The New Republic (on-line), November 28, 2005
by Eric Reeves
WHAT will happen after humanitarian organizations leave Darfur? The question grows more relevant daily. For much of 2004, humanitarian groups ramped up their operations in Darfur. These efforts temporarily blocked the genocidal aims of the Sudanese government from coming to full fruition. Throughout 2003 and 2004, government-backed militias terrorized Darfur’s African tribal populations, evicting them from their villages and cutting them off from their livelihoods. Many ended up in refugee camps, where only the efforts of humanitarian groups have allowed them to stay alive. Sudan’s leaders would like nothing more than to see these groups leave the country, so that disease and malnutrition can finish the work the militias started three years ago.
They may soon get their wish. There is considerable evidence that many humanitarian organizations are on the brink of withdrawing from Darfur–or at least suspending operations. An upsurge in violence against humanitarian workers has pushed many groups to the very limit of tolerable risk. The consequences of such a withdrawal will be stark: hundreds of thousands dead. As a result, the reality facing America and its allies is simple: If we really believe that something should be done to save Darfur, then we have to do it now. Soon, it will be too late to do anything at all.
HOW likely is humanitarian evacuation? For one thing, withdrawals have already begun in West Darfur. Kofi Annan reports that the United Nations withdrew “non-essential” staff from the region in October and that some international humanitarian organizations did so as well. Aid workers have told me of subsequent quiet withdrawals from West Darfur and elsewhere. Sometimes these evacuations are also noted publicly, as in a recent Darfur report by Refugees International:
“According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, due to rising insecurity … on September 25, 2005 three NGOs evacuated their staff from Shangil Tobayi, North Darfur, reportedly leaving the town without an international humanitarian presence. A week earlier Refugees International (RI) had witnessed the site director for one of the NGOs sending three of her staff home to Europe.”
Eighty-one NGOs and thirteen U.N. agencies currently operate in Darfur, according to the latest U.N. data. These groups have evacuation plans defined by varying contingencies and thresholds for implementation. A year ago, for example, Save the Children UK withdrew its non-Sudanese staff and suspended all operations in Darfur following the deaths of several workers in two different incidents (one was a land-mine detonation). But no matter what the threshold for evacuation, the precipitating scenarios are daily becoming more likely.
Attacks on humanitarian workers and their convoys have been most frequent in West Darfur, and this is the region Annan explicitly invoked when he warned the U.N. Security Council in his November report on Darfur that “the looming threat of complete lawlessness and anarchy draws nearer.” All roads leading out of the regional capital Geneina are off-limits to U.N. humanitarian personnel. Independent aid organizations use these roads only occasionally and on a highly selective basis. Humanitarian groups simply cannot be expected to operate in such an environment, even as their skills and oversight are critical for the work of saving civilian lives.
Meanwhile the Janjaweed have been appearing in ever more brazen and threatening fashion inside Geneina itself. Fighting has been reported within the city, as well as between Arab militia groups immediately northeast of town. Geneina airport, the only significant airport in West Darfur, is being actively used by helicopter gunships of the Khartoum government, evidently in support of its escalating military offensive against insurgents in the Jebel Moun area to the northeast.
More ominously, sources on the ground report that the Geneina airport has been surrounded by dug-in mortars and artillery. Geneina is only about 10 miles from the Chad-Darfur border; and as tensions between Chad and Sudan escalate, there is speculation that in the event of a significant military confrontation, the Sudanese government will either seize the airport or destroy it by shelling to prevent its seizure by Chad’s army. Either way, this would leave humanitarian groups without a means of getting out. Facing the possibility that they will soon be stranded, it’s no surprise that humanitarian organizations are considering a preemptive departure.
Across Darfur, humanitarian access is more restricted than it has been since April 2004, well before aid groups ramped up their operations following the July 2004 U.N. agreements with Khartoum. There are simply more and more places humanitarian workers can’t go, forcing many residents either to flee toward already overcrowded camps or go without aid. The African Union force in Darfur, which has no mandate to protect civilians or humanitarian workers, can neither secure humanitarian corridors nor provide adequate military escorts to humanitarian convoys. The growing number of attacks on aid workers, even those of the International Committee of the Red Cross, reflect the understandable belief by all combatants that the international community does not care enough about its humanitarian operations to protect them appropriately.
