Darfur: Life in the Darkening Shadows

By Eric Reeves

May 18, 2011 (SSNA) — News coverage of Darfur continues to diminish, even as the humanitarian crisis deepens and violence expands. Fewer and fewer news stories appear, largely because the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum refuses to permit access to journalists and human rights reporters. Relief workers have been largely terrified into silence by threats from the regime and its security apparatus—threats all too often realized in the form of well-orchestrated expulsions and harassment. For his part, the UN humanitarian leader in Sudan, Georg Charpentier, refuses to speak honestly about conditions in the region, helps to suppress data and reports on malnutrition, distorts the figure for internally displaced persons, lies about humanitarian access in the region, silences his subordinates, refuses to listen to workers in the field, and allows Khartoum to vet his press releases. (A well-placed UN relief worker recently described my accounts of Charpentier’s actions as “very accurate.”)

Charpentier’s  most recent decision is to join the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in a self-serving public relations effort, code-named “Operation Spring Basket.”The goal of the operation, from the standpoint of actual humanitarian workers, is clear: UNAMID, having failed on so many fronts, is seeking to enhance its image with Dafur is by supposedly opening humanitarian corridors in eastern Jebel Marra (West Darfur) and areas north of Kutum (North Darfur). None of this was done in consultation with the aid workers on the ground, who know the real circumstances—and consequences—of this PR gesture.

The problems in accessing these regions are not related primarily to security on the ground, though this is indeed a significant constraint and major threat to aid personnel. Rather, the main obstacle has been Khartoum’s callous withholding of permission to move humanitarian workers and supplies, especially in the locations targeted by “Operation Spring Basket.” To pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

UNAMID chief Ibrahim Gambari, who has whitewashed the actions of the Khartoum regime before, may be counted on to participate in the photo opportunity that handing out modest supplies provides, even though the supplies will not approach what is required in those regions and will do nothing to change the fundamental humanitarian problem in Darfur: obstruction from Khartoum. Experienced humanitarians know just what this UNAMID stunt really means: after Gambari’s self-congratulatory declarations and subsequent boasting about UNAMID success, present realities will re-assert themselves. The resource-strapped international organizations doing the real work in Darfur will face renewed obstruction, harassment, and denial of access.

One highly informed source believes all this may actually lead to further humanitarian shut-down sand expulsions. Beyond the thirteen distinguished international humanitarian organizations expelled from Darfur and northern Sudan in March 2009, Khartoum has expelled other personnel, including key officials of the UN High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration (in the summer of2010); both organizations would be critical in overseeing any secure and voluntary returns by displaced persons. Several aid organizations, including Médecins du Monde, have determined that the degree of insecurity is intolerable and have withdrawn. UNAMID has done nothing to address this fundamental problem.

What is most dismaying about Charpentier’s actions is that they fly directly against the advice he is receiving from the field in Darfur: the people who know the situation best are simply being ignored. Charpentier is also ignoring advice from within the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which he heads in Sudan as UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator. This willfulness has translated into Charpentier’s efforts to push the UN agencies in Darfur, as well as UN political offices in New York, to support this deeply misconceived plan.

Darfur Obscured by Other Sudan Issues

None of this is being reported because Khartoum has successfully turned Darfur into a “black box” for news and information, with the shameful support of Charpentier. At the same time, crises are intensifying in Sudan’s North/South border areas, and both the Abyei and South Kordofan regions have commanded nearly all international diplomatic efforts in Sudan. Both are poised to explode, and either could lead to a resumption of full-out war. Many of the issues in dispute reflect the gross diplomatic mismanagement of former U.S. special envoy for Sudan Scott Gration, but it is not yet clear that Princeton Lyman, the new envoy, recognizes the extent of Gration’s errors. He should be pushing for a fundamental recalibration of U.S. policy, particularly with respect to the various incentives Gration so promiscuously offered Khartoum.

Until the United States and Ambassador Lyman make clear to Khartoum that the regime is violating the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (most egregiously in Abyei) and that there will be consequences for continued reneging, the regime will seek further concessions, “compromises,” and renegotiations of the sort Gration so willingly offered. To avoid a resumption of war in Sudan, the United States must seek as much international help as possible in making clear to Khartoum that until it is in full compliance with the CPA and permits unfettered humanitarian access in Darfur, there will be no lifting of U.S. economic sanctions—and that the regime will remain on the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring countries until it ends its crushing war of attrition against civilians in Darfur. Barring a change in regime behavior, the United States, using its clout at the IMF and World Bank, should also make clear that there will be no debt relief for Khartoum following the independence of South Sudan.

And yet Khartoum continues on its destructive path. Last week, in an important but almost completely overlooked election for governor in South Kordofan State, Khartoum’s candidate was Ahmed Haroun, a central figure in the Darfur genocide and a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for forty-two counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Despite the obvious popularity of his opponent, Abdel Aziz al-Hilu—who, unlike Haroun, is a native of South Kordofan and widely respected—the election was never in doubt. The electoral process has been marked by conspicuous fraud and rigging, much as the April 2010 national elections were, and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (of which al-Hilu is a senior member) has now disowned the South Kordofan vote. There was exceedingly little international observation of this key election—including by the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Sudan (UNMIS), which has a base in Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan, and is charged with protecting and securing implementation of the CPA. With no meaningful supervision, and Khartoum’s control of the electoral machinery, Haroun’s election was a foregone conclusion.

