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Darfur, Sudan: Five Years of Fighting with No End in Sight
July 21, 2008
This article is part of the Summer 2008 issue of the MSF Alert newsletter.
Chad 2004 © Peter Casaer
Darfur Emergency Timeline
The conflict that began five years ago as a battle between Sudan’s government and two Darfuri rebel groups has developed into a far more complex disaster. While the large-scale, destructive attacks that marked the first few years of fighting are no longer frequent, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sees a different kind of emergency developing.
Darfur remains the largest humanitarian aid operation in the world, with more than 80 organizations and 15,000 aid workers—2,000 of whom are from MSF. But some parts of the region are blocked from assistance due to insecurity or isolation. And in the current context of rapidly changing alliances among armed groups and increasing violence, still more people are at risk of being cut off from aid.
“The media attention and political involvement in Darfur means that everyone knows about the conflict here,” says Banu Altunbas, MSF head of mission in South Darfur, “but in the last four years, the situation has not improved. In fact, for most people, things have gotten worse. Conditions in many of the internally displaced person (IDP) camps and in rural areas have deteriorated, and the insecurity is a major concern for ordinary people. People are living in fear. Every day is a question mark for survival.”
Chad 2004 © Olivier Jobard/SIPA PRESS
Darfur in the Beginning
The majority of the UN-estimated 200,000 violence-related deaths occurred during 2003 and 2004, after the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups began fighting the Sudanese government and its militias, including nomadic fighters often called Janjaweed. This is also when most of the now 2.2 million displaced people fled their homes amid scorched-earth attacks.
The first evidence of the violence came from Sudanese refugees pouring into eastern Chad. MSF teams were able to reach tens of thousands of these refugees in September 2003 and established clinics, carried out vaccination campaigns, and ran feeding centers for malnourished children.
It wasn’t until late December 2003 when MSF was allowed to enter Darfur. A team began working around the West Darfur towns of Nyala and Zalingei, and later, Mornay. A survey by MSF’s epidemiological research organization, Epicentre, found that most of the 80,000 IDPs who fled to Mornay between September 2003 and February 2004 came from villages where 1 in every 20 people had been killed during attacks. People were fleeing burning villages and pouring into more secure areas, some of which would become IDP camps.
MSF logistician Jean-Sébastien Matte saw violence and human tragedy unfold along the side of the road leading to Mornay that would have been similar to many scenes in Darfur throughout that 2003-2004 period: “We drove through the villages of Tulu, Salulu, and Mara?all three were aflame. Fires were burning on both sides of the road. A group of 20 or so Janjaweed was firing into the air. We just hit the gas.”
When they arrived at Mornay camp, “We received 80 wounded people, including children. People arrived with bullet wounds or beaten. Some had been whipped by the Janjaweed. At least 17 women had been raped.” Matte and other aid workers on the ground in Darfur immediately found themselves surrounded by the most desperate kind of need.
Sudan 2007 © Sven Torfinn
A Different Dynamic
The Darfur Peace Agreement, which laid out a plan for power- and wealth-sharing between Darfur and the government in Khartoum and made provisions for IDPs, failed when only one of the then three rebel groups signed it in May 2006; armed groups—rebels, nomadic tribes, government-supported militias—proceeded to splinter and proliferate into about 30 instead of 3. Since 2005 neighboring Chad has been involved in a war by proxy with Sudan, with each country employing militias that fight one another. The result of all of this is that now dozens of armed groups are constantly fighting, creating alliances and enemies that change quickly and frequently.
Another element to this conflict is territorial disputes among different nomadic groups?not a new development, but a more dangerous one now that many of them have acquired a large number of deadly weapons. Nomadic groups who lose often must seek safety, like the millions of others who have lost their homes, in IDP camps.
Although large-scale attacks like those that drove 80,000 people into Mornay have subsided, there are exceptions. On February 8, 2008, a brutal raid in West Darfur’s northern corridor area was a cruel reminder of the early days of the conflict, with bombings, attack helicopters, and ground troops belonging to the government and government-supported militia, according to refugees who fled to Chad. Villages were burned and emptied, affecting about 50,000 people. MSF confirmed that at least 7,000 fled over the border to Birak, Chad, where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are now 200,000 Darfur refugees. Approximately 15,000 people disappeared.
“We saw the soldiers surrounding our town before they started looting our houses and setting them afire,” says an inhabitant of Seleia, where MSF has run a health center since 2000. The MSF team’s compound in Seleia, where some civilians had taken refuge, was attacked and looted; and people reported being attacked, threatened, and robbed while they fled the area to seek safety.
The arrival of international forces in January 2008 did not prevent that attack, nor has it had much of an effect otherwise. The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has so far established a presence of only 9,000 troops, most of them existing African Union soldiers. The mission to protect Darfuri civilians is projected to eventually include 20,000 troops and 6,000 police.
Chad 2006 © Kadir van Lohuizen
Displaced People: “Every Time We Moved, We Lost Our Property”
About one-third of the population of Darfur is displaced. More than 600,000 fled their homes to escape violence in 2006 and 2007, and 80,000 became displaced in the first quarter of 2008, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But the nature of IDP movements has changed since the start of the conflict; instead of sporadic mass influxes of people fleeing their villages, smaller groups of IDPs are arriving consistently.
“New families have been coming in regularly for a long time,” says MSF’s Saïf Ebrahim, who works in Zalingei camp in West Sudan. “They are continuous, less visible arrivals—a stream of varying intensity. Since December 2007 there has been another large increase; as many as one or two thousand additional displaced persons per month.” These arrivals say that they are coming to the camp because government troops are abandoning their villages, leaving them open to attack, reports Ebrahim.
