The Sudanese government is hampering international efforts to address chronic levels of malnutrition in camps for displaced people in Darfur, according to the country head of the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF.
Nils Kastberg told Fi al Mizan, a programme about justice issues, co-prodcued by IWPR for Dutch-based broadcaster Radio Dabanga, that Khartoum was blocking access to camps as well as delaying the release of vital nutrition surveys required by agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, WFP, to supply food aid to the region.
“We are extremely concerned,” Kastberg said. “When we conduct surveys to help us address issues, in collaboration with the ministry of health, very often other parts of the government such as the humanitarian affairs commission interferes and delays in the release of reports, making it difficult for us to respond in a timely way.”
Kastberg claimed that the country’s security services also hinder or delay access to the camps.
The grim situation has prompted further warnings from the International Criminal Court, ICC, of a continued campaign of genocide against internally displaced people, IDPs, in Darfur. Since 2003, the war-torn region has seen more than 2.5 million people pushed into these camps.
“The government is using hunger, rape and fear to attack these IDPs in their camps in Darfur,” Islam Shalabi, from the ICC’s office of the prosecutor, OTP, said. “This is another tool of war used by the government of Sudan.”
Prosecutors allege that Khartoum has conducted genocide by employing the national armed forces and allied Janjaweed militia to deliberately bring about the physical destruction of Darfur’s Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.
The ICC has issued arrest war crimes warrants for three members of the Sudanese regime, including President Omar al-Bashir, former humanitarian affairs minister Ahmed Haroun and allied Janjaweed militia leader Ali Abdul Rahman, commonly known as Ali Kushayb. Bashir has been charged with genocide.
Civil society leaders and aid workers in camps across Darfur say that food shortages and malnutrition have become worse since the government expelled foreign NGOs in early 2009, following the Bashir arrest warrant.
They say the government is undertaking a deliberate policy to clear the camps in Darfur. Methods included stopping agencies providing enough support, thereby putting pressure on IDPs to go back to their villages.
But observers warn that their lands are often now occupied by armed militias, putting IDPs at risk if they were to return.
“We think that the humanitarian affairs commission [is preventing the supply of] enough food because the government wants people to leave camps,” one camp leader from Darfur said. “This is a government policy. This is death by another policy.”
Hafiz Mohammed, of the London-based advocacy group Justice Africa, said he believed that the government was trying to exert control over access to the camps.
“IDP camps represent security threats for the government. That is why the government is not allowing full access to these camps, and the free movements of its residents,” he said.
The Sudanese minister for humanitarian affairs, Mutrif Siddig, denied the allegations that the ministry was hampering UNICEF operations in the IDP camps.
He also denied that there was any government policy of inhibiting the work of international agencies providing aid to the camps and said that his ministry was “working in close collaboration” with UNICEF and Kastberg.
“The only problem was in Jebel Marra where we had fighting between the SLA (the rebel group the Sudanese Liberation Army) and our armed forces. This was the only time we had a problem [providing access to camps],” he said.
“For the rest of Darfur, it is clear for all the international missions to do their work. It was only for a limited time in Jebel Marra and it is now open for all organisations to operate freely.”
Children are hard hit
But those in the camps say that the extent of their suffering is clear – and that children, many of whom were born there, are some of the worst affected by the blocking of international assistance.
“Some kids couldn’t sit for exams because they were sick. Others cannot follow classes regularly because of malnutrition,” one camp leader said.
A Darfur health worker explained that there were no longer any qualified doctors at the clinic in his camp. Special wards set up by NGOs to treat malnourished children were closed down after the Sudanese government took charge of the provision of humanitarian assistance to the region in 2009.
“When the aid organisations were running it, we had very good services. But after they were expelled and their role taken over by Sudanese, the quality of the services deteriorated,” the health worker said, explaining how clean water and medication, which used to be common in the camp, were now in short supply.
“It is very difficult for children below five to survive this. They will probably die.”
One boy living in a camp said that some children don’t go to school because there is not enough food aid, and are forced to go out to work instead.
“There are kids who sometimes don’t show up in the class. This is because sometimes they cannot [find] food for themselves and for their families,” he said. “So they go out and search for food… earn money somehow. Kids sometimes go and work for farmers.”
