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Without aid, Darfuris go hungry

Nearly two months after 13 major international aid agencies were expelled from Sudan, concerns rise that rebel groups are uniting in preparation for fresh attacks.

By Heba AlyCorrespondent / April 20, 2009

In this photo released by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), Sudanese members of the Murle tribe driven from their homes wait to receive food rations from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a distribution point in Pibor, Sudan.

Tim McKulka/UNMIS/AP

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During his visit to Sudan last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts visited the conflict-ridden region of Darfur, calling it a "humanitarian tragedy" that remains a "high priority."

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More than a month and a half after 13 major international aid agencies were expelled from Sudan for allegedly spying on the government, the situation on the ground is ever more grim in a region that was – before the expulsions – home to the world's largest humanitarian aid effort.

Concerns about the humanitarian situation in the semi-arid western Darfur region – where 2.7 million people live in camps for the displaced – come amid increased insecurity for aid workers in the region and claims that rebel groups are uniting in preparation for "change."

"The impact of the expulsions is already being felt across Darfur, but is likely to get even worse in the coming months," wrote Alun McDonald, of the British arm of Oxfam International, in a blog posting last Friday. "One of the largest humanitarian crises in the world could get even worse."

An ongoing conflict between government forces and rebels protesting Darfur's marginalization has lasted six years, leaving up to 300,000 dead and driving almost 3 million others from their homes, according to United Nations estimates.

Aid groups kicked out

Darfur's fate became even more uncertain after the International Criminal Court (ICC) last month issued an international arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the region. The expulsion of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – including Oxfam, CARE International and Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders – came as a response to the ICC indictment.

While the government claims the humanitarian situation in Darfur is stable despite the expulsions, the UN insists humanitarian gaps left by the departure of the NGOs have not been filled.

In the span of one week in early April, 10 people, including two children, reportedly died of diarrhea in Zamzam camp in northern Darfur, according to one aid organization, which requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Latrines have collapsed, mechanized water pumps are running out of fuel, and in one case, pro-government militiamen stole the food rations of displaced people, the organization says.

In March, the expulsions left 5,000 malnourished children under five and pregnant and lactating women without supplementary food, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

Only about 30 percent of the 650,000 people that had lost healthcare coverage following the departure of the NGOs have received some form of assistance, OCHA says.

Displaced Darfuris now more vulnerable

The expulsions have also left the displaced, especially women and children, more vulnerable to attacks, according to US Agency for International Development, or USAID. Since March, aid workers have reported increased attacks targeting displaced people collecting firewood near their camps.