A slick visit to Darfur’s red carpet camps

November 25, 2009

There was a time when visits to Darfur were uncertain affairs, fraught with danger. These days — as long as you travel with the right people and stick strictly to the right route — they can be as comfortable as a coach trip.

The African Union delegation plane touched down in El Fasher, North Darfur’s capital, at 9.35 a.m. on Tuesday. We were on the bus heading back to the airstrip at 4.40 p.m.

In between, the members of the African Union’s peace and security council visited the governor’s walled-in compound, where ambassadors watched tribal dancing and a PowerPoint presentation (complete with CD-ROM handout).

The next stop was the heavily secured UNAMID peacekeeping headquarters. Next, a razor-wired police station, 200 metres outside a displacement camp, where around 40 residents had been waiting for two hours to talk to the delegates.

Forty-five minutes later, the 18-vehicle convoy of buses, 4x4s and armed escorts drove slowly through Abu Shouk camp. Then there was one final stop at the governor’s to eat dinner and admire his collection of gazelle and exotic birds. The AU ambassadors and women in the party received souvenir mats.

Darfur has got used to hosting visitors in the six years since it became one of the world’s best known conflict zones.

North Darfur’s governor Osman Kebir told Tuesday’s trip he had welcomed about 800 delegations since July 2006 which would make about one a day, without adjustment for understandable overstatement.

One official was overheard referring to El Fasher’s “red carpet camps” where residents turn out to welcome party after party.

It was a reminder just how slick all sides to the Darfur conflict have become in selling their story to passing dignitaries — the rebels too have their spokespeople, websites and organised media tours.

Critics question the use of these Darfur day-trips, especially around El Fasher, which is a world away from the region’s remaining badlands where four groups of foreigners have been kidnapped since March.

Members of the AU group defended the visit, saying it was a symbolic gesture of concern and solidarity, adding they would pass on the points made during the 45-minute briefing in Abu Shouk to Khartoum and their headquarters in Addis Ababa.

It might have been interesting to find out what the residents of Abu Shouk themselves thought about the quick consultation.

But this journalist and a colleague were quickly brought back into line when we tried to sneak out of the police compound and walk to the edge of the actual camp.

“You can’t go there, what are you doing?” asked one of the officials with the AU group. “You might speak to the wrong people … And why are you making things more complicated for us than they already are?”

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