German troops have been deployed as military observers in Sudan for the past two years as part of the United Nations peacekeeping effort there. In a country torn apart by civil war, their job is to ensure a peace the government in Khartoum has little interest in preserving.
The first shots are fired at 6:49 p.m. What begin as individual rounds soon builds into a thunder of weapons fire from machine guns, hand grenades and mortars. The civil war has returned to Malakal, and Frank Maginsky, a German military observer in Sudan, is there to record its every detail in the duty officer's log book.
Maginsky, 36, a well-trained German soldier with his brown hair in a short crew cut, is sitting in a container-like office wearing a green T-shirt and camouflage trousers. He is unarmed. Military observers are not permitted to carry weapons.
The positions of the southern Sudanese rebel army and government troops from the country's north are marked in red on a satellite photograph of Malakal hanging above Maginsky's desk. He is familiar with their ammunition dumps, the positions of tanks and the numbers of soldiers fighting amid mud huts not far from his makeshift office, where 2,000 southern Sudanese rebels face off against 1,000 government troops from the North. And Maginsky is sitting in the middle of it all.
The southern portion of Africa's largest country is officially at peace. Yielding to massive international pressure, the warring parties in Sudan's civil war signed a peace treaty in 2005 that would end a bloody conflict that has lasted almost 25 years and has cost two million people their lives and almost five million their homes. And yet despite the existence of this treaty, the two groups -- the Arab military regime in the north and the black rebels in the partly Christian south -- continue to eye one another with deep suspicion. But instead of bringing real peace to the region, the treaty represents an attempt and a glimmer of hope. But that hope is dissipating from one day to the next. The old hostility between the country's North and South is still alive and well.
It was only a question of time before the first serious breach of the peace treaty would transpire. Late last November, rebels and government forces fought a battle that lasted two days and two nights. When the fighting subsided, it was Captain Maginsky's job to have the wounded taken away, the dead counted and graves dug.
The fighting at Malakal barely made it into the news in Germany, where only three newspapers printed short reports on the unrest in southern Sudan. There was no mention of German soldiers stationed between the fronts.
"Nobody at home has any interest in us whatsoever," says Maginsky. He and his fellow German military observers are frustrated. Far from Western civilization and their military leadership, the German soldiers feel like a forgotten unit. Although they have now resumed their daytime patrols in the area, the nights are filled with looting, arson and robberies.
Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, has been part of the UN mission in Sudan since 2005. Of the 10,000 troops from just under 70 countries involved in the peacekeeping effort, about 9,000 carry weapons to protect the mission. The German soldiers, however, are part of a group of 750 unarmed observers -- the eyes and ears of the mission. Their job is to monitor the two armies of the former parties to the civil war, writing reports, listening and acting as intermediaries, but never taking sides. Military observers perform their service with notebooks in hand, not weapons.
This explains why the German effort in Sudan is uncontroversial and has not sparked any significant political debate in Germany. There was little opposition among Germans to the idea of sending their troops to peaceful southern Sudan, not to the troubled western part of the country and not to Darfur. Besides, the UN was pressuring Germany to take a more active role in its peacekeeping missions. This lack of controversy prompted the German parliament, the Bundestag, to approve the mission almost unanimously and with little opposition. Since then about 35 German military observers have been patrolling Sudan. Each group remains in the country for six months before it is replaced with a new contingent.
Captain Thomas Braun is one of a group of 15 German soldiers who recently arrived in Sudan. Braun is on a plane bound for Malakal, where there was unrest only a week ago. The aircraft has been flying over a seemingly endless savannah for the last two hours. Braun, who quickly tired of staring out at the red wasteland, is leaning back in his seat. He says that he is unafraid, although he does have a slightly uneasy feeling in his stomach.
Braun, a powerfully built 36-year-old with a firm handshake, wears a green helmet, but it lacks the blue material that would identify him as a UN peacekeeper -- and as a soldier with nothing but peaceful intentions.
He was initially convinced that even wearing the helmet would be unnecessary for someone being sent to Sudan to keep the peace. But with everything Braun has now heard about the area where he will be stationed, he now knows that a bulletproof helmet is an absolute necessity. He is even beginning to worry that, "in a battle they'll think I'm the enemy, because of the green helmet." The plane dips as it approaches Malakal.
