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Logistics, Bureaucracy Frustrate Efforts to Aid Darfur Refugees

Agencies find it can take months to get food, medicine, staff and equipment to camps.

September 20, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

SERIF ALJIR CAMP, Sudan — To set up a clinic in Darfur, you need to negotiate with sheiks, teach people how to paint a wall, give impromptu English tests to potential staff and prepare dozens of documents to satisfy a bureaucracy ravenous for paperwork.

Hundreds of humanitarian workers and journalists have landed in the small town of Nyala near this camp in the southern part of western Sudan's Darfur region in recent months, the aid staff in a hurry to get help to desperate people fleeing murderous militias. But finding what they need -- or importing it -- is a game of logistical Chutes and Ladders. Without the ladders.

Aid agencies are facing the same problem all across Darfur.

"In other countries, you just need money. You can find the local staff and everything is on the market and you can do it. I think, logistically speaking, this is going to be the No. 1 challenge," said Goran Bilic, operations manager for the Santa Monica-based humanitarian agency International Medical Corps.

Country director Naomi Wyles and the IMC team are setting up four medical clinics in Darfur and dispatching four mobile clinics to areas that have had little or no medical service for years. The agency will bring in 39 expatriate staff and 22 vehicles in the next two months. Bilic said the project was his most difficult in 10 years.

"Transport is a nightmare here. It really is the middle of nowhere," Bilic said. "Unfortunately, to help the people you need time to bring trained personnel and equipment."

At Serif Aljir refugee camp, at least 27,000 people have been waiting four months with no food aid or medicine. Camp leaders said several people were dying each week. More than 1 million people have fled their homes in western Sudan, and at least 30,000 have died after pro- government Arab militias attacked villages in reprisal for an uprising last year by two black African rebel groups.

The IMC is setting up one clinic in Serif Aljir camp. People here are hungry. But the World Food Program has not yet registered people for food aid after a disagreement with camp leaders about procedures.

Asked about the delay, one United Nations official said, "They brought it on their own ... selves." The IMC stepped in to push for food assistance for the camp, and a supplementary feeding center for children is likely to be set up soon.

The IMC looks for workers and staff for the clinic among the refugees first. A team of displaced people from the camp slapped paint on the walls of the new clinic recently, splashing lakes of paint on the floor.

Bilic gently took the brush from one man's hand and demonstrated how to paint. Next he interviewed four men seeking work as English-speaking guards, but only one seemed to understand the language.

Bilic then met the sheik, Ibrahim Sultan, leader of all the communities in the camp, and asked him to help find employees.

"Tell him I want him and all his population to feel that they belong to this clinic because it's for them. And we can only do it together," Bilic told a translator.

The first battle for aid agencies is negotiating Sudan's byzantine government, which is like trying to swim through honey. "Sudan's a huge bureaucracy, and that's your biggest challenge," IMC logistics director Steve Gordon said.

Some aid organizations waited five months for visas for staff. Others waited six months to clear four-wheel-drive vehicles through customs. Others have had medicine held up in customs or at airports. After months of international pressure, Sudan lifted some of the red tape for humanitarian agencies.

One major difficulty in setting up clinics is the lack of skilled medical staff in Darfur, said Dr. Jeff Goodman, the IMC's medical officer. Even in the capital, Khartoum, it is hard to find medical staff to fill jobs in Darfur.

In a small town full of cart horses and ancient four-wheel-drive vehicles, the scramble for transport among nongovernmental organizations and journalists in Nyala created a bonanza for local drivers, with some asking as much as $200 a day for dilapidated vehicles.

The Sudanese attitude toward business is so relaxed that when he needs two vehicles, Gordon lines up six.

"When I go out in the morning, if there's one I'm lucky," he said. "It's a very laid-back place -- annoyingly so at times."

Even finding drivers capable of maneuvering four-wheel-drives through wadis, or rainy-season rivers, is a challenge. In the office of Doctors Without Borders Holland, a white board was scrawled with diagrams on how to drive through a wadi.

The problems add up to delays in delivering aid.

"I would like to be able to do more than I can," Bilic said. "But if you want to achieve something, you can't afford to be frustrated."

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