In this remote corner of northwestern Darfur, on the Chad border and just south of Libya, African Union soldiers deployed to bring peace to one of the world's most violent regions are preoccupied mostly with defending themselves.
The 71,000 residents of the village surrounding the African Union's windswept base are long since gone, most of them to refugee camps in Chad. Donkeys graze the empty fields around houses now abandoned.
It was just a year ago last month that Sudan's government signed a peace treaty with the southern rebels it had fought for more than two decades in a war that claimed some 2 million lives. The comprehensive peace agreement was the work of many, among them U.S. officials such as former envoy and U.N. ambassador John C. Danforth of Missouri.
Champions of the north-south peace deal believed that it would hasten resolution of conflicts elsewhere in Sudan, especially the wholesale bloodletting in the western region of Darfur that led to accusations of government genocide.
Sudan's leaders reluctantly agreed to permit a group of peace monitors under the aegis of the African Union, the newly recast organization of African nations eager to show that Africa itself could take the lead in addressing African conflicts.
Yet today Darfur remains on fire, and the country's otherwise fragile peace is very much at risk.
A U.N. report last week said Sudan's government had repeatedly violated cease-fire commitments in Darfur and had done nothing to disarm pro-government militias. It said rebel groups were equally at fault, fighting among themselves while pulling in weapons from Chad, Libya and Eritrea.
As for the African peacekeepers, in places like Tine, the past three months have seen increasingly aggressive attacks—against themselves.
In October, 38 African Union military observers in Tine were taken hostage and then released, with the loss of weapons and four vehicles. In November, a patrol was ambushed; five soldiers were wounded. Last month a convoy was attacked. The driver of an African Union truck was killed and nine soldiers were wounded, five of them seriously.
African Union officers in Tine blame the first attack on one of the rebel factions. They don't know who was responsible for the others. It might have been militias backed by Sudan's government. It might have been rebel units. It might have been bandits.
The African Union forces are armed only with AK-47 automatic rifles. They patrol in open pickups, and for communications they compete for access to a single radio frequency. Paychecks for the previous month, as usual, are running several weeks late.
For all those reasons, the soldiers and police deployed in Tine from across Africa eagerly support their proposed replacement by a U.N. force—so long as it comes with new resources and a stronger mandate.
"If the United Nations comes in at the same strength as the AU is at now, it won't solve the problem any more than the AU has," says sector commander Lt. Col. Alex Angogo of Kenya. "The will is there," he added. "The capability—that is the question."
Qualms about U.N.
A week's reporting in Darfur, "embedded" with African Union troops, shows that the African Union military observers, civilian police and protection forces have clearly made a difference—patrolling farms and towns, protecting women from attack, reducing the number of direct battles between Sudanese government forces and the fractious rebel groups in opposition.
The African Union's limitations are just as apparent, from poor communication and lack of staff coordination to the impossible task of securing a region as big as Texas with a force just 7,000 strong—especially with no mandate to disarm fighters on both sides of a conflict that has so far killed at least 200,000 civilians and displaced nearly 3 million from their homes.
Now the U.N. is being asked to take over, with a U.S.-backed call from the Security Council 10 days ago that calls for putting the African Union troops under control of the U.N. mission created to aid the north-south peace process.
The existing mission to Sudan, however, is itself underfunded and understaffed. The United States and other donor nations have balked at full funding for U.N. operations elsewhere in Africa. And the Bush administration was unable to persuade Congress to appropriate even $50 million to sustain U.S. support for the African Union mission in Darfur.
Experts on the ground say the new mission must build on the African Union's main strength: putting an African stamp on peacekeeping efforts.
Already, demonstrations in Sudan have linked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for a U.N. force to U.S. influence.
"I think the people misunderstood the speech of Kofi Annan," said Jean Nordmann, director of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "They believe that in fact they're going to be invaded by Westerners.
"The AU is only subsidized by a few countries. The AU is doing...a wonderful job. But they don't have the means that they should have. They don't have the power that they should have."
The African Union's positive impact was apparent just a few miles from Nordmann's office, in the four-mile-long jumble of grass huts and plastic tarps that make up Kalma—home to some 90,000 Darfurians driven from their homes by the fighting and confined now in what is considered the world's largest camp for internally displaced people.
On the morning of a visit a few weeks ago, hundreds of women ventured out north of the camp, gathering firewood in the open plains. They did so under the watchful eye of African Union civilian police, part of a firewood protection patrol that began in December.
In November, there were 11 incidents of rape and assault in the firewood-collection area, aid workers said. In the first month after the start of African Union patrols, the number of incidents dropped to four.
"The African Union presence has been incredibly important," said Alfredo Zumiago, the Kalma camp coordinator. "It is a major impact, to the better."
The African Union force wasn't able to stop violence near its outpost in Tawila, on the border between north and south Darfur.
A couple of miles away, a camp known as Dali housed 18,000 displaced people up until late September. According to a U.N. report published last week, the camp and town were attacked by a convoy of Sudan government military and police. Five elderly people were killed, homes were set ablaze and people fled. The unarmed African Union police were no match for the government troops, and they fled as well, back to their base.
A mid-January visit to Dali found the camp and its hundreds of tents empty. Sacks of food-aid flour and sugar stood as mute testament, in some huts, to the speed with which people had left.
Most took shelter in mountains to the south. Some 5,000 people sought refuge with the African Union, throwing up grass huts in an ad hoc camp just outside the fence of the African Union base.
"You heard them talking about peace," said Lt. Col. Wisdom Bleboo of Ghana, the African Union sector commander. "They want peace tomorrow. How do they get it? By international support. If the American government can support the African Union—financially, anyhow they can do it—then the people of Darfur can see the peace they're yearning for everyday."
Reflection on Rwanda
African Union officials hope security will improve with the addition of armored personnel carriers, but even those aren't enough, says Capt. Gianni de Luccia, a former tank commander serving on the Chad border as an observer for the European Union. De Luccia has served in other U.N. missions, including three tours in Kosovo. He chafes at the far more restrictive African Union mandate here.
"We are not peacekeepers here—it's not true to call us that," he said. "I'm here with my pencil and my book. Give me a helmet and a flak jacket, radio communication, a quick-reaction force, and then I can do it like a peacekeeper.
"But here? Here we're just having fun in the desert."
Will a new approach by the U.N. make a difference, in places like Tine and Tawila and the Kalma displaced-people camp?
Brig. Gen. Frank Kamanzi, the African Union's deputy force commander, said he welcomes a U.N. takeover. The question, he said, is how long will it take—and how strong will it be.
The United Nations touted by so many now as the answer for Darfur hasn't performed so well in other recent conflicts, he notes. Its record in his native Rwanda, in 1994, was shameful.
Kamanzi recently completed a year's fellowship at the National Defense University in Washington, where he had access to classified U.S. archives on the genocide in his country that claimed some 800,000 lives.
"In 1994, the United States and the West, and the United Nations, they knew everything that was happening," he said. "It just wasn't in their interest to do anything."
Kamanzi said he feared the pattern was similar, in Darfur today.
"People need to learn lessons," he said. "The problem isn't making mistakes - everyone makes mistakes. The problem is making the same mistake over and over."
Jon Sawyer, former Post-Dispatch Washington bureau chief, directs the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He traveled to Sudan on assignment for the public-television program "Foreign Exchange."