On top of this, relief efforts in Darfur are beginning to suffer from donor fatigue, providing those who wish to exit a ready excuse for withdrawing international staff and operations. According to Reuters, “donors are becoming more reluctant to pay for a never-ending emergency and are starting to reduce aid[.] … Narinder Sharma, a U.N. official in Darfur, said aid agencies were already phasing out their activities and any decrease in funding would spell disaster for millions of people.”
THE evacuation of humanitarian workers essentially means the withdrawal of international staff; very few of the Sudanese nationals who make up approximately 90 percent of the more than 12,000 aid workers in Darfur would be withdrawn. But many of the Sudanese left behind would be intensely, and rightly, fearful for their physical security: The Khartoum government has made no secret of its contempt for international aid efforts, and reprisals against the Sudanese humanitarian workers who have assisted in these efforts would probably be brutal. As a result, they are likely to stop working in the event that their organizations withdraw; and humanitarian operations would almost certainly come to a standstill.
Even if Sudanese nationals were able to courageously continue some operations, health care in Darfur would be crippled. Medical supplies could no longer get through to clinics, and treatment of complicated medical conditions and injuries would cease. (The doctors capable of performing such procedures are virtually all foreigners.) In the crowded camps, maintenance of latrines, which are quite alien to most Darfuris, would end, as would other aggressive steps that have been taken to avert outbreaks of cholera and dysentery; we would almost certainly see outbreaks of these destructive diseases sooner rather than later. Other diseases, such as malaria and measles, that humanitarian groups have managed to keep under control in the camps would similarly go undetected and untreated. In a short time disease would become a devastating source of human destruction.
Further, many of the pumps that supply water to dense concentrations of displaced people, in areas that do not have sufficient water for a fraction of these populations, depend upon diesel-powered engines. If humanitarian workers withdraw, it is unlikely that fuel would reach the pumps to keep water flowing. One humanitarian group reports that it recently came within two days of running out of fuel at one large camp; and this is with highly resourceful international workers and communications abilities still in place. Water is critical to life in this extremely hot and arid region (it is currently the dry season). Thousands of people would quickly perish for lack of water in the event of evacuation, and those who drink untreated surface water near the camps would be exposed to a fearsome range of diseases. Those leaving the camps in search of water–or food, or medical assistance–would become vulnerable to the relentlessly marauding Janjaweed.
The first to die will be malnourished children under five years of age, especially those who presently require the assistance of specialized feeding centers. But these casualties will only be harbingers of greater death, both in the overcrowded camps, which are again swelling because of new violence, and throughout the vulnerable rural areas where people are increasingly unable to feed themselves. The United Nations currently estimates that there are almost 3.5 million conflict-affected civilians in Darfur, nearly all of them in need of food assistance. And while the United Nation’s World Food Program has performed impressively, moving 57,000 metric tons of food into the area in October, this food simply cannot be delivered to areas that humanitarian workers cannot reach. Indeed, if humanitarian operations disintegrate, it is difficult to see how food will be delivered at all.
TWO months ago Jan Egeland, head of U.N. humanitarian operations, warned that if insecurity “continues to escalate, if it continues to be so dangerous on humanitarian work, we may not be able to sustain our operation[.] … It could all end tomorrow–it’s as serious as that.” A year ago, when there were a million fewer conflict-affected people in Darfur, Egeland warned that in the event of humanitarian evacuation as many as 100,000 could die every month. Privately there was much scorn for this estimate. But as humanitarian withdrawal begins in Darfur, with surging violence that might at any moment spur full-scale evacuation, there can be no scorn for Egeland’s estimate now. Hundreds of thousands of people are already beyond humanitarian relief, and the population is weakened by almost three years of intense conflict. The number without assistance may climb to over a million by year’s end.
As humanitarian evacuation becomes more likely, the day draws near when the West will have to make its final decision on Darfur. African Union forces have failed to secure the region; and without security, there can be no humanitarian relief. Either America and its western allies put troops on the ground in Darfur soon, or the time to act will have passed. Perhaps 400,000 people have died in Darfur already, but after humanitarian workers leave, those numbers will swell quickly and considerably. After all, while humanitarian workers have an evacuation option, Darfur’s residents do not.
[Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.]