Conflicts in Africa are rarely simple to resolve. But Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson said his latest job as the U.N. secretary general's envoy to Darfur has been even more difficult than he imagined.
Even so, Eliasson sees some encouragement for a renewed peace process to end the southern Sudanese conflict that has raged for four years.
At least 200,000 people have been killed and millions left homeless since the 2003 conflict that was triggered by a rebellion in Darfur that has been opposed by government troops backed by their Janjaweed militia allies, who attacked villages in a deadly campaign the U.S. said amounted to genocide.
To stem the bloodshed, Sudan has reluctantly agreed to let some United Nations peacekeepers into Darfur to beef up an under-funded African union force. It still falls far short of what the U.N. is hoping for, but Eliasson is working on another front- trying to get a political agreement.
"There is a beginning of a political process now. The government of Sudan and most of the rebel movements have agreed there is no military solution," he told NPR. "If they have agreed there is no political solution, there is only one way to go, namely the political road."
Only one rebel group signed a peace agreement a year ago and since then, the rebels have splintered. Eliasson says there are as many as 14 rebel movements now and just reaching out to them has been a logistical challenge.
"When we are in north Darfur, we take a helicopter to a place called Umrai — where we sit under the tree with the commanders of (the Sudanese Liberation Army)," he explained. "I have also crossed into Chad, to a little town called Abeche and you take a Land Rover and go to two other groves, where you meet the Justice and Equality Movement and the National Redemption Front."
A peace agreement would deal with issues of compensation as well as wealth and power-sharing arrangements similar to those in the agreement that ended a longer conflict between the Khartoum and Southern Sudan, an autonomous region formed as part of a 2005 peace agreement.
Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth represents the government of Southern Sudan in Washington and is sympathetic to the grievances of the marginalized groups in Darfur.
"They have a genuine cause for fighting the war in Darfur and I think the issue is not only humanitarian issues, it is political issues and the root causes of the conflict have to be addressed," Gatkuoth said.
The U.N.'s Eliasson says there are many other actors to bring in this process — neighbors, such as Chad, as well as the U.N. Security Council. He thinks he's had some success with China, a key business partner of Sudan and a permanent member of the Security Council. China recently appointed a special envoy to Darfur and has agreed to send military engineers as part of a U.N. support package.
While these may be hopeful signs, Eliasson also sees new problems in Darfur.
"There are more people killed now in tribal battles than between the government and rebel movements," he said.
It creates even more of a sense of urgency about resolving the main conflict, Eliasson said.
"Time is on nobody's side," he said.