Some also leave less secure, smaller IDP camps for larger ones. As insecurity grows on the roads and inside some villages and camps, people are migrating for safety and access to medical care.
MSF is assisting hundreds of thousands of IDPs in West, South, and North Darfur states, as well as refugees in Chad, providing primary health care, surgery, obstetric care, nutrition, mental health care, treatment for sexual violence, vaccinations, water, and sanitation and distributing necessary items such as blankets and jerry cans for water.
The numbers for recently displaced people do not include secondary displacements—when already displaced people have to move yet again due to insecurity, threats, or orders. Some IDPs have had to move three, four, five times, or more.
Fatima, a woman living in Motorwat camp in the area of Muhajariya town with her husband and four children, told MSF that she and her family have had to move eight times so far, from town, to forest, to camp, and back again.
“Every time we moved, we lost our property. Even when Muhajariya was attacked and we moved outside into the bush and came back to Muhjariya two days later,” she says. “Sometimes, I get very tired of this, but if you do not move quickly, you will get killed, or you and your kids will get killed. I can’t get angry; even if I get angry, I can’t do anything.”
Large IDP camps are relatively secure—there is safety in numbers, which does not exist in vulnerable rural villages or small camps—but tense ethnic and political divisions in some camps have developed into violence.
In October 2007, about 35,000 people were forced from Kalma camp, which shelters more than 100,000 people of 27 ethnic groups in South Darfur. Tensions among rival groups led to thousands of IDPs being evicted by other residents. A subsequent armed attack within Kalma led to the large-scale, violent expulsion.
MSF followed some of those who fled Kalma, many with nothing but the clothes on their backs; about 550 families were transported by the government to Sakali, an area near a garbage dump with no water or sanitation system, no food or shelter. MSF conducted mobile clinics and established clean water access there.
Sudan 2004 © Bruno Stevens / Cosmos
Insecurity Threatens Humanitarian Aid
“With increased violence, the number of areas people are being crowded into is getting smaller and smaller,” says Vanessa Van Schorr, MSF operational manager for Sudan. “And we are worried that the humanitarian effort will unravel because of insecurity.”
Civilians and humanitarian aid workers on the roads are targets for banditry in parts of Darfur; they are routinely robbed of cars, money, equipment, donkeys, wood, or other belongings. For aid organizations, carjacking has had a severe impact on their ability to provide aid. In the first three months of 2008 alone, OCHA reported the following actions against humanitarian aid workers: 3 deaths, 9 sexual or physical aggressions, 84 kidnappings, 75 cars robbed, 4 convoys attacked, and 3 arrests.
“Banditry has become hyper-endemic all over Darfur,” says Fabrice Weissman, an MSF head of mission in Darfur. “As a result, in some areas, you cannot travel by road anymore because, sooner or later, you will be carjacked.”
In some places, personnel must be moved by helicopter. But transport of most food aid, drugs, and equipment requires travel by road convoy, which leaves teams vulnerable to attack. The worst impact has been on the delivery of food distributions.
In April 2008, the UN World Food Program (WFP) reported delivery of only 50 percent of needed food aid to Darfur, due to banditry; 2 food truck drivers were killed in the first half of 2008, 66 vehicles were hijacked, and more than 700 metric tons of food aid stolen.
For these and other reasons, including the steadily rising cost of food, distributions have not been keeping up with the increase in IDPs: in some cases, the aid system considers new IDPs fleeing insecurity to be economic migrants who do not qualify for food aid; and no newborns have been recognized to receive rations since 2004. Thus, food is becoming seriously stretched. Families with ration cards for five might have three times that many mouths to feed.
About 10 new families arrive each month at Hamedia camp in Zalingei, South Darfur, where about 40,000 IDPs live. Raddia, an IDP, came to Hamedia five years ago, as did all the inhabitants of her village. She and her family numbered six people when they arrived, but the family has grown to 13 people, including two new babies and a cousin who joined them, bringing four of his family members. The WFP still considers Raddia’s family to be six, however, and they have not been able to receive more rations. In addition, food distributions to Hamedia have been infrequent, and rations have been cut.
“Since we arrived, we had regularly received all we needed: food, blankets, plastic sheeting … But this year, we have lacked water and food, and we have had no blankets, nor sheeting to remake the shelter. For 40 days, there was no food distribution; and we just received a reduced ration ... no oil, nor lentils, and less sugar and millet,” she says.
Cutbacks and blockages in food and medical aid could not come at a worse time. In 2007 MSF treated twice as many children for malnutrition as the previous year; between September and December 2007, 1 child in 10 was treated in MSF’s nutritional program. In Zalingei hospital, the number of severely malnourished children—those in immediate danger of dying—rose from 419 to 700; and global malnutrition in Darfur has exceeded the emergency level of 15 percent.
MSF in Darfur Today
There are 2,000 national and international MSF staff currently working in Darfur. MSF is present in all three Darfur states and over the border in Birak, Chad, where 200,000 Darfuri refugees have sought safety. At internally displaced people (IDP) camps throughout the Darfur region, MSF provides assistance to thousands of people in need every month, treating malnourished children, holding mass vaccinations, providing pre- and antenatal care and help for obstetric emergencies, treating victims of sexual violence, and performing surgery for trauma patients. MSF also carries out water and sanitation activities, distributes items such as plastic sheeting and blankets, conducts mobile medical clinics to reach isolated populations, and offers mental health care.