Recent heavy fighting in the Korma region of North Darfur has taken a substantial civilian toll, even as the UN/African Union force watches helplessly for days from a distance. US Special Envoy Gration gives more disheartening evidence of ignorance and disingenuousness. Withdrawals and curtailment of aid by humanitarian organizations continue.
[ Sudan Tribune, September 27, 2009 ]
September 26, 2009
The diminishment of large-scale combat in Darfur has led some observers to minimize the ongoing catastrophe for the people of this tortured region. In words that have become notorious, outgoing UNAMID commander Martin Agwai declared in August that “as of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur,” but rather “very low intensity” engagements. These words were anticipated by those of the departing UN/AU special representative to UNAMID, Rodolphe Adada: “There is no more fighting proper on the ground.” “Right now there is no high-intensity conflict in Darfur. Call it what you will but this is what is happening in Darfur—a lot of banditry, carjacking, attacks on houses.”
These assessments appear strange indeed when we consider that during the tenure of these two men more than 450,000 Darfuris were newly displaced, according to figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees and the UN Department of Peacekeeping operations (317,000 in 2008 alone). The vast majority of these civilians were violently displaced because UNAMID continues to be ineffective in deterring or halting various forms of attacks on civilians. Despite the large number of personnel on the ground, UNAMID continues to operate at less than 50 percent of mandated capacity. Too often troops, civilian police, and other personnel lack equipment, transport, adequate communications and intelligence capacity—or even a clear understanding of their civilian protection mandate, which has UN Chapter 7 auspices.
But the assessments by Agwai and Adada failed completely to anticipate the recent violence initiated by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in the Korma region northwest of el-Fasher in North Darfur. Reports of a significant military offensive by the SAF and its Janjaweed militia forces, underway since early September, have still not been investigated, nor have the conditions of several thousand newly displaced civilians been assessed by UNAMID or humanitarian organizations. Twenty civilian casualties were reported in early September and more recently an additional eighteen civilian casualties have been reported; even so UNAMID remains unwilling to demand of Khartoum that access be granted—a deference that breeds only more intransigence on the part of the regime. The rebel forces, who have seen this deference—and with good cause view UNAMID as having taken the regime’s side in the conflict—had previously refused to grant security guarantees to UNAMID but have now accepted that the immediate needs of civilians demand access and have granted it. Khartoum alone blocks UNAMID from investigating.
It is important to remember that the rebel denial of access does not have as its usual motive the concealing of military violence, or the killing and large-scale displacement of civilians; rather, it is a direct consequence of UNAMID’s previous failures, incompetence, and timidity in assessing reports of attacks on civilians—and the belief that some in UNAMID are actually passing intelligence to Khartoum’s officials. Certainly the rebels know that protection of civilians and humanitarians, the primary mandate of the mission, has been extremely limited geographically and often consists of perfunctory patrols (see below).
Observers may make of this rebel assessment of UNAMID what they will (Darfuri civilians in the main also hold the mission in contempt), but the reports we have from the ground around Korma (and the Ain Siro area earlier in September), can leave no real doubt that a major military offensive has begun, and that its aim is to wrest control of the Korma area (eastern Jebel Marra) from the Sudan Liberation Army forces of Abdel Wahid al-Nur (SLA/AW). Ultimately, Khartoum’s ambition is to clear the area of rebel presence and forcibly return civilians from Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in the el-Fasher area, especially toward Kutum and Kebkabiya, something the regime has spoken of publicly and repeatedly during the course of the current offensive.
WHAT CAN WE KNOW OR SURMISE?
What can we know of the situation on the ground? One of the most remarkable developments in the Darfur conflict is the degree to which, over the past six years, those on the ground and in the IDP camps are able to communicate, by email and telephone, with the outside world, and glean information from sources such as the BBC and other international news sources. It is difficult to assess the reliability of any single report on Darfur, but in the present case—as in many others—the reports certainly appear to give a well-informed if not wholly fluent account of particular developments and events, which rarely appear in UNAMID’s unhelpful daily press briefings. Radio Dabanga (http://www.radiodabanga.org/) is particularly useful since it has come to serve as a kind of clearing house of reports from throughout Darfur. Whenever possible, Dabanga attempts to verify specific claims, and will often note that they were unable to confirm a specific report.
Darfuris in the diaspora have also become much more savvy in collecting intelligence and information, and their contacts with people on the ground in Darfur are substantial. Further, Hussein Abu Sharati has recently emerged as a credible spokesperson for the IDP populations of much of Darfur. He is intelligent, widely respected, and knows full well that his credibility as a spokesperson depends almost entirely upon having his reports confirmed. Given the inability and unwillingness of UNAMID to respond to even urgent reports of violence and humanitarian distress, Abu Sharati offers an important view into Darfur, while UNAMID often seems to be more interested in public relations than protection (the slick UNAMID website is revealing in itself, even as it fails to stay current in key areas—it is months behind in archiving its press releases and briefings).
What do learn if we listen to the voices of informed Darfuris in the diaspora, to those Darfuris reporting by way of Radio Dabanga, and to those on the ground courageous enough to speak out, such as Abu Sharati? How does all this comport with the accounts offered by UNAMID in its bland and uninformative daily press releases? In particular, how well do available reports square with the conveniently self-modifying accounts of Darfur offered by US Special Envoy Scott Gration? And beyond this, what can be gleaned from the few humanitarian reports of note that escape the grasp of intense self-censorship by aid organizations, fearful of offending Khartoum and risking expulsion? Their desperate need for greater security, and consequent fear of Khartoum’s actions, could not be clearer. And while there is hardly a wealth of global information to be had, even the reticence is telling, especially when the few reports on humanitarian conditions we have offer significant evidence of present distress and elevated levels of morbidity and mortality.
[Email communications and web-posted dispatches from Dabanga Radio are lightly edited for clarity.]
