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Mission to Darfur

By Carole LaMond
GateHouse News Service
Thu Jul 19, 2007, 10:53 AM EDT

The conflict in Darfur is the focus of international attention, highlighted by celebrity visits to refugee camps in neighboring Chad and the subject of diplomatic conferences, but Felisa Tibbitts is one of the few U.S. citizens who have ventured deep into the war-torn region of Sudan since the bloodshed began in 2003.

U.S. citizens visiting Sudan are restricted by the Sudanese government to an area within a 25-mile radius of the capital of Khartoum, but Tibbitts, a Sudbury resident, was allowed to travel to remote locations in Darfur in June to conduct interviews with peacekeepers as part of a UN mission.

Appointed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to evaluate and report on the training of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces in Darfur, the mission was considered so dangerous that Tibbitts received advanced training in personal security before beginning the project.


Photo by courtesy
Felisa Tibbitts, center, with the military sector commander and other peacekeepers in Nyala, South Darfur in June.

On Sunday, July 22, Felisa Tibbitts will present a service entitled "Finding Humanity in Sudan: My Trip to Darfur" about her month-long mission to Darfur in June. The Sunday service at First Parish is at 10 a.m. with a light breakfast served at 9:30 a.m. The service is open to everyone.

The 7,000 African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops in Darfur are the only protection for civilians against the government-sponsored Jinjaweed militias and rebel forces. The armed conflict has claimed 250,000 lives and forced more than two million people into refugee camps in Chad or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Darfur. The AU troops are responsible for protecting some 4 million people in a region in western Sudan about the size of Texas.

"The peacekeepers have a fairly restricted mandate as to the ways they can protect civilians," said Tibbitts. "The Sudanese government has been extremely controlling about the degree to which, and the ways in which, the UN has been allowed to have a presence in Darfur."

While Tibbitts was in Sudan the UN Security Council passed a resolution to send a '"hybrid force" of an additional 13,000 peacekeepers from both the UN and the AU to Darfur.

The timing was perfect for Tibbitts's report which provides a comprehensive training protocol for the peacekeeping troops based on the expertise of several humanitarian agencies that had been working separately to provide training to enhance the AU protection capacity.

"There has to be a political resolution," said Tibbitts, "but the Sudanese government allowing the hybrid force to come in means the UN can play a much stronger role in protecting people."

Tibbitts"s task was to meet with the trainers from the United Nations Development Program, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF who specialized in training the peacekeepers in human rights, international humanitarian law, gender-based violence and children’s rights and protection.

"This evaluation was important because it was a major interface between the AU and the UN," said Tibbitts. "We met with trainers, commanders and many UN people involved with protection."

Tibbitts worked with Paul Bonard from Switzerland to interview 63 people and review more than 100 documents during 5 days in Nyala, South Darfur and a week in El Fasher, North Darfur.

"We were moving fast, working from 9 in the morning until 9 at night," said Tibbitts. "Being in Darfur I got a chance to intellectually engagewith how a peacekeeping force does its work."

The long days were repeated in Khartoum where Tibbitts and Bonard wrote their final evaluation report.

As founder and executive director of Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), an international non-governmental organization that specializes in professional development of human rights defenders and educators, Tibbitts is no stranger to the suffering of people who have experienced crimes against humanity.

But until her trip to Darfur Tibbitts had never traveled to an area so unstable that its official status is high risk, or on a mission that has given her such profound respect for people who work at great personal peril to achieve justice and peace.

"I feel privileged to try to support other people working in these countries who are dedicated to promoting the human rights framework and establishing a just society. They are the real heroes. They are the ones in the front lines of the human rights movement," said Tibbitts. "Every day there are human rights violations going on in Darfur and UN human rights workers are putting their lives at risk to get information and bring it to the attention of the Sudanese government."

All offices and accommodations used by UN personnel are guarded and a daily security roll call and curfew are in effect. The stress of the posting - the danger combined with the lack of amenities in the searing 115-degree desert heat - requires a one- or two-week break every two months. Most personnel stay about one year.

"I met some extraordinary people who are working under extremely difficult mental and physical conditions," said Tibbitts. "When I was there in June, 67 UN vehicles had been hijacked since January."

Tibbitts traveled by air in AU planes and helicopters.

As a way to reassure family and friends of her health and safety Tibbitts made regular blog entries about her experiences in Darfur which is available on the Concord-based HREA Web site

Tibbitts also visited the Abu-Shouk IDP camp, one of two camps on the outskirts of El Fasher, where 70,000 people live in tents. There are services at the camp provided by humanitarian groups as well as a thriving brick-making factory.

The visit to the camp made Tibbitts wonder about both the seeming permanency of the camp and the plight of people in IDP camps in more remote areas of the country that are too dangerous for humanitarian agencies to reach.

Despite the deteriorating situation in Darfur, Tibbitts, who recently testified before the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus, believes "there is always hope."

"The attention that the international community keeps on Darfur is extremely important for maintaining pressure on the Sudanese government to resolve the conflict," said Tibbitts.

Tibbitts urges people to remain informed about what is taking place in Darfur, write their congresspeople when relevant legislation arises and get active in political campaigns.

Copyright © 2006-2007 GateHouse Media, Inc. Some Rights Reserved. Original content available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license.




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