The situation in Sudan's Darfur region, already considered to be the world's most complex humanitarian emergency, is expected to worsen this year before it gets any better.
Troubles are mounting on many fronts. Attacks on non-Arab villagers by Arab militias continue. Aid workers say their stores of grain and other essentials for the region's 2.8 million people who rely on food aid are nearly depleted. The conflict has spread into neighboring Chad.
Sudan's government is cooperating less with Western nations and aid groups. And whatever the outcome of a key decision by the African Union (AU) Friday, there's little likelihood that teams of UN peacekeepers will be in place to quell the troubles before next year.
The continentwide organization is expected to vote Friday on whether to transfer its beleaguered military mission in Darfur to UN control. Once considered a fait accompli, the handover is now in doubt because of intense lobbying by Sudan's government, which is pressing its opposition from the UN to the streets of Khartoum, where the government sponsored a demonstration this week against a handover. President Omar el Bashir told reporters menacingly that Darfur would be a "graveyard" for UN troops.
It all portends more stories like those of Jidu Bakr - a lean man with a distant stare who's squatting at the edge of Darfur's largest displaced-persons camp. Huts made of plastic and mud stretch for four miles across the sandy scrub. Last month, Mr. Bakr led three dozen of his kinsmen here, walking nearly 100 miles to escape Arab militia. He's one of 70,000 people the UN says have been recently displaced.
"It was impossible to live," he says, looking distastefully at the horizon of plastic roofs. "So now we've come here."
In all, "the trend is definitely a negative one," says Gemmo Lodesani, the UN's deputy humanitarian coordinator for Darfur, a region the size of Texas. Three years ago, non-Arab rebels took up arms citing marginalization by the central government. The government responded by backing Arab militias that swept some 2 million people into camps and killed at least 200,000.
After a year of relative stability, many thought the problem was improving. As recently as late-January, there was enough cautious optimism - in talks between Darfur rebel groups and the government, in African diplomacy, and in the government's desire for a political accord - that US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier said she expected "the situation in Darfur to be resolved by next year. I think you'll see a UN peacekeeping force and resettlement" of displaced villagers.
Hardly anyone in Sudan is talking like that now. Humanitarian and military officials say the conflict is more complex than ever. Sometimes Arab horsemen known as janjaweed assault villages with the help of government troops. At other times, Arab militiamen, often portrayed as simple tools of the government, exchange fire with Sudanese forces, as they did during a recent attack on women gathering firewood outside Kalma Camp in South Darfur. Elements of Darfur's splintered rebel groups attack government targets - and each other. All parties are accused of banditry, which makes the delivery of food and medical supplies almost impossible in some areas of Darfur.
As security worsens, international aid to Darfur has declined. Carlos Veloso, the emergency coordinator for the UN's World Food Program, says cash shortfalls could lead to malnutrition and disease for up to 2.8 million people. The WFP's once-bulging warehouses are expected to be empty by mid-March, just as the annual "hunger season" - when locally grown food stocks are depleted - begins. "The pipeline," Mr. Veloso says, "is dry."
Also, with the rainy season approaching, many dirt roads will be useless. If food can't reach needy communities by truck, it will have to be dropped by parachute - "very inefficient," Veloso says. One airdrop costs as much as five truckloads of food, contains less grain than a single truck, and is dependent on access to jet fuel, decent weather, and availability of aircraft.
"Instead of feeding 1,000 people, I am feeding 200,'' Veloso says.
Meanwhile, the US nonfood aid budget to Darfur has fallen to $40 million in 2006, from $113 million in 2005, prompting aid groups to cut programs involving health and education. Congress is expected to approve more than $100 million in additional humanitarian aid, but that is unlikely to happen before May.
"The huge humanitarian monster has been left very hungry in Darfur," says Jonathan Veitch, a UNICEF coordinator in Khartoum. In 2004, as the scorched-earth assault on Darfur's non-Arab population reached its height, "donor countries saw camps as the best way to protect the civilian population," Mr. Veitch says. "They cannot walk away from the table now."