Only officers -- men older than 30, with sufficient experience and mature personalities -- are considered for the job. Indeed, model soldiers like Braun and Maginsky are in great demand these days in hot spots like Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Horn of Africa. Braun would have preferred to go to Afghanistan, and his orders to deploy to Sudan came as a shock. Even more disconcerting was the notion that he would be more or less alone and unarmed -- not a pleasant thought for an infantry soldier. To make matters worse, military personnel often hold unarmed missions in low regard.
Braun, a career soldier who has been serving in the Bundeswehr for 12 years, normally works as the commander of a property protection regiment. He likes his job so much that he even wears his uniform to friends' weddings. When asked about the dangers of his profession, he responds: "Well, firemen go into burning houses." Braun is a levelheaded man, calm when others become nervous.
He has read a lot about Africa and Sudan in recent weeks, and has painstakingly studied the characteristics of the various tribes. He is familiar with the patterns of facial scarification with which the locals identify themselves as members of their particular tribes. He uses his index finger to trace some of the patterns on his forehead, like someone mumbling out loud as he learns vocabulary. "Knowing who belongs to whom in this country could very well save my life one day," says Braun.
A travel guide to Sudan -- indeed, the only guide of its kind -- is stowed somewhere in his 100 kilograms of luggage. When he wrote it in 2005, the book's British author had little to say about the country's south, except that it was a lawless and difficult place whose hazards include landmines and armed militias. "Not for cowards," he wrote.
A fellow soldier called Braun from Malakal shortly before his flight took off for the region. "Imagine the worst; it's even worse than that ..." the man said before the connection was lost.
Anyone getting off a plane in Malakal feels both trapped and exposed. Aside from the Nile River, the small airfield is the city's only gateway. It is inaccessible by car. After traversing bush for 25 kilometers (16 miles), the single road leaving Malakal ends in a minefield.
That evening, after landing in Malakal, Thomas Braun is sitting at a table outside, wearing shorts and flip-flops, eating hamburgers and drinking canned beer. He is sharing the quarters of three other German soldiers, and one of them is Frank Maginsky.
The men have rented a stone hut complete with a toilet and shower, and even a few hours of electricity every day -- luxury digs by Malakal standards. Most houses in the city are round mud structures with straw roofs, and most residents get their water from the Nile. Food is scarce, and so is medicine.
The Germans are sitting on a makeshift porch behind the house, which is surrounded by a fence, tall sheets of corrugated metal and dense wire mesh. Their day's work done, these military observers are no longer required to observe anything in Malakal. Maginsky shows Braun the bullet holes on the porch, in the front door and in the water tank. The war, which everyone here refers to as the conflict, has left its mark.
Braun calls his wife before going to bed. After dating for 12 years, the couple decided to marry before he left for Sudan. He calls to let her know how he's doing.
When Braun crawls under his mosquito net for the first time on this evening, he takes along his uniform, boots and important papers. His backpack stands, packed and ready to go, next to his flak vest. His green helmet lies at his feet.
Part 2: "Malakal is heating up again"Braun's new responsibilities begin the next morning when he accompanies his first patrol in a large, white armored vehicle as it drives slowly along the Nile. The vehicle cannot move any faster in Malakal, where potholes and pedestrians set the pace. The streets are crowded with women carrying heavy baskets and canisters on their heads, children in school uniforms, soldiers and donkey carts loaded with wood. The only motorized vehicles on these streets are the UN's.
This morning's convoy consists of seven vehicles. The military observers are in front, followed by police trucks and the armed protective force.
Children line the streets, waving and screaming "Kavagga" -- "white man." The white men smile and wave in return, eager to demonstrate that they are here to support the city's residents. This message of goodwill is the main purpose of their two-and-a-half-hour drive.
A man passes the convoy on a bicycle, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder as nonchalantly as a backpack. The patrol's leader stops the man to inform him that carrying the gun is prohibited. The Sudanese have only been allowed to carry weapons inside their military bases since the fighting began. Nevertheless, the military observer lacks the authority to confiscate the man's weapon.
"Many civilians have taken advantage of the chaos of recent weeks to help themselves to the weapons caches lying around in the rubble," explains one of the peacekeepers. In Malakal, anyone who carries a weapon significantly improves his chances of getting hold of meat, potatoes or bread.
