Violence forces more charities to pull back from 'too dangerous' Darfur

Aid staff murdered and assaulted in a land of hunger where 70,000 have died and millions made homeless
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The Independent Online

International charities working in Darfur are considering drastically reducing their presence in the wake of Save the Children's decision to pull out, and the murder of yet another aid worker.

International charities working in Darfur are considering drastically reducing their presence in the wake of Save the Children's decision to pull out, and the murder of yet another aid worker.

A number of organisations are reviewing their positions after a week which saw a further unravelling of security in what the United Nations has called the "world's worst humanitarian crisis". The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, saidefforts to end the conflict between the Sudanese government and their Janjaweed allies and rebel forces are failing, and that the Security Council needs urgently to reassess what should be done.

The war has led to the deaths of an estimated 70,000 people, and 2.3 million more have been forced to flee their homes. And, in a land of hunger, stricken by savage violence and awaiting epidemics, the control of aid has become a potent source of power.

Save the Children, which had been working in Darfur for 20 years, decided to pull out after members of staff were killed and subjected to sexual assault. The day after the organisation made its announcement, a worker for Médecins Sans Frontières was killed in an attack by Janjaweed fighters on the town of Labado.

Oxfam staff now only fly by UN helicopters because the roads are considered too dangerous. A small African Union force, deployed to monitor a fragile ceasefire, grounded all its helicopters after one was damaged by ground fire.

Although the aid organisations have suffered at the hands of the Janjaweed, and rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, the most concerted and systematic pressure has come from the Sudanese government. Khartoum accuses the charities of disseminating anti-government propaganda, and recently sought to expel the heads of operation of Save the Children and Oxfam. The Oxfam official was eventually forced to leave for alleged visa irregularities.

Officials from Care International were arrested after an employee was stabbed to death at Kalma camp by refugees who accused him of being a member of the Janjaweed. Sudanese authorities claimed the agency was criminally negligent in taking the man to Kalma.

The government-run Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) is supposed to co-ordinate relief efforts. But it has been used in attempts to control aid, rewarding "friendly" - predominantly Arab - communities while trying to deny assistance to Africans deemed to be favouring the rebels. The government is also accused of setting up "front" charities to undermine the work of the international organisations. Two such groups, Sugya and Ayya, are said to have approached refugees in areas such as Kass in south Darfur, asking them how much relief they received from international groups then offering them huge sums of cash to return to their villages. Arab charities, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, have also offered money to refugees to return to their homes.

For long periods the government, through HAC, refused the UN and international agencies permission to provide humanitarian aid to makeshift camps which had sprung up around Nyala, the capital of south Darfur. The 50,000 dispossessed in the camps lived in huts of twigs and leaves. They did not have food distribution, toilets, drainage, medical facilities or water. The government insisted that the camps could not be made permanent, as they would be breeding grounds for diseases.

Troops and police have also carried out violent raids on the camps, purportedly to search for weapons and arrest criminals, but, according to the refugees, the constant theme is that they should go back to their villages. Those who did so, however, either because they took money or were forced to go, say they were sent back to the guns and knives of the Janjaweed and the Sudanese military.

The aid agencies are wary of criticising the Sudanese government in public, but a senior official said: "We are going to continue to see the humanitarian organisations drawing back. It is simply too dangerous. This means that the Sudanese government is effectively winning in its campaign to keep independent observers out of Darfur. It'll also be even more of a humanitarian disaster than it is now. It is astonishing the outside world does not realise this."

Mike Aaronson, the UK head of Save the Children, said pulling out of Darfur was "the hardest decision I ever had to make". He said the UN had done next to nothing to halt the "endless ceasefire violations" and "atmosphere of increasing lawlessness".