UNICEF received $53 million for Darfur last year. So far, it has $1.89 million for 2006 - just 2.1 percent of last year's budget. Under this kind of stress, administrators have already written off many non-emergency programs.
For example, UNICEF currently finances schools for 350,000 children inside the camps, almost half of them girls. "We employ more teachers in Darfur than the (Sudanese) Ministry of Education," said Veitch. "Come July, you can be sure none of those schools are going to be open."
But the need may only become more intense - and diffuse. The conflict has spread past Darfur's westernmost border into neighboring Chad. Attacks and counterattacks by Chadian rebels and government forces - and Darfur rebels and Sudanese military - have escalated so that many of the 200,000 who fled Darfur into Chad for safety are now fleeing back.
Meanwhile, peace talks between rebels and Sudan's government in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, have essentially stalled, despite cajoling by top Western and African diplomats. On Wednesday, talks were thrown into disarray when 19 commanders from one rebel faction disavowed their leader.
"If Abuja fails, the situation will be very bad. Every group will attack the other for new positions," says Maj. Gen. Abden Altaher, a police commander in Darfur. "I hope they can successfully avoid it."
The government is "talking tough" and UN troops wouldn't be in danger of "overt aggression from the Sudanese military," says Ayesha Kajee, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. Although, she says, "covert aggression channeled through intermediaries is another matter."
It all points to a government intent on keeping oil-rich regions of its country, like Darfur, under its control, she says - and is thus "very resistant to any attempts to infringe on its sovereignty," even if "the civilian population is bearing the brunt of that."
• Abraham McLaughlin contributed reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa.
ZAM ZAM, SUDAN - The "Grizzlies" have come to Darfur. Dozens of white Canadian armored personnel carriers, pulled from mothballs last year for use by African Union (AU) forces, sit inert like abandoned moon rovers in the desert sun for want of fuel, ammunition, and training for their crews.
The good news is that the 105 Grizzlies are in Darfur at all. Scheduled to arrive last fall for the African Union's beleaguered mission here, the Sudanese government stalled customs clearance for more than three months, even as AU soldiers died in firefights with bandits and shied away from confrontations with armed groups.
"We've been waiting for these vehicles since last year," says Nigerian Army Sgt. Hossana Obadiah. "The bandits have been getting advantages, hitting the protection forces in their jeeps. These ones are well armored, and they are armed."
The talk in Khartoum used to be of a UN takeover of the African Union forces in Sudan. Fierce opposition by Khartoum, however, could stop a blue helmet force from taking over in Darfur.
That leaves the shredded peace in Darfur, and the security of 3 million people displaced or threatened by two years of ethnic cleansing, in the hands of the undermanned and outgunned AU forces. The forces are short of helicopters, diesel fuel, satellite phones, and radio equipment.
A cornerstone of what AU policymakers call the organization's "new principle of non-indifference," the African Mission in Sudan has been saddled with a watery mandate, a recalcitrant host government, and outsized expectations - primarily the expectation that they could somehow stop the killing in Darfur.
"It's classic for people in a conflict to have high expectations for a major international intervention," says Pierre-Antoine Braud, a military analyst at the European Union-funded Institute for Security Studies in Paris. "They think there will be no more killings and no more rapes."
AU forces are in Darfur as military observers. Their mandate includes an instruction "to protect civilians encountered who are under imminent threat and in the immediate vicinity, within the limits of mission capability, it being understood that civilian protection is the [Sudan] government's responsibility."
Aid workers say AU forces have secured food convoys and increased security at several displaced-person camps. But their numbers - fewer than 7,000 in an area the size of Texas, tell the real story.
"Militarily, you can't cover each and every inch of land,'' says Nigerian Army Col. Ladan Yusuf, commander of the AU forces in Geniena, West Darfur. A graduate of US Army Ranger school and a veteran of peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Yusuf sees his role in Darfur as that of a diplomat. "I use conversations with [rebel] leaders, diplomacy... It is difficult, because they are as strong as I am.''