SHANGIL TOBAYA, Sudan (Reuters) - Asha Ibrahim was searching for firewood when the attackers struck. She had set off with three other women from the makeshift camp where she has lived since conflict broke out in Sudan's Darfur region a decade ago.
"Several men grabbed and raped us," the mother of four said, standing on the dusty square of the Shangil Tobaya camp for displaced people in the north of a region the size of Spain. "All the girls get raped here."
The camp is only a few km from a large base of UNAMID, a joint mission between the African Union and the United Nations and the world's second largest international peacekeeping force. UNAMID has an annual budget of $1.35 billion and almost 20,000 troops mainly from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But it has struggled to protect civilians since it set out in 2008. Attacks, often by Arab "Janjaweed" militiamen, continue according to UNAMID and aid groups. The conflict, which started as a row between African pastoralists and Arab nomads over land, has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced two million.
Amsallam Adam, another woman who lives in the camp, said life beyond the perimeter was dangerous. "Even our men don't dare leave."
UNAMID has a mandate to use force to "protect its personnel, facilities, installations and equipment, and to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its own personnel and humanitarian workers." But it is penned in by both rebel fighters and the government, which has armed Arab militias, according to the U.N. resolutions setting out UNAMID's mission. Around 50 UNAMID peacekeepers have been killed.
"It's kind of open season on UNAMID," said Dane Smith, former U.S. special adviser for Darfur. Sudanese authorities make no effort to arrest culprits, he said. Khartoum denies this.
Critics say UNAMID should be more aggressive. UNAMID officials respond that they need to work with the government or risk getting kicked out.
Even if it wanted to be more aggressive, the force lacks transport, equipment and experienced soldiers. Sudan has rejected the deployment of more robust troops from NATO.
UNAMID has a unified command but in practice all troops report to their individual governments. This makes it a nightmare to respond to emergencies.
When diplomats ask UNAMID commanders why its patrols can't better protect women, they are told that the mission's shift system does not fit in with that of the women searching for wood. One patrol goes in the afternoon, a rather unproductive time, soldiers say, because people stay indoors to escape the heat. The women like looking for wood late at night when it's cooler. But the patrols don't venture too far at night for security reasons.
UNAMID head Mohamed Ibn Chambas said his forces have limited resources. UNAMID stresses that it makes the camps safer and provides basic services such as clean water and hospitals. But women like Ibrahim have given up hope a long time ago. "We have no security, food rations are not enough and no hospitals," she said. "Life is very bad here."
(Edited by Simon Robinson)