Suddenly Thomas Braun freezes when a young boy, no more than six, points an automatic pistol at him. The thought that the boy is a child soldier shoots through his head, but the gun is only a toy. The other men in the vehicle say nothing.
In an effort to gauge the statistical risk he faces, Braun has researched the number of incidents among unarmed military observers. "So far there has only been one kidnapping, but no deaths," he says. But this only covers German statistics. In fact, close to 80 people have already lost their lives worldwide while serving as unarmed peacekeepers. Four military observers from four different nations were killed in Lebanon only last July.
That evening a tattered piece of paper makes the rounds -- a press release from the southern Sudanese rebels, in which they write that they fear a major offensive from the northern militias and are already threatening with a counterattack.
The news triggers an exodus out of the city. Someone from the UN's travel office spreads the rumor that non-essential UN personnel are to be airlifted out of Malakal. The rumor is confirmed and the UN's planes quickly fill up.
"Malakal is heating up again ..." Braun writes in his journal that evening. Like fellow German Maginsky, he is now in the thick of things.
But the South's almost daily accusations are part of the routine here. And whenever they are made, it is time for the military observers to head out into the field to determine whether there is any truth to the rebels' claims.
This time it is Maginsky's turn to embark on one of these fact-finding missions, as he speeds down the Nile in a boat accompanied by an armed unit of peacekeepers. Two UN soldiers from Bangladesh keep watch with machine guns at the front and rear of the craft. The rebel army from the south is apparently gathering in Kaldak, 35 kilometers (22 miles) downstream.
The UN contingent arrives to a cool reception in Kaldak, where the rebel brigadier general has no intention of receiving a lieutenant commander from Germany in his hut. Instead, his men bring out green plastic chairs and set them up in a circle under a palm tree. A single purple chair is reserved for the general.
James Koang Nhial Gai, a large, heavy man, appears accompanied by two bodyguards wearing dark sunglasses. Instead of a uniform, the general wears dark green trousers and a black shirt. Even without a military uniform, Gai retains his authority. The general leans his bulky torso forward and stares at Maginsky, as if he intended to nail the German officer to his chair with his gaze. "We are cowards now," he says in broken English, "but the time will come when we will be brave." He pauses to allow his words to sink in. Then he adds: "We have weapons."
There is a lot of oil in the Malakal region, where wells produce 330,000 barrels a day. According to the terms of the peace treaty, the revenues and the oil fields should have been divided up fairly between the North and the South long ago. But in reality the northern Sudanese government continues to collect the lion's share of profits from the country's mineral wealth. Anything that gets in the way of peace and implementation of the treaty benefits the North, and political observers are convinced the Khartoum government has encouraged the militias to provoke war in Malakal.
General Gai is upset. Upset with the North, and upset with the UN, which, he claims, is doing nothing to stop the Khartoum government's intrigue-ridden war games. He expects the UN to take a tough stance against the militias.
At 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade, the sweat begins to form thick, dark bands on Maginsky's blue baseball cap. The German draws on his repertoire of diplomatic skills, patiently explaining the UN's role. The UN troops, he tells the Sudanese general, are only neutral intermediaries who cannot and have no desire to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation. He pieces together his words as if he had learned them by heart. Indeed, he has given similar speeches on many an occasion over the last four months.
The mission is an arduous one, and its purpose is often questioned in the blue helmets' barracks. "How much can 750 military observers accomplish in a region the size of Western Europe?" asks a major who, like Maginsky, has been patrolling the area for months. "We are just the fig leaf here," he adds. There have been too many occasions when he would ask the rebels about their troop strength and weapons depots, only to receive no response in return. "I seriously doubt that we are creating a lasting peace here." The major is counting the days until the end of his mission.
Braun disagrees. He admits he can't change the world here, but, swinging his fist in the air, he insists that what he is doing there is making some small difference. He still has five months ahead of him.
Braun does his best to stay optimistic. There have been many occasions when the UN has observed peacekeeping efforts while ultimately failing to prevent war. The missions in Bosnia and Rwanda ended disastrously. But in Cambodia and Burundi, the UN has established a lasting peace. Whether the blue helmets will succeed in Sudan remains to be seen.
Lieutenant Commander Frank Maginsky believes that the danger has passed, as least for the time being. Before leaving Kaldak he radios the following message back to Malakal: "No plans to attack today." The peace is holding up -- for today at least.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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