An email (received September 21, 2009) from a distinguished and extremely well-informed member of the Darfuri diaspora provides a clear overview of the larger military offensive and its implications for civilians:
“There are air and ground attacks to various areas in Darfur, mostly all around Jebel Marra—my own area. This started on last Thursday [September 17, 2009]. There is an ongoing attack through the axis of eastern Jebel Marra in the area of Kidineir [southeast of Nyertiti]. The second axis is around the southern Jebel Marra: Nyertiti, Kass, Juldo. The third [axis] is eastern Jebel Marra: Korma, Tawila, extending to Ain Siro.”
“The orchestrated attack is composed from government soldiers [and] janjaweed using different types of weapons. These were calm areas since 2004. The expected result: more civilian killing and displacing, putting into consideration the failure of this rainy season’s harvest; more devastating famine, malnutrition, and increase in the death toll.”
This source notes bitterly, “there is no any intention of intervention from the international community represented by the UNAMID forces,” this despite the proximity of UNAMID bases to the fighting (several bases are very close to the present fighting; see the map of bases at: http://unamid.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?tabid=900).
The first reports of this fighting come from the Sudan Tribune (September 9, 2009) and Radio Dabanga, and the scale of the violence and threats to civilians was made explicit by both the Sudan Liberation Army faction led by Abdel Wahid Al-Nur (SLA/AW) and IDP spokesperson Abu Sharati:
“Sudanese troops attacked the positions of a rebel group near Jebel Marra in Darfur killing 11 fighters and displaced thousands of civilians, a rebel spokesperson and an Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spokesperson of the SLA/AW said today. Abdal-Rahman Nimir, the military spokesperson of said the government troops and militias attacked on Monday their positions Korma and Ain Siro in North Darfur. The rebel spokesperson said their fighters repelled the assailants and control the mountainous areas. He further said 11 rebels were killed during the fighting in the two positions: 7 in Korma and 4 in Ain Siro.”
“Hussein Abu Sharati, speaking by telephone to Sudan Tribune from the troubled region, said civilian[s] from the areas around the attacked positions fled their villages and they are in bad humanitarian conditions due to rains that prevent them from joining the IDPs camps. ‘There are six thousand civilians mostly women and children who fled their villages and now without shelter. Those who are in Korma cannot move towards to the camps while Ain Siro displaced civilians moved towards the Jebel [Marra].'” (Sudan Tribune, September 9, 2009)
Radio Dabanga independently reported (September 8, 2009) that “clashes had started five days ago [in] the Ain Siro area in North Darfur.”
The Ain Siro area is notable because the village by that name has been held up as a “Darfur success story,” originally by Julie Flint in the Washington Post (“Darfur, Saving Itself,” June 3, 2007), and subsequently by Alex de Waal, who manages the website “Making Sense of Darfur.” Even US Special Envoy Scott Gration put Ain Siro on his recent Darfur itinerary to show Darfuris their bright future. Flint declared over two years ago, “life is returning to normal” in Ain Siro:
“In Ain Siro, Darfurians are putting their lives back together, with no help from the international community. I found children celebrating the end of the school year with a graduation ceremony.”
“people are cultivating millet, rebuilding their herds after the devastation of 2003-04 and, when rains permit, gathering wild grasses and fruits to supplement their diet.”
De Waal is equally celebratory:
“A few days in Ain Siro is a reminder of what life used to be like in Darfur. The village is nestled in the spine of hills that runs due north from Jebel Marra into the desert. Protected by the mountains, the SLA has controlled the area for the last four years, and for many of the people in the vicinity, allowed an element of normality to return. Villages have been rebuilt, a rudimentary health service set up—and the school re-opened.” (May 29, 2009 at SSRC blog: http://blogs.ssrc.org/darfur/2009/05/28/a-taste-of-normality-in-ain-siro/).
From the example of Ain Siro, de Waal draws a conclusion that shows just how shameless his accommodation of the Khartoum regime’s military ambitions has been over the years:
“Ain Siro shows how people on all sides are tired of war and, when given the chance, can make their own small but significant steps towards peace and normality. When Julie Flint first wrote about Ain Siro ‘saving itself’ in 2007, most were sceptical that it represented anything significant. Two years on, not only has Ain Siro survived, but its model of self-help is less exceptional than it was.”
There has been no recent word from Flint or de Waal on the brutal military assault by Khartoum in the Korma and Ain Siro areas, or the three axes of the offensive described above.
What have we learned since the attacks in the eastern Jebel Marra region began in early September? The distress of the civilian population should be of paramount concern: at present the population of displaced persons appears to number well over 5,000, although this is impossible to confirm in the absence of assessment by UNAMID and protected humanitarians. The Sudan Tribune reports that IDPs and their representatives are indicating that “humanitarian assistance is needed for over 5,000 people” (September 21, 2009). The figure is also used by IDP spokesperson Abu Sharati. The first civilians to flee are now starting to reach IDP camps and the outskirts of el-Fasher to the southeast, and they bring with them familiar stories of horror, including eyewitness reports of “raping and pillaging of villages” (Radio Dabanga, September 24, 2009). Many have fled not to the camps but into the Jebel Marra itself. Others have already perished:
“[One] eyewitness [ ] said that a girl died after being raped by gunmen. Other citizens said that the size of the humanitarian disaster caused by the military operations is very great. People moved towards Tawila and el-Fasher [but] they were not allowed to enter el-Fasher. Eyewitnesses added that villages were totally burnt down.” (Radio Dabanga, September 23, 2009)
Most recently the Sudan Tribune reports (September 24, 2009):
“[The] Darfur peacekeeping mission today said concerned by civilian causalities and urged to end the fighting in North Darfur state where government troops carry out delay attacks on the position of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdel-Wahid Al-Nur. The positions of the rebel SLM-AW in the mountainous areas of Korma and Ain Siro are regularly attacked by the government army and militias. Last Thursday and Friday (September 17 and 18, 2009), the attackers killed 18 civilians, according to [an] IDP spokesperson.”
