It is Africa’s largest country, split by the Nile River and split too by the ravages of war. Sudan, its people weary from 22 years of civil war, struggles with an uneasy truce. The conflict has left four million people homeless and displaced, two million have died.
It is against this awful backdrop that members of the New Zealand Defence Force support the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) from the UN’s heavily protected compound in Khartoum.
For the past four months, the compound, surrounded by walls topped with razor wire and its entrance protected by large, concrete blast walls, has been home to New Zealand’s Major Paul Hayward.
He works as chief military planner for the UNMIS, burdened with the task of making sure both sides – the Sudan Armed Forces (government forces) and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) stick to the 2005 peace agreement.
Part of Hayward’s job is to help plan the UN’s future military operations in the Sudan after July 9, when South Sudan will secede from North Sudan. He provides military information and recommendations to the UN headquarters in Khartoum and liaises with the military planners at UN headquarters in New York.
“On the military side of things that means monitoring the ceasefire agreement and the two parties to ensure they are adhering to the agreement.”
Helping out in the field are two other New Zealanders, Captain Aldis Malskaitis, based in Bor, and Captain Marcus Fowler in the flashpoint Abyei region, both acting as unarmed military observers. They form part of a comprehensive UN team who are the eyes and ears on the ground.
Malskaitis is involved in monitoring inter-tribal conflicts and cattle raiding, says Hayward. In addition he is monitoring the withdrawal and dissolution of the Sudan Armed Forces and the SPLA units. Fowler is mainly observing the state of North-South tensions.
This gives the New Zealand Defence Force an overall perspective, Hayward says. “There are three very different facets to our roles. This enhances our understanding of what is going on here.”
As Hayward hurries through the compound, clad in camouflage gear and the UN’s blue beret, local military officers check people into what is the logistical and operational command centre for one of the world’s largest peacekeeping operations.
Although many of the UN observers are unarmed the AK-47s slung over the shoulders of the checkpoint men show the UN can take no chances with the security of its Khartoum headquarters.
It is from here that the efforts of 10,000 soldiers and 4000 civilians from nearly 70 countries are co-ordinated to help stabilise a country 10 times the size of New Zealand which has been ripped apart by civil war.
Hayward, who served with the New Zealand Defence Force in East Timor and in Vanuatu for two years, manages a multinational team that includes two Croatians, a Brazilian, a Finn and a Nigerian.
“There are a few main challenges. First, it’s trying to understand the situation given the complexities and size of the area. You know, there are swamps in the South the size of the North Island. Second is then being able to have an influence on things that are occurring.”
Fears that Sudan will descend into another North-South war have grown steadily since the South voted for independence in a January referendum.
Recent spikes in violence in the disputed oil-rich Abyei region have accelerated the tension and added weight to concerns that the country is on the brink of a return to full-scale hostilities.
Last month, Northern troops deployed into Abyei, scattering the Southern Peoples’ Liberation Army forces, ostensibly in response to an SPLA attack on a UN convoy and northern troops several days earlier.
Abyei town was left ablaze and about 15,000 people fled the violence.
The number of fatalities remains unclear.
The UN condemned the attack as violating the terms of the CPA, while many analysts suggest that the move was part of a land grab by the North before secession, or an attempt to scuttle Southern independence.
Juba and Khartoum claim sovereignty over Abyei – a region inhabited year-round by the Dinka Ngok, allied to the South, and used by Messiria tribesmen for cattle grazing – which sits between the South of Sudan and the West Kurdufan province in the North.
Tensions between the Dinka and Messiria have come to represent North-South hostilities. On May 24, militiamen from the Messiria acting almost certainly under the auspices of Khartoum fired upon four UN helicopters in Abyei. The UN say that more than 40,000 people have fled Abyei.
Hayward says that New Zealand’s unarmed observer in Abyei, Marcus Fowler, is safe and will be staying in his role.
“I keep in regular contact with him. The UN has a number of force protection measures in place there.”
Walking to a cafe in the centre of the compound, soldiers from Sri Lanka sitting nearby, Hayward piles six bottles of water on the table.
The temperature will reach 42 degrees Celsius later in the day and he will need them.
The compound, he says, is a “professional melting pot as well as a cultural melting pot”.
“Some officers from other countries are on their fourth tour here. So there is a lot of experience among the military staff.
“Some have held key positions at the United Nations headquarters in New York, so they bring that experience back down to mission level.
“They can often provide that key bit of info that makes it click together.
“There’s always someone able to offer an explanation and qualified opinion.”
The UNMIS mandate in Sudan expires on July 9. Khartoum has, at least publicly, insisted that UNMIS will not be staying in North Sudan.
Hayward says: “As long as I’ve been honest and done my best to provide the right advice, information and recommendations on the military aspects, that’s what I want to leave behind.”