For those who do attend school, malnutrition often affects their studies.
“Because of these difficult conditions, they are absent-minded in class,” a teacher in a camp school said. “[A child] is physically with you in the class, but his mind is somewhere else. [Children] have problems getting enough food at home. This is not helpful for them. For children to grow mentally, they need enough food supplies.”
According to the ICC’s Shalabi, the 13 aid organisations that were expelled in 2009 contributed approximately 40 per cent of the humanitarian assistance in Darfur and this has yet to be replaced.
In January this year, the government withdrew work permits for a further 26 NGOs. In July and August, five more aid workers were expelled.
“This practically means that the government intends to monopolise access to Darfur, and to control all the aid that the international community commits, [thereby controlling] the lives of the IDPs,” Shalabi said.
Sudan’s health minister, Abdullah Tia, admits there’s malnutrition in the IDP camps, but insists this is common amongst the Sudanese population at large. He acknowledges, however, that the government has been unable to adequately fill the gap left by NGOs after they were expelled.
“Unfortunately, despite all the talk about the ‘Sudanisation’ of the relief work, it has not been a success,” he said. “The only thing [the ministry of humanitarian affairs] did was review the work of some [international] organisations and try to coordinate with them, but the ministry of humanitarian affairs ultimately was not able to meet expectations.”
Hague prosecutors continue to allege that the Sudanese government is intentionally violating its legal responsibility to provide shelter, health and food services to IDPs.
When charging Bashir in March last year, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that genocide was being masterminded in Darfur through rape, hunger and fear. Prosecutors now say that the current use of the humanitarian affairs office to monopolise and control the flow of aid into Darfur, and expose IDPs to starvation, is another tool of war used by the government against people in the region. In short, prosecutors say it is further evidence of genocide by attrition.
“Genocide needs to be carried out through careful planning, and systematic implementation. What happens in Darfur now is evidence… that there are no separated incidents and things [do not] occur arbitrarily [without a] fixed policy,” Shalabi said.
Since the expulsion of the NGOs, the government has granted aid groups and UN agencies only very limited access to the region, arguing that they could be collaborating with the court. Once inside Darfur, the movements of aid workers are strictly controlled by the government. This has made it extremely difficult for the international community to assess the security and humanitarian situation on the ground.
“The government of Sudan has created a vacuum of information on Darfur,” Shalabi said. “The only conclusion we can make is that the government of Sudan has something to hide regarding the humanitarian situation.”
One doctor in an IDP camp in Darfur confirmed that even the aid organisations that can still operate in Darfur have great difficulty getting into the camps.
“Since July, doctors who come from outside to work in the clinics inside the camp are only given two hours per day by the government [for their work],” he explained. “Sometimes they spend half of this time just getting there.”
Siddig rejected claims that the government was intentionally blocking aid to camps, claiming that any such blockade was due to rebel groups.
“We have been working closely to ensure all organisations are working freely in all the IDP camps in Darfur, including Kalma camp where we witnessed some problems for some time,” he said.
The Kalma camp was the scene of angry clashes in August over the participation of some IDPs in the Doha peace process with Khartoum.
The minister also said that his department had not manipulated information available to international actors such as WFP for the purposes of pushing IDPs out of the camps in Darfur.
“We are dealing directly with WFP,” Siddig said. “There are direct meetings between our ministry and all international actors and we do not have such a problem.”
Justice Africa’s Mohammed says that the government is obliged under international law to bring aid to the IDPs.
“These people are Sudanese civilians. Their security and well being is the sole responsibility of the state, no matter which kind of government runs the state,” he said. “If it doesn’t have the ability, [the state] should allow those who have the capabilities to provide humanitarian help.”
Following a recent meeting with UNICEF, Tia, the health minister, acknowledged that camp shortages did not just include food supplies but also stretched to healthcare and adequate access to vaccinations. He said that he would be calling on government colleagues to address the situation.
“We will be ready to talk and confront the local health ministers and also the official from the humanitarian affairs [ministry],” he said. “We want things to go smoothly because our target is to help the ordinary people.”