Darfur deserves better

By Marcus Prior, 2 July 2004

It is the tragic lot of the people of Darfur, western Sudan, that they live in a dusty desolate desert corner of Africa which struggles to fight its way on to our television screens and into our consciences. Many of us have seen it all before and our tears for Africa now flow less often and less freely.

But the visits to Darfur this week of both the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and US Secretary of State Colin Powell serve as a timely reminder that we owe it to our common humanity not to abandon the people of Darfur to their suffering. The humanitarian crisis unfolding in the region, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, should jolt us all into action.

I have just returned from a week in Darfur; my second visit in two months. To visit the camps into which hundreds of thousands have fled after being driven from their homes is to witness deprivation and misery on a shameful scale. The United Nations estimates that over a million people have been displaced within Darfur – some 200,000 more have fled across the border into Chad.

The numbers are about as numbing as the blame game. Most of those in the camps of Darfur are of black African origin, victims of a marauding government-backed Arab militia known as the Janjaweed. But I also met Arab victims of the war, which is between the Sudanese government and Darfur’s two rebel groups.

For the World Food Programme (WFP) and the other humanitarian organisations working in Darfur, the most urgent task is to meet the immediate needs of all those whose lives have been turned upside-down and in many cases are now at serious risk.

The arrival of the rains is already having a worrying impact. Trucks laden with food are struggling to cross wadis, dry river beds which flash-flood after heavy rainfall. WFP is scaling up its air operation every day, and plans are well advanced to air-drop food to areas that will become inaccessible at the height of the wet season.

The rains will also bring with them the heightened threat of disease. Typhoid, cholera and dysentery are all borne by water, malarial mosquitoes multiply in it and measles and polio are already grave concerns.
Shortly after arriving in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, I witnessed the power of these desert downfalls. Rain falls in leaden sheets, seeping through door and window frames, drenching everything. The following day I visited a number of camps around town. Most people were living in pathetic stick and straw constructions which were no protection against the elements. Many people told me of their misery the previous day, scrambling for shelter wherever they could find it. Many simply soaked.

That day, however, it was again scorchingly hot. In one small structure, little more than a few sheaves of straw, a woman showed me her fuel-efficient stove. She then reached down to a small bowl of water to offer me some. It was probably all she had that day for her entire family.
The people in the camps still live in fear, terrorised by night by marauders they say are from the same militia that attacked them in their homes. Venturing too far from the camps in search of firewood, fodder or water is to invite all manner of violence. Men are often killed; those women who can find the words relate horrific accounts of sexual torture.

During a WFP food distribution in Kasab camp, near Kutum in North Darfur, a plane droned high above in the sky, prompting faces to turn upwards in fear. For so many it was a reminder of the bombs which fell around them the day the fled their homes “without even a spoon”, as one old man put it.

In June, WFP expects to have provided food to 700,000 of Darfur’s displaced. Obviously and troublingly, that leaves many hundreds of thousands still beyond our reach. Whilst improved security will greatly enhance our ability to access everyone who needs help, the humanitarian community must also be properly resourced if it is to not to fall short. WFP currently has a shortfall of over US$130 million for its operations in Darfur until the end of the year. For many of these people, that is the difference between life and death.

The fact that Kofi Annan and Colin Powell believe the crisis in Darfur is worrying enough for both of them to fly into one of the most remote places on earth, should make the rest of the world – and in particular the donor community – act now. Darfur deserves better. Time is quickly running out.

Marcus Prior is a Public Information Officer for the United Nations World Food Programme. He wrote this article in Khartoum after visiting the Darfur region.

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