Darfur's aid lifeline in danger

Bandits from all factions are increasingly targeting relief convoys and aid workers in Sudan's conflict.

Deteriorating security conditions in Darfur – a vast region of Sudan that is equal in size to France – are endangering the largest humanitarian aid operation in the world.

Today, aid convoys have become almost daily targets, with car jackings, armed robbery, and occasional shoot outs. In some cases, aid workers have been forced to abandon their operations in far-flung camps; in other cases, they have been forced to travel by helicopter, increasing the cost of bringing crucial food, shelter, and medical assistance to nearly 4 million people.

Sudan has agreed in principle to allow in UN peacekeeping forces, but the troops are not expected to arrive until next year.

"We can't distribute food if we're being shot at, basically, but when you're feeding millions of people, failure is not an option and security is deteriorating," says Simon Crittle, a spokesman for the World Food Program. "When you know who the rebels are, and who the government is, you can negotiate with them to get a food convoy through on a certain date. But when you don't know who's who, anyone can pull a gun and demand money, it makes it that much more dangerous."

Mr. Crittle says that food deliveries continue to get through to the majority of relief camps – with nearly 2.1 million metric tons of food being distributed annually by truck to more than 450 locations. But the increasingly blurry lines between militant and bandit has made it much more difficult to get food to people in need.

International aid workers say that the Darfur conflict has turned a corner from the neat-and-easy lines of government-backed Arab militiamen versus black rebels, and Sudan's ethnic cleansing policies that the US government has called "genocide." Today, the lines between friend and foe have blurred considerably, making the efforts to resolve the conflict, and to help noncombatants all the more difficult.

"The way it is portrayed, to say that this is Arab versus black, may have been true at the start, but it is much more complex now," says Alun McDonald, spokesman for Oxfam in Khartoum. "You have Arab tribes fighting the government, you have black tribes fighting each other."

With three rebel groups splitting up into more than a dozen groups – many of them based on personal or tribal loyalties – armed groups have taken to robbing the relatively soft target of aid workers, who have many of the vehicles, money, and communications equipment that an armed movement needs.

"The security ... is worse today than it has ever been and this is linked to the breakdown in law and order. There are no good guys there anymore," UN humanitarian operations chief, Manuel Aranda Da Silva, told Reuters last week in his last interview before leaving the post. He urged the government and the UN to restart the negotiation process. "If it doesn't, it's a disaster for Sudan."

While there are disagreements over the causes of the conflict, and thus its solution – the US government charges the Sudanese government with arming Arab tribes in a deliberate act of genocide; the Sudanese government and many others call it a "local problem" over shrinking water and land resources – the results are indisputably tragic and growing worse.

The UN estimates that 200,000 Sudanese have been killed in the conflict, 2.5 million displaced by the war, and nearly 4 million Sudanese now have become dependant on international food assistance to survive.

The Darfur Peace Agreement has been in force for more than a year, and Darfur should be well on its way to recovery. "Fighting between nonsignatory armed groups and the government has to a certain extent declined," says George Somerwill, spokesman for the United Nations Mission in Sudan. "But general lawlessness, such as hijacking of vehicles and robbery, is very much worse. It is often a matter of 'You foreigners have stuff, and we want it.'"

The 7,000-strong African Union (AU) force has been unable to stop the fighting or the banditry. Last November, Khartoum agreed in principle to allowing an additional 15,000 UN peacekeepers into Sudan. But Sudanese officials have since balked at the size of the UN influx, and argued over whether the hybrid force would be under AU control or UN control. The expectation now is that the UN will handle logistics, and a joint AU/UN headquarters will command the mostly African troops out in the villages.

Officials from the AU, the UN and Sudan will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 11 and 12 to discuss the hybrid force. The UN Security Council officials are expected in the region later this week for talks that will include ongoing discussions about security.

