Two vehicles full of African Union soldiers, sent here to defuse a crisis of violence and mass displacement, roared across the brown desert on patrol. A line of camels appeared...

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KABKABIYAH, Sudan — Two vehicles full of African Union soldiers, sent here to defuse a crisis of violence and mass displacement, roared across the brown desert on patrol.

A line of camels appeared in the distance, carrying robed men and bulging saddlebags. The military vehicles lurched to a halt, and the members of Team Golf jumped out.

The camel riders appeared to be Arab Janjaweed militiamen, a group accused of causing havoc across the African tribal lands of Darfur. The riders displayed no guns, but some had knives tied to their wrists and whips dangling from their saddles.

One African Union officer asked if the riders were police, and they said yes. The officer explained that the riders should be wearing uniforms, but they said it was too hot to put on heavy clothing. The patrol members remained suspicious, but they had no powers to arrest or search the men. All they could do was take notes and send the men on their way.

As the camel convoy departed, several of the riders turned and waved, distinct smirks on their faces.

The brief encounter on a desert ridge was a small illustration of the impotence of the African Union forces sent to Darfur to monitor a cease-fire agreement between the government and rebel fighters. The deployment has been widely viewed as a test case for Africa’s ability to police itself. But as the region unravels in a spiral of conflict and flight, it has become increasingly evident that the multinational mission — the only foreign force on the ground after 22 months of fighting — can do nothing to stop the violence.

Since the troops arrived last spring, they have faced difficulties that have not abated. They are disliked by Sudan’s government, which initially rejected the idea of African intervention. They are grossly undermanned, with a force of 3,300 troops expected to monitor a rugged, undeveloped area the size of France.

They also face language difficulties. The troops come from such diverse countries as Nigeria, Rwanda, Egypt, Ghana and Chad. Some do not speak Arabic and thus cannot communicate with many Sudanese, or even with some of their foreign colleagues.

And they are constrained by a weak official mandate, which prohibits them from using their weapons except to defend themselves, from taking Sudanese into custody and from physically intervening in the conflict in any way. Their daily rounds are officially described as “confidence patrols.”

“You have to talk, talk, talk to each other, and that’s about it,” said Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, a Nigerian officer who heads the mission, speaking in his office in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. “This is not a peacekeeping mission where you can exert force when there needs to be force. And I will tell you, that is not an easy job. That’s not an easy thing to be asked to do.”

In the past month, violence and conflict have flared repeatedly within miles of African Union outposts. There have been clashes between rebel and government forces in the town of Tawila, raids by government troops on camps for displaced families, and reports of growing lawlessness.

Team Golf is assigned to patrol an especially violent part of Darfur known as Sector 4, where sandy tracks wind through abandoned villages. It includes a large desert area called Mistiria, known as a heartland of the Arab militias, and the craggy red Jebel Marra mountains, the base for Darfur’s largest African rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army.

One South African officer described Sector 4 as possibly the most dangerous place in Africa. U.S. Army Maj. Patrick Christian, an adviser working with the African Union, calls it “ground zero.”

Conflicting agendas

Each Team Golf patrol includes six African Union monitors, a liaison officer from the United States or Europe, and a representative from each of Darfur’s three warring parties: the Sudanese Liberation Army, the Justice and Equality Movement rebel group and the Sudanese government. The parties’ conflicting agendas sometimes interfere with the monitors’ impartial mission.

Eight Rwandan soldiers, muscular men in sunglasses, form a protective circle around the monitors as they work. With members from so many countries, even a routine encounter with local residents can be a cacophony of Arabic, English, French and Swahili.

During the tense exchange with the camel riders, a Sudanese translator, Luka Orasio Loya, was rebuked by the Sudanese army representative, Lt. Col. Abu Asala, who insisted the riders had denied having weapons. Loya said no, they had merely said they did not have any weapons with them.

“I have the toughest job in the world,” Loya said afterward, perspiring nervously.

Asala, a stiff man in a tight, olive uniform, was recently reprimanded by African Union officials because he was caught phoning in rebel positions to his field commanders after an African Union security briefing.

“We can’t trust you,” complained Abdullah Mussa Mursal, the Sudanese Liberation Army member. “Come on, man. I’m fighting with you. You’re fighting with me. So how can we allow one another to translate to the observers?”

Later in the patrol, another dispute erupted. Some team members wanted to listen to Koranic verses in Arabic on their vehicle’s cassette player, while others voted for Maj. Jose Manhoco’s tape of “U2’s Greatest Hits.” The Mozambican officer, pulling rank, scolded the men for acting like children and slid in the U2 tape.

As the vehicle bounced along, Asala, a Muslim, pressed the case for Islam. Wasn’t it better than Christianity, he argued, because Muslim men can marry as many as four women at once? Everyone laughed, and the men began boasting about whether the Christians or Muslims among them had better romantic lives.

“Male bonding,” Manhoco said with a shrug. “This is how we ultimately must relate.”

“No one cares”

On a Sunday evening, reports arrived of bombing in Tawila, a strategically located town. A short while later, a group of African Union troops, collecting fuel at the El Fasher airport, spotted government helicopter gunships landing on the runway.

“The government is bombing again. Both sides fight with impunity,” said Maj. Dickson Gatigo, a Kenyan officer standing near the dusty runway and watching the choppers touch down. “No one cares, and this nonsense will continue to go on. It’s endless.”