For its part the hybrid peacekeeping mission refuses to challenge Khartoum to abide by the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1769 (July 31, 2007) and the “status of forces agreement” signed by Khartoum in February 2008. Instead, UNAMID “continues to urge for an end to the clashes between the Government of Sudan and rebel movements in Korma, North Darfur.” Rather than fulfilling its mandate, UNAMID is content simply to reiterate it: “‘[The] UNAMID mandate is to protect civilians and ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance to the needy,’ said Noureddine Mezni in a statement he made today [September 22, 2009].”
“The mission has been ready to go the area of the fighting since Friday [September 18, 2009] ‘but we were waiting for the approval of the government and the rebels’ said Mezni. He further added they are concerned by the impact of the fighting on civilians and the humanitarian situation.”
“SLM [spokesman] Nimir said the government militias killed three civilians on Thursday [September 17, 2009] adding the [Janjaweed and paramilitary] militias target[ed] systematically over 80 villages in the area. He asserted that some 40 women had been raped by the militiamen, who stole some 4,000 livestock. He also said they are willing to receive the UNAMID assessment team, ‘We have no objection as it is about the civilians,’ Nimir added.”
“[Nimir] also said they are willing to receive the UNAMID assessment team, ‘We have no objection as it is about the civilians.'”
The implication of this last statement is clear: Khartoum’s military forces, including Janjaweed militia, initiated the current offensive and are now the sole obstacle to a UNAMID assessment mission to the area. UNAMID, all too predictably, cannot bring itself to say as much, even as the refusal to allow an assessment mission is a flagrant violation of both UN Security Council Resolution 1769 and the “status of forces agreement.” This occurs even as regime officials claim that “the situation in Korma is under control.”
FORCED RETURNS OF INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
What makes the current military offensive so threatening is the language used by the Khartoum regime in justifying fighting they originally denied existed: we are witnessing an attempt to expel forcibly those civilians whose only security derives from enduring the grim life of the camps. The governor of North Darfur (hand-picked by the regime) was unambiguous:
“The local governor, Osman Mohammed Kebir, said that the regions of Korma and Tawila had been cleared of rebels and the internally displaced in the massive camps could now return home—something the rebels and refugees themselves have rejected citing lack of security.” (Associated Press [dateline: Khartoum], September 20, 2009)
A “Government of Sudan” press statement of September 13, 2009 makes clear just how far Khartoum is prepared to press its propaganda campaign on this issue:
“Northern Darfur state government has started rehabilitation of a number of standard villages to accommodate 3,000 families returning from displacement camps. Governor of the state Osman Mohammed Yousif Kibir said his government has availed health water education services and food supplies for the returnees. He said security and political stability in the state encourage IDPs return home.”
Preposterous lies, of course, but a measure of what Khartoum is prepared to undertake to solve its “IDP problem.”
Senior National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) official Qutbi al-Mahdi also articulated the same view in Khartoum:
“Dr. Mahdi Qotbi, the head of NCP political sector said on Thursday [September 10, 2009] that war in Darfur now came to an end and there is no fighting between the government army and the rebels as it is stated by the peacekeeping mission (UNAMID). [ ] Mahdi also said all the humanitarian and security effects of the conflict started to disappear adding the current stage would focus to clear the camps of displaced population and resettle them into their homeland.” (Sudan Tribune, September 10, 2009)
And on September 8, 2009 the state-controlled SUNA (Sudan News Agency) reported that Defense Minister (and former Interior Minister) Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein was traveling to Darfur in order to “discuss issues relation to the voluntary return on the ground.” He held a joint meeting with “the national higher committee for voluntary repatriation of the displaced people and the mechanism for voluntary repatriation in North Darfur State.”
Hussein has been one of the principals in NIF/NCP efforts going back as far as 2004 to compel returns. That the word “voluntary” appears at every turn is hardly surprising, since no matter what the character of the returns this is how the regime will describe them to the international community. But the timing is ominous, coming as it does just as Khartoum is launching a military offensive in precisely the area to which people will “voluntarily” be returned.
Clearing the camps has been a strategic goal of the regime since the explosive growth in their size began in the first years of the conflict. For a range of reasons, Khartoum may calculate that this is a moment in which to accomplish its longstanding goal even as this would precipitate a massive human catastrophe, since adequate security could not, and would not, be provided. Certainly the IDPs in the camps are adamantly opposed to returns without necessary security, something that is apparently lost on US Special Envoy Gration.
SPECIAL ENVOY GRATION ON IDP RETURNS, KHARTOUM AND TERRORISM, HUMANITARIAN CONDITIONS IN DARFUR
Gration has recently claimed to have been misrepresented in his views on the issue of returns, as well as other issues to which he spoke before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (July 30, 2009). But in fact notes from two meetings Gration held in Darfur with UN and nongovernmental organizations in July 2009 clearly reveal a push for early returns, a position that caused such deep consternation that these organizations took the highly unusual step of allowing the notes to become public, thereby creating the opportunity to dissociate themselves from Gration’s comments and assessments. In private conversations, humanitarian workers are even more harshly critical of Gration’s perversely limited understanding of the both the return issue and the dimensions of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Gration’s declaration that peace for Darfur would be achieved by the end of the year, and that consequently the IDPs should face up to the reality of return, is not only shockingly presumptuous, but implicitly gives a green light to Khartoum to begin a campaign of returns that would be immensely destructive of human life.
The notes, deriving from two meetings with the South Darfur “Inter-Agency Management Group” (IAMG) reveal both tact and alarm (there is no URL for these Notes, although they were reported by Colum Lynch of The Washington Post [dateline: New York], August 5, 2009 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/05/AR2009080503808.html; full text of the Notes is available upon request). But alarm certainly predominates and it is clear that humanitarians believe Gration holds disastrously ill-informed views about the challenges of returns in the present security environment. While the IAMG Notes allude to but finally pass over, as too political, Gration’s claim that peace will be achieved by year’s end, the comments from sheiks and traditional leaders make clear the political and humanitarian concerns of those who face return under present circumstances. There is also a strong sense, among both aid workers and Darfuris, that Gration does not sufficiently understand current humanitarian conditions in Darfur or the full consequences of the March 4, 2009 expulsion of thirteen critical international humanitarian organizations (and the forced closing of three national organizations providing important assistance in Darfur and elsewhere).