It is hard to get a broad picture of the insecurity in Darfur, but the anecdotal evidence shows that the violence is growing, and aid groups are responding.

  • In December, armed men sexually assaulted aid workers, raped one international staffer, and carried out mock executions on others in an attack on the compound of French aid group Action Contre La Faim (ACF) in the town of Gereida. The coordinated attack on all aid groups in Gereida resulted in the evacuation of some 170 aid workers, and ACF has ceased its operations there. Gereida houses 170,000, the largest concentration of displaced people in Darfur.
  • On April 16, a two-car convoy was car jacked by five armed men near the Zamzam relief camp near Al-Fasher. One international UN staffer and four Sudanese staffers were taken at gunpoint into the desert and left 35 kilometers from the closest village. A passing commercial truck stopped to give them a ride back to town.
  • On May 25, an Egyptian lieutenant colonel for the UN peacekeeping force in Al-Fasher was shot in his home during a robbery. The Egyptian was part of a UN team that was supporting the AU peacekeeping force in Darfur. Nineteen AU peacekeepers have been killed (mostly by rebels) since they deployed in June 2004.

The Darfur Peace Agreement, signed between rebels and the Sudanese government, was supposed to solve all this. But unfortunately, only one rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army faction led by Minni Minnawi, signed the agreement, with the government signing on behalf of the Arab tribes. As a result of signing, Mr. Minnawi's influence has waned, and supporters have either broken away to form their own groups or to support those of other rebel leaders such as Abdul Wahid.

UN Special Envoy Jan Eliasson said that three weeks ago there were nine opposition movements. Now, he said, there are 12. "They are fragmenting further, and that is the great difficulty, not only politically but physically and logistically," he told the Associated Press on June 8. Mr. Eliasson presented a road map to UN Security Council aimed at reviving peace talks. In late June, he expects to begin shuttle diplomacy to prepare for negotiations. "We hope that we will be able to have the negotiation phase start at the end of the summer," Eliasson said.

He noted that Eritrea, Chad and Libya are embarking on a regional initiative to promote a political solution in Darfur. Sudan's Salva Kiir, a former rebel leader who is now president of the southern Sudan region, plans a meeting later this month to bring non-signatories together.

Government officials have always claimed that the Darfur crisis was a "local problem," a fight for power over the local government among the competing Fur, Zaghawa, and Arab tribes, and a broader fight over precious water resources among farmers and herders.

Minister of Culture Mohamed Yousif Abed Allah blames the Darfur crisis on the Darfur rebel groups themselves, who launched an armed insurgency in 2003, claiming neglect by the central government.

"The division created by armed groups are now so deep, that no one can trust each other," says Mr. Abed Allah, who is himself a member of the Fur tribe from Jabal Marra. Yet Abed Allah admits that the government also played a major role in the conflict, by arming and training nomadic Arab tribes into militias, called janjaweed, in order to bring the rebellion under control. "This is normal when there is a rebellion. Those who support the government should enjoy the privileges, and those who are against the government should not get privileges."

For the displaced people of Darfur, who have fled their homes and farmland to rely on international assistance, anarchy and attacks on humanitarian groups mean that their lives are likely to get worse if security doesn't improve.

In the scattered camps, international aid groups are making difficult decisions about whether to continue operating in places of high risk, or to pull back to the safer cities.

Relief International, an aid group that operates medical clinics in some of the hardest to reach areas of Darfur, pulled out three months ago from three camps – Argo, Dali, and AU camp – near the town of Taweela. They had been providing the only medical services available for the estimated 10,700 people in those camps, but were forced to pull back to Al-Fasher, after a string of four carjackings by unidentified armed groups.

"We had to pull out, it was getting too dangerous," says Dr. Mohammad Izziddeen, manager of the Relief International clinic at the relatively safer Zamzam camp near Al-Fasher. Pointing at a doctor in a long white lab coat, he says, "They fired on his vehicle, that's when we decided to pull back."

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