As the war in Darfur approaches its sixth anniversary, there's a tendency to heap all the blame for the region's calamities on the Sudanese government. If something bad happens, this thinking goes, then the guilt must wholly and indubitably rest with the government—no further reflection needed. Most of the time that's probably true. But at times the Sudanese government also serves as a convenient scapegoat for the missteps of the international community. A case in point is a newly released whitewash report from the United Nations and its peacekeeping force (UNAMID) about an attack on a Darfur refugee camp last August.
Briefly, here's what happened. Acting on concerns that Kalma camp, the largest in Darfur, was a haven for rebels, Sudan's state security decided it was time for a disarming mission and stormed the camp. An angry crowd quickly formed and the government opened fire. The Sudanese military says it was attacked first; the camp's inhabitants say the shooting was unprovoked. The truth is likely somewhere in between. Regardless, when the shooting stopped, 31 of the camp's inhabitants lay dead and more than 100 were wounded.
So how, then, does the international community share the blame in this? Directly, it doesn't. But indirectly, its neglect to control the camp contributed heavily to the events. For that, consider the "background and context" in the U.N. report that explains how the Kalma incident came about: "South Darfur governmental authorities have frequently asserted that there is a presence of political, criminal and armed movement elements within the camp," the report states.
That hardly does justice to the Sudanese government's allegation. In fact, it's not just the Khartoum regime that believes the camps are militarized. In my last several trips to Darfur, aid workers and peacekeepers have repeatedly complained about the militarization of Darfur's camps, and Kalma camp in particular. None would say it on the record, however, because that might suggest the camp's inhabitants and the region's rebel groups are less than virginal, and thereby earn the wrath of armchair groups like Enough and Save Darfur. But you can see those fears reflected in the scope of humanitarian and peacekeeping activities: NGO workers no longer go into and out of the camps at will, and when they do, none will remain after dark.
And the same goes for U.N. and African Union peacekeepers. As the Kalma report states, "UNAMID Police maintained a daily, but not overnight presence at Kalma IDP camp and thus were not present during the attack." (UNAMID suffers not just from chicken-itis but also laziness: The attack didn't happen in the dead of night, as the previous quote might suggest, but sometime after 8 a.m.)
So here's the unvarnished rub from Kalma: Everyone knew the camp was awash with weapons and fighters, and yet the NGOs and peacekeepers were too timid to do what needed to be done. Consequently, and based on valid security concerns, the Sudanese government stepped in, displaying its customary heavy-handedness. The bloodshed was regrettable, unnecessary, and wholly predictable.
The aid community has worked miracles in Darfur, but it's time for someone to play adult and take charge out there. And part of that means apportioning—and accepting—blame responsibly. As the U.N. report indicates, that hasn't happened yet. But if one good thing did come of it all it's that UNAMID has finally agreed to patrol Kalma all day and all night.
That's a start, but more needs to be done. Incredible as it seems, the international community would do well to remember that Darfur's camps should be for humanitarian purposes. They are not rest-and-relaxation centers, supply depots, or recruitment centers for Darfur's increasingly thuggish rebel groups. And until the international community finally acts responsibly with these camps and enforces some rules, it will continue to accomplish the self-defeating goal of keeping alive not just Darfur's people but also the war from which they've fled.