The IAMG Notes of July 21, 2009 come from Kalma Camp outside Nyala, South Darfur, and early on make a sharp distinction between the political and the humanitarian (again, these Notes have been very lightly edited for clarity, including proofreading lapses):
“The mission was of a political nature more than humanitarian focused. The [US Special Envoy] was exposing his political plan rather than seeking feedback from the humanitarian community and/or looking into the facts presented.”
The bluntness of the distinction and the politically one-sided character of Gration’s remarks put the aid organizations in an uncomfortable position, one they felt the need to clarify both for Darfuris in attendance and those who would politicize their humanitarian mission in any fashion:
“Given the message sent by Scott Gration to the Humanitarian Community and the beneficiaries, i.e. peace will prevail in Darfur by the end of the year, and returns have to happen, the IAMG felt it has to take a common position.”
Clearly the aid representatives felt a need to take a “common position” because the humanitarian implications of Gration’s political assessment are enormous—and certainly an end of the year time-frame, even if it should yield a nominal peace agreement (highly unlikely), is wholly irrelevant to the critical security issues that must be overcome if returns are to be contemplated. UNAMID has no capacity to enforce or even monitor a cease-fire, as the current standoff in Korma area makes clear. Gration’s version of reality on the ground in Darfur may resonate well in Khartoum, but nowhere else. Operationally, the IAMG Notes emphasize:
“The Special Envoy emphasized his desire to see IDPs returning to their home as early as possible. Beyond the fact that this is linked to a success of the political process, the IAMG, whilst recognizing the possibility to returns as an ultimate goal and supporting it, want to emphasize that specific impediments need to be addressed before it is made possible. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that a large part of the IDPs might opt for staying in their new settlements over a return to their place of origin.”
Even more consequentially, Gration fails to understand the complexity of returns and the lack of capacity to ensure that any such returns are indeed voluntary and secure. His factitiously optimistic account of humanitarian capacity, particularly in South Darfur, is indirectly but unmistakably criticized by the IAMG Notes:
“The incapacitation of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and [the] UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Darfur is utterly limiting the capacity to deal with population movements and potential returns. IAMG emphasize that even if one of the Agency is granted access it will not be enough. The presence of the two is essential to work according to humanitarian principles and the UN framework for return.”
“[The UN] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs does not have the human capacity to step up for IOM as provisioned for South Darfur.”
“The ad hoc mechanisms put in place by the IAMG to deal with population movements have to be seen as a bridging (patching) mechanism. Indeed the Agencies and partners do not have the human capacity to address all reported movements.”
More specifically, the Notes emphasize that:
“The human and logistic capacity required to assess and address return within the UN framework for return is absent;
“No one can adequately and fully insure the verification process (voluntary and/or permanent nature of the returns, land tenure issues, adequate services on the ground, necessary security, etc.);
“No capacity to deliver the assistance to all of potential new locations because of access, security, capacity limitation.”
The problems of access remain particularly acute, severely constraining what humanitarian capacity is deployable:
“The partners are facing daily administrative constraints. Decisions agreed upon in Khartoum are difficult to implement in South Darfur. [The] National Intelligence and Security Service, Humanitarian Aid Commission, and Military Intelligence take contradictory positions that incapacitate the [humanitarian] partners:
“The lack of security. [The Government of Sudan] controls now most of [South Darfur state], therefore the Humanitarian Community should be able to move freely in those areas.”
Of course there is anything but freedom of movement, and virtually all of Darfur is still inaccessible or has only limited humanitarian access. And even when in the field, humanitarians are limited to a small circumference around outlying helipads; the necessary oversight and assessment is impossible, one of the main reasons for a decline in humanitarian conditions and the quality of aid delivery. (See a UN humanitarian access map showing virtually all of Darfur as significantly insecure [search “darfur humanitarian access map”+july+2009 at http://www.unsudanig.org/])
One consequence of this limitation, for South Darfur in particular, is the inordinate burden placed on what logistics these humanitarian organizations have at their disposal:
“Limited permanent presence of partners in the deep field. Therefore all missions have to be organized from Nyala, hence requesting heavy logistic.”
In fact the problem of humanitarian capacity, though discussed in the IAMG Notes with reference to South Darfur, prevails everywhere. Special Envoy Gration, however, sees things through a lens that is much more likely to find favor in Khartoum. He declares in an interview with Radio Dabanga (September 16, 2009 at http://www.radiodabanga.org/?s=gration):
“Since March 4, 2009 [the date 13 organizations—representing half the humanitarian capacity in Darfur—were expelled from northern Sudan—ER] the situation has improved. As we have four nongovernmental organizations [NGO’s] in, the capacity of the UN is increased, the capacity of the other NGO’s still remained [.] There has been a positive trend.”
This is outrageous distortion, making disingenuous comparisons to humanitarian capacity prior to and following the expulsions, expulsions that threaten the more than 2.7 million who have been displaced, along with more than 250,000 refugees in Eastern Chad. Certainly the IAMG Notes offer a powerful correction to Gration’s disturbing misrepresentation. In addition to highlighting the complete lack of capacity to oversee returns in South Darfur, these Notes make the following points, tersely and unambiguously:
“There are still gaps in the relief coverage, and this is not only the one caused by the expulsion of March 4. There were pre-existing gaps and new ones have appeared.”
“Overall, if the quantity of service have been maintained, the quality has suffered;
“On returns [of IDPs] it is important to recall that International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commission for Refugees can’t fulfill their mandate.”
