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Camp in Darfur refuses humanitarian aid

Leaders at Kalma displacement camp in southern Darfur refuse aid from both international and government agencies, demanding that Sudan first allow 13 expelled foreign aid groups back.

March 21, 2009|Edmund Sanders

NYALA, SUDAN — Angered by the Sudanese government's decision to expel 13 foreign aid groups in Darfur, leaders at one of the region's largest displacement camps are threatening to reject all humanitarian assistance until the organizations are allowed back.

The self-imposed aid embargo at Kalma camp, which includes the monthly food distribution, is heightening concerns about the welfare of the 88,000 residents.

The World Food Program said Kalma leaders Thursday refused a grain delivery. The U.N. food agency faced similar resistance a week earlier.

The camp's motorized water pumps aren't working because there is no fuel, and women have to fetch water from a polluted river nearby, aid officials said. Kalma's three health clinics have shut down, even as meningitis sweeps through the camp.

Kalma's leaders have even threatened to organize a hunger strike until the government permits the return of expelled aid groups -- including Care International, Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders.

"We want the international [aid groups] back," said Ali Abdel Khaman Tahir, the chief sheik at Kalma, speaking by telephone because the government is refusing to allow journalists in the camp, which is on the edge of Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur province.

"If we allow them to distribute the food, then the government will be able to say to the world that everything is OK in Kalma," said Mubarak Shafi, a camp activist. "We want all the other problems solved first."

In particular, Kalma leaders are refusing to accept help from the Sudanese government or Sudanese charities, which they suspect will spy on them. But they are also rejecting assistance from the U.N. food agency and Western organizations such as World Vision.

Kalma has long been one of Darfur's most radical and militarized camps, with close ties to Paris-based rebel leader Abdel Wahid Nur, head of a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army. For years, Sudanese forces and local charities have been unable to operate inside the camp because residents burned down their facilities.

In August, government soldiers shot to death 31 people in Kalma, including women and children, in an early morning standoff with residents carrying sticks and knives.

"The situation is very volatile," said Jean-Marie Stratigos, the Nyala representative for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "For now we are just trying to find a way in which they will accept aid."

Camp leaders say food supplies are stable, but that prices are rising at the camp market and hundreds of people are lining up for water at the few dozen hand pumps.

"I can leave the jerrycan all night, and by the morning I still won't have water," said one camp resident by telephone, whose name was withheld to protect her against government harassment.

Camp leaders say there have been 85 cases of meningitis, including several deaths over the last two weeks. But because no aid groups are currently inside Kalma, figures cannot be confirmed.

Government officials insist they will not reverse the expulsion of the aid groups, which they accused of providing information to help the International Criminal Court build a war crimes case against Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. The groups denied the charges.

"The decision is irreversible," said Al-Hadi Najim, with the government agency that oversees humanitarian aid here. "If they want the services, we are ready to facilitate. But we can't force anybody to eat."

He said the government had tried to deliver 46 drums of fuel to restart water pumps, offered to pay the salaries of the workers at health clinics and attempted to open five meningitis vaccination centers. All were rejected by the camp leaders. Najim blamed the camp's intransigence on Nur, the Paris-based rebel chief.

Nur did not return phone calls seeking comment. He has called for the government to reverse its order and warned that it might lead to further violence inside the camps.

Najim praised the international aid groups' efforts to train thousands of Sudanese humanitarian workers in Darfur, but said the foreign agencies spend too much money on themselves, including guesthouses, security guards and air-conditioned trucks. Sudanese agencies, he said, would be more cost effective.

Camp leaders say the government is expelling the foreign aid groups as a precursor to closing the camps and forcing people to go home.

Najim said security in many areas of Darfur had improved enough to allow families to return. He said thousands had already left camps.

"We hope that more people will go home," he said. "They can't spend the rest of their lives begging the international community to feed them."

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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