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Doctors Without Borders exit Darfur

Three aid workers were kidnapped this week, while others express concern about the health of the 1.1 million Darfuris left without assistance.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / March 14, 2009



NAIROBI, Kenya

On her last day in the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan, Gemma Davies, a British staffer with Doctors Without Borders, helped arrange for a gunshot victim to be transferred from the charity group's remote mountain clinic to a faraway state hospital. She watched as doctors discharged a young mother a day after a difficult delivery.

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Then she and about a dozen colleagues lifted off in a helicopter, leaving behind a small local staff, a few weeks' worth of supplies, and a promise to make radio contact twice a day. Their departure, three days before the International Criminal Court was due to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in connection with atrocities in Darfur, was a security precaution. Ms. Davies figured she'd return to the clinic in a couple of weeks.

Now, however, Davies and her team, part of the Dutch arm of Doctors Without Borders, are banned from Darfur after Sudan expelled 13 international humanitarian agencies and three domestic groups last week who were working in the troubled region. Soon after the warrant was announced, Mr. Bashir accused the foreign agencies of collaborating with the court – which they deny – and Sudanese authorities began freezing their bank accounts and confiscating computers, telephones and radios.

AID WORKERS KIDNAPPED

[On Wednesday, three members of the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped at gunpoint from their compound in northern Darfur. The aid organization said Thursday that it would now withdraw most of its remaining international staff back to Khartoum, forcing the closure of several more clinics and medical facilities. The gunmen seized a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator, along with two Sudanese guards who were later released. Negotiations for their release are underway, the Associated Press reports.]

The future of the clinic where Davies worked – and that of scores of programs throughout Darfur that provided clean drinking water, sturdy latrines, prenatal care, vaccinations, schooling, and emergency food for malnourished children – is in doubt. The clinic and many other sites are cut off from communication and supply lines, reduced to islands in a harsh, sprawling scrubland the size of Texas.

Relief groups are scrambling to shutter their offices, pay off local staff members and vacate the country, with no idea how – or whether – their programs will continue. The United Nations estimates that the expulsions will affect 1.1 million people.

"We're very concerned that we've left patients behind," Davies said in an interview in Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya, where many expelled aid workers are beginning to arrive.

WHO WILL HELP DARFUR'S NEEDIEST?

A day before flying home to London, Davies sat in a plush banquette at a sleek new Nairobi coffee shop, 1,500 miles and a universe removed from the craggy Jebel Mara mountains in southern Darfur, where she'd worked for the previous six months in a village called Feina. She had three months remaining on her contract.

The free clinic in Feina, established two years ago, is the only health facility serving some 90,000 people who've been displaced by fighting and are scattered throughout the mountains. The nearest decent hospital, in the city of Nyala, is an eight-hour drive away, if rains haven't washed out the road. In an average month the clinic saw about 3,000 patients.

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