The effort by Gration and others to seize on movements by some elements of the displaced populations as a sign of returns is simply expedient:
“[The] volume of population movement registered now is not higher than previous years, hence suspicion of seasonal ‘returns’ [i.e., temporary returns for purposes of planting and agriculture];
“If one sums up the reported population movement, it is less than 2% of the IDP population;
“[The] South Darfur IAMG has put on place an ad hoc mechanism [to monitor returns]. This is not sustainable on the long term;
“There is a clear need to separate Humanitarian from Political for issues such as returns and elections. In addition there is a need to clarify the limit of the mandates of UNAMID and of [the] Humanitarian Community.”
SPECIAL ENVOY GRATION AND DIPLOMATIC CHARACTER
Sadly, what we have in the efforts of Special Envoy Gration is a deliberate politicization of humanitarian issues in a bid to create a more tractable negotiating party in the Khartoum regime. That Gration is capable of deliberate distortion is clear from a remark he made in his Radio Dabanga interview (September 15, 2009), in which he declares (as he has elsewhere) that, “he never said anything [about] lifting the sanctions and removing Sudan from the list of state-sponsored terrorism.” This is outright mendacity, and a telling revelation of diplomatic character. For Gration testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 30, 2009 that:
“‘There’s no evidence in our intelligence community that supports [Sudan] being on the state sponsors of terrorism. It’s a political decision,’ Gration said.” (National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111422940).
No amount of disingenuous parsing can make this into a statement that comports with Gration’s denial of “saying anything about  removing Sudan from the list of state-sponsored terrorism.” Gration has lied to a Darfuri audience, and they understand this much better than he realizes.
Yet another instance of telling mendacity is reflected in Gration’s answer to a question about why on his most recent trip to Darfur he visited the same two camps he had visited on his previous trip, Abu Shouk and Zam Zam—especially since he has declared his intention to visit all IDP camps (which number over 100). The reason of course is obvious: these are the camps in Darfur where security, including Military Intelligence, has its strongest, most intimidating presence. There were widespread calls for a boycott of the meeting with Gration, but in the end threats by security compelled attendance. Still Gration heard some angry words, and a sharp challenge to his integrity as a neutral mediator. The Sudan Tribune reports (September 13, 2009):
“The US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Sudan, Major General J. Scott Gration, faced hostile audience today during a meeting with Darfur displaced people who charged [him] with complicity with Sudanese government, going as far as demanding his resignation. Gration who arrived in North Darfur state on Saturday [September 12, 2009] met today with representatives of four Internally Displaced [Persons] (IDP) camps: Abu Shouk, Al-Salam, Zamzam, Koushab. The meeting took place in Abu Shouk at 10:00 local time on Sunday [September 13, 2009].”
“The IDPs who had announced the boycott of Gration’s visit to the restive region said they changed their mind fearing reprisal by security services and also to use this opportunity to loudly voice their plight. The special envoy was accompanied by a large number of journalists. [The Darfuri representatives] also said [they] wanted to tell him why they reject any dealings with him and call on Obama to replace him ‘not only because of his failure to improve the security and humanitarian situations, but also because he is acting against their interests in the areas of peace and justice.'”
These statements took tremendous courage in the face of a daunting security presence, reflecting the depth of Darfuri anger and resentment at the mendacity, bad faith, and expediency on Special Envoy Gration’s part. His concern for the truth about humanitarian conditions in Darfur was further compromised by his acquiescing before Khartoum’s pre-planned itinerary: even the Zam Zam camp Gration visited was the “old,” well-established camp—not the new camp abutting it that has become home to tens of thousands who fled violence in the Muhajeria area of South Darfur (violence for which both the Justice and Equality Movement [JEM] and Khartoum bear responsibility, though Gration mentions only JEM).
If he had chosen this new camp he would have seen a great deal more human suffering, and a humanitarian capacity that is woefully inadequate. Instead, he speaks of being “encouraged” by his return to the “old” Zam Zam, which is one of Khartoum’s favored stops for in-and-out assessment missions to Darfur. He declares that “there has been significant improvement in health, water and sanitation, and food distribution” (email newsletter from the Special Envoy, September 18, 2009). What Gration reveals is his ignorance of conditions only a few kilometers away in the “new” Zam Zam Camp, where conditions are appalling and the Crude Mortality Rate is fully three times that of the “old” camp—or he has simply chosen to ignore humanitarian conditions that don’t fit with his pre-determined optimism (for Crude Mortality Rates in the two camps, see Darfur Nutrition Update: Summary Issue 23, April-June 2009, page 2). Either way, his refusal to acknowledge the realities of the “new” Zam Zam, and Khartoum’s predominant role in the violence that put so many tens of thousands of civilians to flight, is a disgrace.
In yet another example of what is either egregious ignorance or an unconscionable expediency, Gration says nothing about what is widely known within the humanitarian community, viz. that resources for girls and women who are victims of sexual violence were almost entirely eliminated with the March 4 expulsions. Doctors Without Borders/Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF) Holland and France, along with the International Rescue Committee, were central to this critical medical and psychosocial need—and all were expelled, at least in part because of their work in this particular area. Instead of speaking of the terrible realities of sexual violence in Darfur, of the complete impunity enjoyed by Khartoum’s Janjaweed and other paramilitary proxies, and the lack of treatment and counseling options, he celebrates a facility distinguished mainly by being so very small a part of the current humanitarian effort—a mere vestige of the previous commitment to this terrible trauma suffered by many tens of thousands of girls and women
“A particular source of inspiration on my trip was my visit to a women’s center in Abu Shouk that provides psychological support and skills training for victims of gender-based violence.” (email newsletter from the Special Envoy, September 18, 2009)
Not to acknowledge how much has been lost, including Khartoum’s shutdown of the domestic Amel Center for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, amounts to giving assurance to Khartoum that sexual violence is not a major issue in assessing conditions in Darfur. Gration clearly has not read, or thought about, the findings of Physicians for Human Rights (“Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support, and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women,” May 31, 2009 at http://darfuriwomen.phrblog.org/nowhere-to-turn/). The terrible realities of rape and other forms of sexual violence are chronicled in compelling fashion, and give a clear sense of the broad scope of the problem that continues to stalk the camps and rural areas of Darfur and Eastern Chad.
