After Rwanda, the West said never again. We must act now

If aid agencies go public about the horrors they witness in Sudan, they risk expulsion. Here, a senior executive at one leading NGO writes anonymously about why foreign intervention is essential
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The Independent Online

One of the most difficult dilemmas facing aid agencies working in Darfur has been whether or not to speak out and tell the truth about the crimes committed there. As the months have passed, and with the Sudanese government in Khartoum doing all it can to keep journalists out of the worst-affected areas, it has become harder and harder to say nothing.

One of the most difficult dilemmas facing aid agencies working in Darfur has been whether or not to speak out and tell the truth about the crimes committed there. As the months have passed, and with the Sudanese government in Khartoum doing all it can to keep journalists out of the worst-affected areas, it has become harder and harder to say nothing.

Our people have seen at first hand what has gone on in Darfur. We have watched government planes and helicopter gunships passing overhead to bomb villages, hours before the Janjaweed militia moved in to burn them. We have seen government officials and Janjaweed working together near the border with Chad. We have heard the testimonies from survivors.

Have we become complicit by not speaking out? I hope not. The fact is that any aid agency publicly speaking out would be immediately expelled from Sudan. Given that the number of aid agencies able to operate in Darfur has long been considered insufficient to meet the needs of the victims, we feel an overwhelming moral responsibility not to jeopardise our ability to stay and do what we can to prevent further death and suffering.

But something more needs to happen. Not only is the situation in the camps where we are able to work getting worse, but there are still large parts of Darfur that no aid agency has ever been able to access. These, predictably enough, are the areas controlled by the two rebel groups fighting the government in Darfur, and into which the Sudanese army will not allow aid convoys to pass. There is a large civilian population trapped inside those areas, living (or dying) in conditions we can only imagine. Many aid workers on the ground now see some kind of international intervention as the last hope for hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Opponents of international intervention put forward a number of reasons not to get involved - some good, some bad. Depressingly, one argument holds it is futile for foreign soldiers to separate one group of African tribesmen from another. Similar arguments were used about Rwanda 10 years ago. They were no more true then than they are today. As in Rwanda, the conflict may be ethnic in nature, but the decisive and disastrous characteristic of the Darfur crisis has been the full alignment of the military and security apparatus of the Sudanese state behind one of the two ethnic groups competing for scarce resources.

A second argument against intervention is that more aid is getting through than ever before, and that any external intervention will risk losing the access we have. There are risks involved, but the access that we have is not and has never been enough. The government of Sudan has not only committed a great crime against a huge number of its own people, but has since compounded it over the past six months by placing an apparently endless series of bureaucratic obstacles in the way of aid agencies trying to help the victims.

Until June, it was taking us two months to get a visa for any aid worker we wanted to send to Sudan; another week or two in Khartoum to get the permit to fly to the major towns in Darfur. Our doctors and nurses were then needlessly confined for days at a time to these towns, unable to reach the camps just outside, while we waited for the right permissions. Our "rape kits" were blocked in customs for several months by minor officials, leaving thousands of victims of sexual violence without even the most rudimentary treatment for weeks. "Death by red tape" has taken on a whole new meaning in the last few months in Sudan.

It was only with the encouragement and material support of the Sudanese government that a group of Arab tribesmen became the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed is the creation of Khartoum, every bit as much as Rwanda's Interahamwe was a creation of a murderous political elite.

The most persuasive argument against international intervention in Darfur is the question of timing. After Iraq, there has probably never been a worse time for international intervention, let alone in a country ruled by an Islamist regime. But Darfur is not Iraq. The people dying are Muslims. Cutting the throats of women and children, chaining villagers together and burning them, are the acts of cowards. The majority of the population in Darfur would welcome the arrival of troops.

There are no off-the-shelf solutions, but there is no reason why the African Union could not quickly assemble and deploy a peacekeeping force to Darfur and provide the civilian population there with meaningful, if temporary, international protection. There are many forms of international intervention that do not involve regime change. The UK can and should play a similar support role to the one it did in Sierra Leone for an African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.

Ten years ago, as the full horror of what had happened in Rwanda became clear, the international community made a solemn pledge: "never again". There were no caveats. Never means not even just after Iraq. Never means not in Darfur in 2004. Never means never.

This article was written by the director of emergency programmes for a European-based NGO.

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