This is likely to cause major problems in the near term, for one element of the 2005 peace agreement was the promise of “popular consultations” for both the Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and(southern) Blue Nile—geographically in the north of Sudan, but culturally, politically, and militarily allied with the South. Haroun, who played a central role during Khartoum’s genocidal jihad against the people of the Nuba Mountains in the early 1990s, was almost certainly complicit in the April 13, 2011 torching of his opponent’s home village of el-Faid in the northern Nuba. More than 300 structures were burned to the ground by militia forces, which killed more than twenty people, including women and children. Yet it is Governor Ahmed Haroun, war criminal, who will now oversee the main phase of these “popular consultations” for the people of the Nuba. It is difficult to imagine a more perverse situation.

I know from my own travels and conversations in the Nuba that these people will not acquiesce in this travesty, and are much more likely to fight renewed tyranny. According to Africa Confidential, there are as many as 13,000 well-armed Nuba in the SPLA, presently stationed in northern South Sudan; if fighting breaks out, or if there are more attacks such as that on el-Faid, they will return to protect their homeland. It is difficult to imagine how such fighting, or fighting in Abyei, just to the south of South Kordofan, might be contained.

Darfur’s Suffering Continues

All this is bad news for the people of Darfur. Reports from Radio Dabanga—our only reliable source for most locations—continue to bring accounts of rape, severe deprivation in the camps, and assaults reminiscent of the worst years of the genocide, particularly in attacks by the Janjaweed and other Khartoum-allied militia forces:

An armed group on four Land Cruiser cars, five horses and thirty camels burnt 20 huts in the village of Sangira, 25 kilometers east of Kutum at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday [May 1, 2011]. One of the residents of the village told Radio Dabanga that the gunmen first took all the stored food which belongs to the citizens of the village at gunpoint and after that set fire to 20 huts.

Bombing attacks of civilian targets also continue, with large numbers of casualties. On Monday Radio Dabanga reported,

Thirteen (13) citizens were killed and 10 people wounded in two consecutive airstrikes in South Darfur. An Antonov plane belonging to the Sudanese Army dropped bombs on the area of Asharaya in Yass in district of Darfur this Sunday morning leading to the death of 12. The second incident happened in the area of Libdo [Labado], leading to the death of one.

So far there have been more than eighty such attacks this year, and yet another was reported today (see my extensive chronicling of these war crimes at www.sudanbombing.org). There is no evidence that UNAMID is prepared to work seriously to halt these attacks. Predictably, Khartoum immediately denied access to both investigators and humanitarians trying to reach the civilian populations in the areas of South Darfur that were attacked.

And though the UN long ago gave up its efforts to track global mortality in Darfur, the deadly consequences of diminished humanitarian access, security, and capacity are reflected in countless dispatches such as these, also from Radio Dabanga:

Officials responsible for children’s care in Zamzam A and Zamzam B informed UNICEF on Monday [May 2] that the rate of death among children reached thirteen deaths per week in the past two weeks due to the spread of cases of measles and diarrhea among the newly displaced children….An activist from Zamzam camp told Radio Dabanga that the officials of the children’s network in the camp informed a delegate from the children’s protection department in UNICEF about the danger of the situation and the increase in mortality rates in children and also informed them about the lack of enough health centers and life-saving medicines.

Valerie Amos, the chief UN humanitarian official, should be speaking out in the most forceful and persistent terms, demanding that Khartoum grant full access to UN and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, as well as UNAMID patrols and investigations—and yet instead she defers to Charpentier and has accepted the stunt UNAMID and Charpentier have concocted, “Operation Spring Basket.”

Amos seems to be focusing elsewhere in Sudan. She recently criticized in severe terms an attack on the UN World Food Program in South Sudan that killed one senior official, saying, “These incidents demonstrate complete disregard for the safety and security of humanitarian personnel and I condemn them in the strongest possible terms.”

One may agree entirely with Amos’ assessment and yet wonder where her sense of proportion is: the attack on the WFP in South Sudan was despicable, but not part of a pattern, and was condemned by the Government of South Sudan (GOSS). On the other hand, such atrocities are virtually weekly occurrences in Darfur, and Khartoum bears major responsibility in many cases. There have been hundreds of car-jackings targeting humanitarians, dozens of kidnappings, and more than 150 assaults on aid workers since 2004, a number of them deadly (more than fifty peacekeepers have been killed in Darfur, some clearly at Khartoum’s behest). And this is to say nothing of the intimidation, denied access, threats, bureaucratic obstruction, and abuse that define daily life for humanitarians in Darfur.

One must surmise that Amos felt free to make such critical comments about an incident that occurred in the South because she knew there would be no retaliation from the GOSS. Precisely the opposite is the case in Darfur: Khartoum has made clear that it will retaliate in brutal fashion if similar criticism is leveled against regime officials as often as is warranted by incidents targeting the humanitarian community in Darfur. From such cowardice, appeasement, and duplicity catastrophes are made and exacerbated. “Operation Spring Basket” is a sign of just how weak and morally corrupt key UN humanitarian officials have become.

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.


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