Darfur: between peace and delivery

Simon Roughneen
25 June 2006

Harian, a 28-year-old mother of five, smiles and chats amicably as nutrition staff from the Dublin-based charity Goal wrap a measuring tape around 14-month old Insaf's arm. Harian takes the indicator cards entitling her family to supplementary feeding at the nearby clinic at the Fata Borno camp for conflict-displaced people in north Darfur. Insaf is underweight, and the whole family is technically malnourished. This camp has been their home for two and a half years.

On 5 May 2006, the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed between the Sudanese government and one faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLA), led by Minni Minawi. Minawi's faction is militarily more potent than the rest of the SLA, but is itself splintering in the wake of the DPA. The more popular faction of the SLA, led by Abdul Wahid Mohamed Nur, remains outside the agreement; so too does the Justice & Equality Movement (JEM), militarily powerless and lacking grassroots support in Darfur, but with a pan-Sudanese agenda and links to opposition forces in other regions of Sudan.

Simon Roughneen works for the Dublin-based international humanitarian organisation Goal

He has written a number of articles on the drought in east Africa where Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia meet.

Also by Simon Roughneen in openDemocracy:

"Hard to believe your eyes: drought in Kenya and Ethiopia"
(May 2006)

The Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir is more aware than most of the structural flaws in the agreement. Most recently, it has ordered a suspension of the work of the United Nations in Darfur after protesting that a dissident commander of Minawi's SLA (Suleiman Jamous) was transported in a UN helicopter; and al-Bashir reinforced the message on 26 June when he voiced trenchant opposition to the planned replacement of the 7,000 African Union (AU) forces currently working in Darfur with UN peacekeepers.

It is another of the Darfur Peace Agreement's telling gaps that it makes no provision for the handover from the AU to the UN. The DPA does mandate the Sudanese government to disarm the janjaweed militias who have wreaked havoc on the people of Darfur by November 2006. However, the Khartoum authorities have always maintained its lack of involvement with or responsibility for the armed gangs responsible for much of the death, sexual violence and displacement in Darfur, so it remains unclear how it can oversee their demobilisation. In any case, people in this region do not trust the government to do so.

The African Union's peace and security council voted on 10 March to extend its mission in Darfur until 30 September 2006 and to "support in principle" its transformation into a United Nations force. The position of Omar al-Bashir that a UN mission will not be allowed into Darfur – certainly not with the necessary mandate under Chapter VII of the UN charter that would enable effective civilian protection – raises large doubts about whether this is attainable.

None of this bodes well for Harian, Insaf, and the hundreds of displaced people crowded into Fata Borno camp – part of an estimated total number of 1.8 million people displaced by the Darfur conflict.

On the horizon

The cramped Fata Borno camp – measuring about 2.4 kilometres by 4.4 kilometres – sits on a sun-baked plateau a few miles from a lush wadi (riverbed). Before the outbreak of fighting in 2003, the camp-dwellers were farmers, growing sorghum, onions and fruit.

Such camps are supposedly safe havens, but members of the janjaweed militia prowl outside – and sometimes inside. The Arab militia is accused of being the vanguard of an ethnic-cleansing campaign which has seen one-third of Darfur's population driven from their homes. On the forty-minute drive from the nearby town of Kutum, a couple of dozen janjaweed could be seen astride their camels less than fifty metres from the road – the same road that African Union peacekeepers patrol.

Harian's father Abdullah tells me: "It is not safe to go outside the camp – even though there is firewood just a two-minute walk away, and our farms are only an hour's walk from here."

On market day in Kutum, people from the camps try to get into the town to buy essential items, while those still with access to their farms go to sell their produce. However, as Abdullah reminds me, "we need an AU escort to go to Kutum. It is not safe otherwise."

Meanwhile, the Sudanese government has implemented a national polio vaccination campaign. An adjacent small clinic in the Fata Borno camp is the next stop-off point for mothers and children; there, dozens of mothers from the camp queue up to have their children measured and weighed to assess their nutritional health, before receiving much-needed wheat and vitamin-enriched oil from the Goal team.

Also on the Darfur conflict in openDemocracy:

Gareth Evans, "Genocide in Sudan? An open letter to world leaders" (August 2004)

Stephen Ellis, "Darfur: countdown to catastrophe"
(June 2004)

Lyndall Stein, "Darfur journal"
(November 2004)

Suliman Baldo, "Darfur's peace plan: the view from the ground"
(May 2006)

A member of the medical team describes how camp conditions cause an increase of communicable diseases – not to mention the social-psychological stresses exacerbated by living in a cramped environment: "Before, people had a room each. Now in the camp, you have ten people in one small hut, in the heat. More people are getting sick, and the food problems contribute to this."

If security is not improved, the displaced will be increasingly vulnerable, both to the direct impact of the fighting and to the indirect effects of insecurity on vital food and healthcare provision. The rainy season is imminent – what is known in aid parlance as "the hunger period" for Africa's more vulnerable regions and populations.

The consequence of the DPA has been increased military fragmentation on the ground and a decrease in aid agencies' ability to reach the vulnerable. As long as insecurity prevails, food aid cannot be delivered irrespective of the effects of the rain on Darfur's roads – which are little more than rock-strewn tracks in dry weather. This means reduced access to the hundreds of thousands surviving in camps, and no access at all to the estimated 750,000 who are beyond the reach of any humanitarian relief.

The combined effects of three factors – the defective peace agreement, UN troops a minimum of six months away, and an unstable situation on the ground – spell potentially even greater tragedy for Darfur. In the areas where anarchy does not already hold sway, security and humanitarian conditions in the region may deteriorate further.

Just two hundred meters from the edge of the camp, a row of bare trees marks the borderline Abdullah refers to. "We see janjaweed there every day, yet we cannot do anything but look beyond those trees. Our future is there", he says.

The villages and farms of the people of Fata Borno are close by, but the distance to the future Abdullah speaks of still seems immense.

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