By SAM MASTERS
Aicha Elbasri thought the war was over. The conflict in Darfur was no more; now the process of rebuilding lives and relocating the millions of displaced could begin.
The person responsible for what some now call the largest single leak in United Nations history continues to realise she was very wrong. The conflict in the disputed region in Sudan continued with renewed intensity, only fewer people are prepared to talk about it openly.
In the past month, however, after the alleged mass rape of up to 200 villagers in Tabit, north Darfur, by those described as government soldiers – something the Sudanese army denies – violence against innocent men, women and children is again being discussed.
The UN/African Union force in the region, Unamid, has faced criticism for allegedly failing to investigate the latest attacks, and for stating that there was no evidence they had taken place at all.
Vocal protests continued on Tuesday in a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Israel and Chad, over the supposed failure to investigate the attack properly.
It was not the first time the mission in Darfur had been accused of failing to investigate alleged crimes by government forces. Two years ago, a whistleblower disclosed allegations of failures to investigate adequately allegations of rape and murder. Hundreds of internal documents supported the allegations.
After some time and indecision, the claims triggered a New York investigation, the findings of which are yet to be disclosed.
The person who made the claims was Ms Elbasri, who worked with Unamid for eight months as the mission’s spokesperson, after joining the UN in 2000 and working in Iraq, Jordan and New York. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday from Paris, she says she was drawn to Unamid in 2009 when based in Baghdad.
“I also read the Secretary-General’s reports on Darfur, which made me believe that peace was on the way,” she said. “The reports painted an overly sunny picture of Darfur. They spoke of the decline in violence, the massive return of refugees and the robustness of Unamid troops.”
It soon became apparent that the conflict was far from finished. In fact, the violence was rife. In El Fasher, less than 30 miles from Tabit, she said she was told by colleagues after a number of clashes in north Darfur that the situation was “calm”.
In fact, she claimed, she discovered that civilians in four villages had been attacked by Sudanese government forces on the suspicion that they supported insurgents. It was for the same reason, villagers said, that soldiers entered Tabit village on 31 October, allegedly beating its men and raping its women and children.
In one of a number of documents Ms Elbasri has disclosed, she said she was written to by a senior member of the mission and told that “information flow” was subjected to considerable manipulation in relation to the 2012 attacks.
“I had worked for the UN since 2000, and had never seen anything like this,” Ms Elbasri said. “I had certainly witnessed lies, half-truths and culpable silence, but not in a systematic and organised manner.”
After months of raising her concerns with her employers, she chose to blow the whistle and resigned in April last year. Eventually, New York demanded an investigation into the claims. In August, Unamid said it would co-operate fully with the investigation.
Two days before the Tabit attacks began, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the investigation had not found evidence to support allegations that Unamid intentionally sought to “cover up crimes against civilians and peacekeepers”.
But Mr Ban said he was “deeply troubled” by the findings of the review which did, he admitted, find a “tendency to under-report unless absolutely certain of the facts”.
The full report from the investigation is yet to be released to Security Council members or published.
“It is unprecedented that a review of the UN is still refusing to hand the entire report to the members of the Security Council and the International Criminal Court [ICC] without giving any reason,” said Ms Elbasri.
The ICC has issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. He is accused of, and denies, genocide in Darfur.
On Thursday, it was reported that the Sudanese government had asked Unamid to close its human rights office in Khartoum for what was described by the state news agency as a “restoration of stability”. Ms Elbasri said: “The Sudanese government has been claiming that its regular and irregular forces are angels, incapable of committing rape crimes that run against Islamic teachings.”
Tensions between Unamid and Khartoum have increased since the Tabit attacks. The mission has yet to respond to requests for comment. But for Ms Elbasri, who thought the war in Darfur was over: “Nothing has changed.”