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."
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.
In some camps, residents have been refusing humanitarian aid, to protest the government's expulsion of the NGOs. Leaders of one of the most volatile camps in Darfur, Kalma, have recently begun re-accepting food distributions, after a three-week deadlock, but resistance remains.
"They have made it clear that they do not want any national NGOs [in the camp], because they believe that these NGOs are run by the government and it's one way that the government wants to infiltrate the camp," says Eddie Rowe, head of the World Food Programme in southern Darfur.
At least two of the expelled agencies – Oxfam and CARE – have formally appealed the government's decision. During last week's trip, Senator Kerry said Sudan had agreed to restore some of the aid in Darfur, adding that during his recent visit, US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration negotiated "a strong agreement with the government with many positive elements to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur" – a hint that some of the expelled NGOs may be allowed to return. But in public speeches, Mr. Bashir has consistently said the decision to kick them out is irreversible.
Even more dangerous for aid workers
Meanwhile, the atmosphere for aid workers has gotten worse, with two separate kidnappings of expatriates in less than a month. Two female employees of Aide Médicale Interationale – one French and one Canadian – remain in captivity after being kidnapped April 5 by armed men.
In March, a Sudanese aid worker was shot dead in his home – a sign, according to his employer Mark Simmons, chair of the International NGO Forum in the capital Khartoum, that the current atmosphere in Sudan may have led people to believe they can attack NGOs with impunity.
UN statistics show that between March 1 and April 15, assailants hijacked 18 humanitarian vehicles, abducted 10 humanitarian staff, and broke into 20 humanitarian premises.
In the first two weeks of April, the insecurity pushed five NGOs to temporarily relocate staff from Darfur, and of those, four closed or suspended operations in some parts of the region, USAID said.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur has lost one peacekeeper and suffered several attacks and ambushes since the indictment.
Rebels uniting for more attacks?
Rebels who had long threatened an attack against the government in the case of an indictment against Bashir have remained surprisingly quiet, but recent alliances among them suggest something may be in the works.
The most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has claimed several gains in recent weeks, including a switch by a leading commander and his 500 soldiers from a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army in the interest of "unity"; new alliances with formerly pro-government tribes; and "hundreds" of new recruits from the civilian camps.
"The government has to take that seriously," warns Ahmed Hussain Adam, a JEM spokesperson. "The violence is going to increase soon."
Analysts are skeptical that these mergers will have a big impact.
"Previous alliances between JEM and other rebel factions have been motivated by opportunism and turned out to be short-lived," says Wolfam Lacher, a Sudan analyst at Control Risks Group, a business risk consultancy.
But JEM's rebels last year made it all the way to the capital in an attack that lasted three days and led to open fighting on the streets. Mr. Hussain's veiled threats of a coup match JEM's repeated promises to capture Bashir and hand him over for trial at The Hague-based ICC.
"If there is no political horizon, [JEM] will be forced to act in different ways to achieve the aspirations of its people and to change the status quo and to change the operation of power," Hussain says. "The situation is going to change. Believe me."