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Camps in Darfur struggle with aid groups' exit

The U.N. and remaining aid groups are scrambling to bridge a shortfall in supplies and services after the Sudanese government expelled 13 groups in anger over an arrest warrant for President Bashir.

March 17, 2009|Edmund Sanders

ZAM ZAM CAMP, SUDAN — Feverish and dehydrated since fleeing to this overcrowded displacement camp last month, 2-year-old Manahel Abakar was supposed to be one the beneficiaries of the International Criminal Court effort to bring justice to Darfur.

Instead she became one of its unintended casualties.

The little girl died last week on a straw mat under the baking sun, surrounded by anxious family members helpless to save her. Their only shelter is a threadbare blanket, sagging over broken tree branches.

The situation at the Zam Zam camp, hard even in the best of times, is more desperate because the aid groups that deliver emergency food, water and healthcare were shut down this month by Sudan's government in retaliation after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir.

"We are innocent," said Khatar Yusuf, 38, a father of four who lives in the camp, outside El Fasher in Northern Darfur. "We're not political. But now it's our children who are sick and dying. No one is taking care of them."

International aid groups and the United Nations are scrambling to fill the gaps left by the expulsion of the 13 foreign aid groups, including several of the largest providers of food, clean water, education and healthcare to Darfur's displacement camps.

Most are cautiously optimistic that they can avert the near-term catastrophe that would come with the lack of essentials such as food and water. The World Food Program has begun an emergency distribution of a two-month supply to the most affected areas. UNICEF is focusing on delivering extra fuel to run about three dozen crucial water stations.

The international community spends more than $1 billion a year in Darfur, one of the largest and most expensive aid efforts in the world.

"It will take some time to feel the impacts," said Daniel Augstburger, head of the humanitarian sector for the U.N. Mission in Darfur. "The operation here is like a big tanker. It takes time to change course."

The Sudanese government insists that local charities and official agencies will replace the expelled groups, which it accused of acting as "spies" for the International Criminal Court.

But as Manahel's death painfully underscores, people are already falling through the cracks, particularly in the areas of healthcare and disease prevention.

An outbreak of meningitis in the massive Kalma camp near Nyala has claimed two lives in the last week, in part because medical groups in charge of monitoring the disease were kicked out.

Doctors Without Borders was forced to abandon a remote hospital at the foot of the Jebel Marra mountains with several dozen patients still in their beds.

At Al Salaam camp near El Fasher, more than 600 makeshift latrines, which serve nearly 50,000 people, are overflowing with waste because Oxfam International is no longer sending trucks to empty them.

The same camp lost its only hospital, run by the International Rescue Committee. Last week a new mother nearly died after she fell unconscious from breathing problems and had to travel an hour by donkey cart to the nearest emergency room.

Tens of thousands of children are in limbo because groups that ran their schools and activity centers have padlocked the facilities. "I'm missing school very much," said Sabri Mohammed, 7, clutching a deflated red soccer ball.

At Zam Zam, about 30,000 new arrivals from villages in South Darfur are living in makeshift shelters of sticks, straw and tattered cloth, and spend the day lining up for water or medical attention.

Aid officials say the expelled groups employed nearly 6,000 people, mostly Sudanese citizens, representing about 40% of the humanitarian workforce in Darfur.

The operation is one of the most effective in the world. Malnutrition rates, mortality figures and most health indicators in Darfur have been below emergency levels since 2005-06. The expulsions threaten to reverse those positive trends.

Security concerns were also heightened by Wednesday's kidnapping of three Doctors Without Borders volunteers, the first time foreigners have been abducted in Darfur. The aid workers were released Saturday unharmed, but the relief group announced it was withdrawing all international staff from Darfur. Other organizations are expected to follow.

Adeyemi Ogunjemilusi, the U.N.'s deputy police commissioner for Darfur, warned that aid shortages could worsen violence. More than 2.5 million displaced people are entirely dependent upon foreign aid groups for their survival.

"A hungry man is a violent man," he said.

Sudanese officials have seized the foreign aid groups' offices, vehicles, storehouses, cash and files with the intention to operate the programs with Sudanese managers.

"We will be able to pay for this from our own pockets," Bashir said during a recent speech in Darfur. "When this started years ago, it was only the government that was helping the refugees. We have enough food. We can cover their needs."

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