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Displaced in Darfur
Bruno Jochum, Director of Operations, MSF Switzerland
in 2006/2007, the situation in Darfur remained one of the worst crises in the world, with over two million displaced people totally dependent on external aid, and regular fighting occurring in certain areas of the region leading to new episodes of violence and displacement.
The peace agreement signed in May 2005 between the government of Sudan and one of the rebel factions paradoxically reactivated warfare after a year of lesser intensity fighting, and significantly reduced the ability of humanitarian workers to deliver effective aid in remote rural areas. Furthermore, the conflict has become regional with spill-over effects in Chad and Central African Republic, leading to hundreds of thousands of civilians leaving their burnt villages in these countries. Civilian populations in Darfur are locked into an extremely vulnerable state and our field medical teams are confronted with significant limitations in terms of access and security. Within the field of international politics, the crisis in Darfur and its representation in the media has become a stake in itself and carries the risk of being instrumental to the various stakeholders.
In 2003/2004, an episode of extreme and sudden violence provoked the massive displacement of Darfuris to the surroundings of urban centers and smaller towns. It consisted of a government planned counter-insurgency offensive aimed at ensuring territorial control and punishing various tribes for their perceived links with the rebel forces. In the context of desertification, where tense competition for land between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers has been politically utilized by the central government, hundreds of villages have been reduced to dust and sometimes all traces of former dwellings erased. Terror techniques involving murder and rape have been used to deter any further resistance and to ensure the targeted populations flee their places of origin.
After an emergency phase in the first half of 2004, the situation of the displaced in the camps stabilized in terms of mortality and morbidity due to the implementation of a humanitarian assistance pipeline, one huge in scale and rather effective in producing results for the beneficiaries. Once the main offensive goals were achieved in February 2004, the government of Sudan, under international pressure, allowed the deployment of large numbers of humanitarian workers: in 2006, it was estimated that approximately 900 expatriates and 12,000 Sudanese staff were assisting in Darfur, making it the biggest humanitarian operation ever. Major towns are busy hubs from where aid is dispatched, and malnutrition and disease outbreaks have been prevented in most camp populations because of improved access to health care.
For MSF, operations in Darfur represented in 2006 a total of 19 projects and a budget of 16.95 million euros, employing approximately 1,700 national and 100 international staff. The activities, ranging from hospital care and surgery to primary health care centers and nutritional feeding centers, were mainly focused inside camps and initially completed by mobile clinics for outreach populations in rural areas. An effort was made in 2006 to disengage certain sites to enable our teams to react more quickly to the ever-evolving needs in a conflict situation.
But the effectiveness of a pipeline coexists with another dimension of the crisis: the displaced families have no other future than to remain trapped inside camps where they are totally dependent on assistance and have lost their economic means of survival. Most have lost direct family members and witnessed the destruction of their homes and belongings. Outside camps, roads are often under the surveillance of armed militias and local defense forces control movement. Women, who have no other choice than to look for wood in the outskirts, are frequently victims of aggression and rape. In 2006, 250,000 more civilians were displaced because of raids and armed combat, and were forced to join the ever-growing camps. The discrepancy between viewing the camps as serving as a “safe haven” for fleeing populations and what one could describe as a “forced encampment policy” is not easy to comprehend: the reality probably encompasses both dimensions.
In the outskirts, the distribution of arms to proxy militias by the government on the one hand, and the fragmentation of rebel forces on the other, have led to extremely high levels of insecurity on the main access roads. Like many other NGOs, MSF was the victim of a critical incident near Niertiti in September, and elsewhere was forced to reconsider and then interrupt its mobile clinics due to the level of risk. Several projects were evacuated, such as in Sarif Omra, Kebkabiya, and Seleia, near Jebel Moon. The borders between banditry, economy of war (with its lot of predators in 4x4 vehicles carrying satellite phones) and armed groups are very blurred in this context. Our medical teams have often highlighted the need to avoid simplistic clichés systematically opposing one side or the other: within the government administration, civil servants such as policemen and ministry officers have been regular victims of so-called “janjaweeds,” whereas on the other side rebels have been raiding each other and account for some of the attacks on humanitarian vehicles. Local tribal alliances switch occasionally and tension between local public authorities and the militias used by the central government are frequent.
However, such an image of chaos at a local level should not conceal a recurring pattern in Darfur. For humanitarian agents, insecurity on the roads tends to increase before and during military campaigns, cutting off civilian populations from any form of international witnesses or immediate assistance.
For example, there were the 2006 events north of El Geneina in which the roads leading to Seleia and Jebel Moon were under systematic threat of ambush. In an attempt to explore the situation of newly displaced people fleeing armed raids in the village of Tanjeke, an MSF representative went with a team to evaluate the medical and living conditions. Displaced people there had a tremendous need for basic supplies like jerry cans, blankets and plastic tarps for shelters, and were clearly living in fear because of the close presence of pro-government militias. On the way back, the MSF vehicle was stopped by armed men and a critical incident was only just avoided thanks to the negotiation skills of our national staff. Setting up effective assistance under these conditions remains extremely hazardous. Like in many war situations, Darfur is a place where our teams are reaching their limits to provide effective assistance to civilians in remote areas who regularly voice that their first need is protection. Although the mass violence that left hundreds of thousands of victims in 2003/2004 is behind us, there are still areas suffering from the effects of similar military tactics: sudden raids, burning of villages, raping of women, and retaliation against men.
A notable aspect of the crisis in Darfur has been the production of competing images of the conflict by the stakeholders. Not surprisingly, the government of Sudan is in a continuous state of denial of its direct responsibilities in the violence occurring in its western region, blaming the rebel forces for their behavior and divisions. On the other hand, the description by the media of the reality on the ground has not really taken into account the fact that camps have stabilized and the number of deaths due to direct violence in 2006 was drastically reduced compared to 2003 and 2004 (according to UN data). Certain calls for a NATO military intervention, which could result in another layer of conflict, have endangered the acceptance of humanitarian work in the field by the different parties and put at risk the principles of independence and neutrality.
MSF has on several occasions in the past been critical of the link made between humanitarian assistance and objectives of international policy like peace and justice, or the way governments use humanitarian aid as an argument to intervene or not. In 2003/2004, while massacres were occurring on a large scale in Darfur, the international community deliberately chose not to pressure the government of Khartoum in order to secure the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in negotiation with the SPLA. Along with other countries, the U.S. and China, as Security Council members, have strategic stakes in Sudan, ranging from cooperation in the field of intelligence, to the development of oil production. In this context and despite the rhetoric, it has been clear from the beginning that obtaining Khartoum’s consent to any initiative in Darfur was a necessary condition. The deployment of a UN peacekeeping force might therefore take place almost four years after the peak of violence. Propositions to open “humanitarian corridors” in 2007 are almost irrelevant as they are already in place.
In the end, although access in Darfur remains highly regulated by the will of armed groups and authorities, humanitarian assistance has been lifesaving for the millions of people who depend on it. For MSF, being present carries a responsibility to gain access to areas that are cut off from any assistance and, when facing obstacles, to witness what our teams are confronted with. To achieve our social mission, impartiality and independence are absolute necessities.