HUMANITARIAN CONDITIONS IN DARFUR
Yet again this year, there is a troublingly suspicious delay in reports on malnutrition in Darfur. Even Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 35 (representing conditions as of April 1, 2009) has not appeared. The UN’s World Food Program has spoken optimistically about the quantity of food available:
“‘Our assessment has found that the food security situation in general has also improved for villages and people in camps.’ ‘[G]enerally speaking, delivery or access to our beneficiaries is better this year than last year,’ he said.” (Agence France-Presse [dateline: Geneva], August 20, 2009)
But this leaves too many questions unanswered, represents an assessment that is challenged by many reports from the ground, and does not comport well with the Darfur Nutrition Update (Summary Issue 23: April-June 2009). The latter report offers a number of troubling findings:
“Global Malnutrition Rates (GAM) in the three North Darfur surveys were above the emergency cut off of 15 per cent (Kutum, Zam Zam old camp, Zam Zam new camp). While global acute malnutrition (GAM) rates and mortality rates were below emergency thresholds in the two nutrition surveys from East Jebel Marra, the limited coverage of health services and elevated morbidity suggest action is needed in those areas in relation to provision of primary health care and water and sanitation services.”
“Nutrition status reported through mean weight for height Z score (WHZ) in accessible sentinel sites showed a steady decline in North and South Darfur when compared to previous months and the same period in 2008, while in
West Darfur the situation is more variable.”
Why are we seeing these and other developments if food is as ample as WFP declares? Why are grain and livestock prices rising in the markets? Food prices are a particularly sensitive barometer of nutritional status, and reports from the ground are not encouraging:
“The prices at the Nyala market have sharply risen. The price of a bag of millet has increased up to 160 pounds. Wheat will do for 200 Sudanese pounds and maize is sold for 260 Sudanese pounds a bag. A bag of Union costs between 145 and 160 pounds.” (Radio Dabanga, August 29, 2009)
“The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently observed heightened livestock prices and decreased access to market—due to insecurity and flooding—as well as elevated prices and decreased seed supply in the local market.” (US Agency for International Development Sudan sit rep, September 4, 2009)
People have begun to consume seeds for food, and this too is an ominous harbinger.
Radio Dabanga reports (September 2, 2009) that,
“The World Food Program (WFP) delivered no relief aid for over a month according to the displaced people in Gereida camp in South Darfur. The condition of the displaced people in the camp has deteriorated due to lack and shortages of food supplies. One of the leaders at the camp called on the WFP through Radio Dabanga to provide a minimum of food to the displaced people to avoid a disaster.”
And on September 16 Radio Dabanga reports further:
“People living in the IDP camps Abu Shouk, Kassab, Shaddad and Darfur are suffering. The condition of the displaced people in the camps has deteriorated due to shortages of food and relief supplies since the expulsion of the NGO’s last March. One of the displaced person from Abu Shouk camp told Radio Dabanga that many displaced people have problems due to the lack of commodities, water and medicines.”
Amidst these shortages Khartoum’s security forces are actually confiscating food, again according to Radio Dabanga (September 9, 2009):
“Security officers at the Baliel checkpoint of Kalma displaced people camp are still confiscating goods meant for the IDPs. Last Monday [September 4, 2009] they took 150 bags of sugar, 91 bags of mussels, 85 tins of oil and 350 roles of biscuits. IDP’s who spoke to Radio Dabanga are accusing the government authorities of blackmailing them. They said the blockade will cause starvation.”
There have been other humanitarian setbacks. Critical non-food items, including sheeting for shelter and mosquito nets, are reported to be in extremely short supply in more remote locations. Humanitarian staff and organizations are either retreating even further from the areas most critically in need—or, as in the case of Aide Mdicale Internationale, have withdrawn entirely, further reducing humanitarian capacity:
“The French relief organization Aide Mdicale Internationale (AMI) is closing its offices and activities in Sudan after the kidnapping of their aid workers. Two Sudanese workers for AMI were killed in Darfur in February and two foreign aid workers from France and Canada were kidnapped in April and held for three weeks before being released. This week AMI is closing the administrative and logistic base in Khartoum after it already stopped the work in the coordination center in Nyala and their operational centers in Khor Abeche, Ed al Fursan and Shairya. It has announced that it has closed all it offices in Sudan yesterday.” (Radio Dabanga, August 18, 2009)
The contraction of humanitarian organizations is everywhere in evidence as access continues to deteriorate; in turn, the loss of an assessment and oversight presence ensures that the quality of aid delivery will also continue to deteriorate. UNAMID’s failure to improve the security situation makes a mockery of the claims by the departing General Agwai and Special Representative Adada. A Reuters analysis by Andrew Heavens notes,
“Humanitarian staff feel increasingly under siege. Three years ago, most lived with the risk of being car-jacked or briefly detained outside remote bases. Today, violent car-jackings have become common inside Darfur’s three main urban centres. Last month an aid worker was injured when attackers opened fire inside his group’s compound in the capital of west Darfur, El Geneina.”
“The number of international aid workers working in remote areas outside Darfur’s three main cities plummeted after the March expulsions and has stayed low. Many foreign groups are resorting to managing their projects remotely, sometimes contracting local organisations to carry out projects. This cuts down on their ability to monitor work and pushes more vulnerable local staff into the front line. Staff say they have faced verbal threats and harassment since the ICC warrant. Recruitment has become harder, morale has fallen and institutional memory has drained away as staff leave.”
One locality in South Darfur has recently seen a shutdown by WFP:
“The [UN] World Food Programme (WFP) suspended today its humanitarian activities in a southern Darfur locality following a carjacking of two trucks last week. The two trucks on contract to the World Food Programme (WFP) carrying food items from El Obeid to El Deain were carjacked on September 17 by gunmen about 80 kilometres from El Deain, South Darfur. The WFP has suspended its activities in and around Adilla locality in South Darfur, about 400 kilometres from El Fasher, said the hybrid peacekeeping mission in Darfur.”
