses, one military officer shot and the others ran away and the vehicle was ultimately carjacked. Many thus came to a conclusion along the lines of this farmer from Mokjar who said: ‘UNAMID were unable to protect their own staff and property. UNAMID staff were killed and their vehicles were looted all the time’.
What room for manoeuvre do those dynamics leave for a mission like UNAMID that finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place? In a recent article in International Peacekeeping from which some of the above data is drawn I argue that local knowledge and awareness of the ways in which insecurities are experienced in concrete in everyday encounters add an important and vital dimension to the protection of civilian component of every peacekeeping mission. In addition, rethinking more direct engagement with local population groups that allows systematic inclusion of conflict narratives from all sides into UN reporting would not only contribute to the creation of trust between UN peacekeeping forces and local populations, but also has the potential to contribute to long- term conflict resolution strategies and mediation efforts grounded in local realities.
Image: UNMEE mission in Eritrea. Stefan Boness, iponphoto