Darfur's aid groups on the front lines

Genocide in Sudan's Darfur region continued in 2006, the US State Department reported last week. Thousands of people were killed, aerial attacks on civilians resumed, and torture and rape went unpunished. But something helps make this less awful, and that's the commitment of aid workers there.

Even as Washington issued its incriminating report; even as its special envoy to Sudan returned from Khartoum last week without an agreement for a hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping force there; even as the Sudanese government refused to deliver to the International Criminal Court two nationals indicted for Darfur war crimes, 13,000 humanitarian workers were on the front lines in a region the size of France.

The work of these courageous individuals (fewer than 1,000 are foreigners) amounts to the largest humanitarian effort in the world: feeding, sheltering, and providing healthcare for roughly 2 million displaced people in overcrowded camps.

The crisis began in 2003, when locals, mostly non-Arabs, rebelled against the Arab government for its neglect of the arid region. The government armed Arab militias to suppress the revolt. Since that time, an estimated 200,000 Darfurians have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes – mostly at the hands of government forces and their brutal militia allies.

But the humanitarian workers are themselves under severe threat, the worst since the crisis began. They are hunkered down in the camps, now largely unable to venture out to areas where they are needed by nearly 2 million vulnerable people beyond the camps. The inability to travel is due to risk of attack, not just from the usual suspects, but from bandits and the non-Arab rebels.

Those no-go and risky-go areas, depicted on UN maps in orange and yellow, have grown exponentially since May 2006, when Khartoum signed a peace deal with one of the rebel groups. After that, violence actually escalated. Last year, more than a dozen aid workers were killed as attacks on them nearly doubled to 1,800. Looting of their vehicles soared. Two mainline humanitarian groups have pulled out. The government is "paralyzing" the relief effort by slowing down travel permits and delaying equipment shipments, US special envoy Andrew Natsios says.

Khartoum has the aid groups where it wants them, frozen in place so it can "cleanse" more of Darfur without having to share its oil wealth with the region.

A lasting peace and an expanded peacekeeping force are needed, but they are elusive, as is respect from the warring parties for the nonpolitical nature of relief work. More immediately, the African Union peacekeepers need greater assistance with training and equipment so they can better protect supply convoys and resume escorting firewood gatherers. Allowing them to overnight in the camps would also help.

After returning from Darfur last month, Jakob Kellenberger, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in an interview with the Financial Times that "I do not have the right to despair" – that the relief work must go on. That kind of dedication deserves the whole world's gratitude, financial and logistical support, and prayers.

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