“The vehicles, which had been carrying foodstuff for about 10,000 children, were carjacked by armed men about 80 kilometres from El Deain, South Darfur on the way from El Obeid.” (Sudan Tribune, September 23, 2009)
Sanitation is also deteriorating in a number of locations because of a lack of trained technicians, critical parts for water pumps, and in some cases a sheer lack of space for expansion of latrines:
“Despite ongoing work by remaining NGOs, UN agencies, and Sudanese government officials, environmental sanitation in South Darfur has deteriorated in recent weeks and months. In early August, USAID staff visited South Darfur and noted that IDP camps had adequate water access; however, environmental sanitation had deteriorated significantly and rural populations continued to have limited water access.”
(US Agency for International Development Sudan sit rep, September 4, 2009)
We would of course know more if Khartoum were to deploy its military and police forces in ways that provided security within the 90 percent of South Darfur where the regime is militarily predominant, but of course the regime sees the present paralyzing insecurity throughout Darfur in strategic terms—as a means of controlling humanitarian workers (especially expatriates), and denying agricultural livelihoods to those in the camps who support the rebels and would vote against the NIF/NCP in next April’s national elections (the census did not count Darfuris in the IDP camps). Given the terrible human suffering and loss of lives that result directly from this policy of strategic insecurity—-deliberately targeting the overwhelmingly non-Arab or African tribal groups in the camps—Khartoum’s actions continue to be appropriately described as “genocide by attrition.”
The UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks reports in a grim scorecard on the insecurity that has produced such a dramatic reduction in humanitarian access, representing figures as of September 1, 2009:
” Seven national humanitarian staff and three UNAMID staff have been killed.
12 humanitarian staff and 10 UNAMID staff have been wounded or injured.
11 humanitarians (seven international) have been kidnapped.
26 humanitarians and three UNAMID staff physically or sexually assaulted.
18 humanitarians and 11 UNAMID staff abducted during carjackings.
44 humanitarians and 12 UNAMID staff have been arrested or temporarily detained by the Government of Sudan.
64 humanitarian vehicles and 31 UNAMID vehicles hijacked or stolen.
There have been 103 assaults or break-ins on humanitarian agency premises”
(dateline Nairobi, September 10, 2009)
In addition to severely circumscribing the movement of humanitarians, this violence is deterring experienced humanitarians from staying in or deploying to Darfur, often leaving young and inexperienced workers to handle extremely challenging tasks, including supervisory tasks. Reuters provides an overview of the UN estimate of professional expatriate aid workers now in Darfur:
“The United Nations says there were just over 700 foreign aid workers in Darfur in January, and at least 200 left after the March expulsions. Aid sources say the number actually working in Darfur at any one time has fallen further and only a small fraction of those venture outside the main cities.” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], August 25, 2009)
Khartoum’s goal of “Sudanizing” aid in Darfur has largely been realized, and Sudanese nationals are much more vulnerable to intimidation, abuse, and arrest by the regime’s security apparatus. This dangerous trend appears likely to continue, despite the contrived optimism of Special Envoy Gration, and will certainly limit what we can learn about humanitarian conditions on the ground–in the past a critical task of the large contingent of expatriate workers that has now largely disappeared.
The assault on humanitarian assistance continues even in the realm of financing aid to Darfur. Notoriously, Khartoum provides no food assistance to the people of Darfur, indeed actually exports as much food from Sudan as the crisis in Darfur requires in the form of imports to Sudan (there is also great food insecurity in South Sudan and other marginalized regions of the country). But beyond this, the regime continues to hold very substantial revenues that were extorted from the humanitarian organizations expelled in March 2009. Perversely, in August Special Envoy Gration celebrated a new attitude toward humanitarian aid on Khartoum’s part: “‘We see that there is a spirit of cooperation and an attitude of wanting to help,’ Gration said” (Los Angeles Times [dateline: Nairobi and Washington], August 4, 2009). We might ask just how well this comports with very recent reports from the humanitarian donors that are victims of the regime’s extortion:
“Britain and the European Commission have urged Sudan to return hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of assets they funded that were seized by Khartoum during a mass expulsion of humanitarian agencies. Sudan said on Tuesday [September 8, 2009] it had acted within regulations when it took the assets from ousted groups, and said it now had the right to re-distribute the seized funding to other humanitarian programmes as it saw fit.” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], September 8, 2009)
“Expelled organisations, including Oxfam and two branches of Mdecins Sans Frontires, said Khartoum seized equipment, stores and cash, accusing them of passing information to the [International Criminal Court]—a charge the organisations deny.”
And shockingly, given the tight annual budgets of these organizations, Oxfam and MSF declared:
“Oxfam and Mdecins Sans Frontires’ operations in Holland and France told Reuters in August that Sudan’s government had taken about $5.2 million of their assets and more than $9 million in enforced payments to local staff who lost their jobs because of the government shut-down. Aid workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were concerned Sudan might redistribute their assets to organisations without the necessary experience or adherence to international humanitarian principles.”
None of this—and there are many other organizations in a similar situation—supports Gration’s characterization: “We see that there is a spirit of cooperation and an attitude of wanting to help.” His statement becomes but another sign of an alignment with Khartoum, one not lost on Darfuris who are increasingly convinced that he is betraying them to the regime.
A CATASTROPHE RE-DEFINED
Self-censorship by humanitarian actors has increased dramatically since the March 4 expulsions (for which the announcement of an International Criminal Court indictment of President al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity served as pretext much more than as cause). This has been accompanied by a similar crackdown on UNAMID, though again this goes unremarked by Special Envoy Gration, who instead speaks absurdly of achieving a near-term “critical mass” of military force being established (UNAMID will have to make great strides to achieve even half its effective operational capacity by the end of the year). Amnesty International and Africa Action are lead signatories of a lengthy “Joint NGO Statement” on UNAMID (July 30, 2009) that offers a balanced overview of UNAMID’s strength and weaknesses—and provides trenchant, at times withering criticism of the force to date. The Statement also highlights the obstruction UNAMID faces at the hands of Khartoum, evident most conspicuously in the present paralysis of the force as it is denied access to the Korma area and civilians caught up in ongoing violence:
“The last two months have seen a considerable crackdown on UNAMID’s work by the Sudanese government. UNAMID’s freedom of movement has been restricted by Sudanese forces, Khartoum has held up hundreds of visa applications and detained and tortured UNAMID national staff in direct violation of the status-of-forces agreement. The Secretary-General expressed concern in his June report, saying ‘When taken together, these incidents signal a negative trend with regard to the Government’s cooperation with UNAMID.'” (see http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/SODA-7UFRX4?OpenDocument)
Again, such an honest assessment is entirely absent from Gration’s commentaries, testimony, and interviews. He evidently believes that Darfuris are either fools or will take at face value the comments of a special envoy from the United States. But this is simply not so, and we may gather a sense of the extraordinary courage and outrage from those who refuse to acquiesce before the self-serving claim that the “war is over,” that what we see is simply “low-intensity” conflict, merely banditry and violent opportunism. The last words here should not be those of Special Envoy Gration, who has proved himself both mendacious and expedient in his dealings with the Khartoum regime; they should be the voices of Darfuris that emerge from the deeply revealing IAMG Notes that stand as an implicit indictment of Gration and his cynical refusal to recognize where moral equities lie in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan:
“During his meeting with sheikhs (IDP leaders) [at Kalma Camp], youth leaders, and women’s representatives in Kalma, Gration asked what the international community can do to assist in unifying the various rebel movements and facilitating returns to their villages, emphasizing a desire to hear the IDPs discuss their future rather than their past. However, sheikhs opened by stating that they have suffered and continue to suffer as victims of unfair policies and atrocities, stating that all their villages are now occupied. Complaining that they ‘live here like prisoners,’ the sheikhs expressed frustration regarding the lack of security for IDPs, stating that they have asked the international community to protect them for the last five years but have received nothing. As a result, the sheikhs noted that the problems in the camps are continuing—women are raped, homes are burned, IDP belongings are looted, and IDPs are threatened, tortured, and killed. The sheikhs expressed lack of confidence in the ability of the African Union/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) to provide security and declared that, unless the janjaweed is disarmed, it is not possible for IDPs to return home.” (IAMG Notes of July 21, 2009)
Speaking of the March 4 expulsions,
“The sheikhs recounted the impact of the expulsions in Kalma, claiming that the lack of medical services had resulted in women dying in childbirth, as well as the deaths of more than 250 children. The sheikh noted that the recent agreement by the Government of Sudan to allow international NGOs to assume service delivery in Kalma was misleading, since it occurred only days before Gration’s arrival.”
Gration for his part expressed “disappointment in the sheikhs’ negative outlook on the situation in Darfur,” especially since “there will be peace in Darfur by the end of the year, that voluntary return to new or former locations is possible, and that tensions will be lowered along the Chad-Sudan border, resulting in increased stability and security.”
Such outrageous presumption, foisted upon one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, is nothing short of a despicable blaming the victims for their terrible plight. Those looking for “shameful” political calculation in the response to Darfur’s agony need look no further than Gration’s views as conveyed by these humanitarian notes.
The courageous resolve to speak truth to power was similarly in evidence at the meeting in Kass (South Darfur), where Gration opened by
“asking IDPs to address how they can break the cycle of living in IDP camps. Acknowledging significant gaps resulting from the NGO expulsions, Gration stated the US Government’s commitment to fill gaps, as well as address the long-term situation. Sheikhs emphasized that of the 13 organizations expelled in March, 5 were working in Kass. Sheikhs noted particular concern regarding hygiene and sanitation in Kass camps, stating that some latrines are full and that no space exists for construction of new latrines.”
“When discussing the future, Kass IDPs’ most significant concerns, however, were security and land occupation. During the conversation, the participants reported that Fur land, primarily in Wadi Saleh, has been occupied by Arab migrants from other countries who have been invited in by the government. IDPs stated that disarmament of militias and removal of people occupying their land are prerequisites to living in peace and dignity in their places of origin. Upon [Gration’s] questioning the IDPs why the IDPs themselves were not working to resolve the land tenure issue, the sheikhs stated that they do not have weapons and cannot remove armed people from their lands. ‘We can not return without protection’ one of the IDPs said.”
Pressed by Gration, they declared of their situation:
“IDPs expressed skepticism about the utility of organizing and their ability to unite, stating that the government would detect such activity and detain and harass the organizers.”
Again, none of this appears in Gration’s specious and disingenuous communiqus, his self-congratulatory email newsletters, or his self-exculpatory comments to the press. But his continued tenure as special envoy should certainly be reviewed by the Obama administration on an urgent basis. It is diplomatically untenable to have as the chief US interlocutor for Sudan’s critical issues a figure who is now distrusted, and in many quarters despised, by both Darfuri civil society and various rebel groups. The transparent attempt on Gration’s part to secure a more pliable diplomatic partner in Khartoum’s NIF/NCP regime has translated into a betrayal of Darfur as well as a willingness to compromise the north/south Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 2005). If President Obama is serious about the crisis in Darfur, he will seek an early replacement for Scott Gration.
[The next analysis will focus on escalating violence in Southern Sudan and the mounting evidence that the NIF/NCP regime is stoking ethnic violence using proxy militias as well as funneling advanced weaponry into ethnically volatile regions. It will also survey diplomatic and electoral developments between the Khartoum regime and the Government of South Sudan, as well as the role Special Envoy Gration has chosen to play in responding to the deeply imperiled Comprehensive Peace Agreement.]