Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 24 June 2010

Humanitarian Conditions in Darfur: An Overview (Part 1)


As the rainy season begins in earnest and the hunger gap deepens, there are many alarming reports about food security and malnutrition. Yet severe restrictions of access for humanitarian workers and deliveries have yet again been imposed by Khartoum. Final withdrawal of the Justice and Equality Movement from the Doha “peace process” comes as rebel movements and Khartoum increase their military forces, auguring a major escalation in what has already been heavy fighting this year. Yet again, Darfur stares into the abyss.

Eric Reeves June 18, 2010

In August 2009, two departing leaders of the current UN/African Union peace support operation in Darfur (UNAMID) claimed that the war in Darfur was over, and had devolved into a “low-intensity” security problem. General Martin Agwai, the Nigerian force commander, declared on stepping down that, “as of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur,” but rather "very low intensity" engagements. “What you have is security issues more now. Banditry, localised issues….” Rodolphe Adada of Congo, the outgoing joint UN/African Union representative to UNAMID, declared with breathtaking arrogance, “I have achieved results" in Darfur.” "There is no more fighting proper on the ground.” “Right now there is no high-intensity conflict in Darfur…. Call it what you will but this is what is happening in Darfur—a lot of banditry, carjacking, attacks on houses.”

For his part, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently (April 28, 2010) presented to the Security Council an assessment of humanitarian conditions in Darfur guided by the following generalization:

“The humanitarian operation in Darfur has been successful in stabilizing the situation in the food security, health, nutrition, and water sectors.” (page 16)


The claims of both AU officials and the UN Secretary General are untenable and ultimately politically disingenuous. In the case of Agwai and Adada, their assessments had much more to do with an African Union political need to have “achieved results” in Darfur than with realities on the ground. And in the case of Secretary Ban, he evidently felt an obligation to placate the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum, perhaps supposing this would further the peace process for Darfur. What these comments reveal is that politics have defined the security and humanitarian crisis in Darfur from the beginning, and not simply by the AU and UN Secretariat. Political calculations have informed the diplomatic behavior of the past two US administrations, the EU, and most conspicuously a feckless UN Security Council. But the most consequential politicizing of the Darfur crisis derives from the ruthless determination of the NIF/NCP regime—a determination to obstruct, attenuate, threaten, and compromise the international humanitarian response to the aftermath of massive genocidal violence. This in turn has led to a commensurate effort by the regime to weaken, intimidate, and prevent deployment of the AU-dominated protection force that Adada and Agwai celebrate with their presumptuous characterizations.

For despite their claims, UNAMID remains largely ineffectual in fulfilling its primary mandate, to protect vulnerable civilians and humanitarian operations and personnel. Indeed, UNAMID—as many have observed—seems incapable of defending itself in situations of confrontation. Moreover, it still has not reached the force level authorized by the UN Security Council in July 2007 (particularly in the deployment of critical Formed Police Units); it lacks coordination and effective leadership at all levels; it is very poorly equipped for this difficult mission (and here the blame belongs to the militarily capable nations of the West and Asia); and it confronts in Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), militia proxies, and Military Intelligence a ruthless and determined foe. (Of course UNAMID also confronts rebel attacks as well as opportunistic banditry, which it has completely failed to control.)

On many occasions UNAMID has been prevented by Khartoum from traveling to the sites of reported fighting or humanitarian distress; such actions are all clear violations of the arduously negotiated Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), to which Khartoum committed itself over two years ago. Indeed, very recent reports indicate the regime, from late May through June 13, 2010, imposed a blanket ban on all UNAMID helicopter flights in South Darfur—an extraordinarily brazen violation of the SOFA, even my Khartoum’s callous standards. UNAMID’s response was to keep silent—“negotiating”—while the regime’s forces likely sanitized evidence of war crimes and completed military actions, including ground and aerial attacks against civilians. This was true even though such a flight ban might have had significant consequences for UNAMID’s ability to carry out medical evacuations, respond to emergencies, and supply UNAMID team sites. A partial flight ban remains in effect, denying access to some of the most threatened populations in South Darfur, including those near Muhajeriya, Shereia, and al-Daein.

Moreover, during the past two and half years, the time during which it has functioned as a UN-authorized peace support operation, UNAMID has also seen its personnel abused and arrested by the regime’s security forces; and on several notable occasions UNAMID has been seriously attacked by either the SAF or allied Janjaweed militia forces.

Khartoum’s actions against both humanitarian and protection efforts are politically calculated, and carefully calibrated, to minimize the ability of the international community to observe and monitor what is occurring on the ground, especially where fighting has occurred. The regime is also determined to prevent reporting on human destruction, displacement, and humanitarian needs. Recently, for example, this resulted in a near total ban on travel requests by humanitarian organizations—even to areas in which no security threat existed, and where there are strong indications of acute human suffering and privation. To be sure, true physical insecurity remains the primary obstacle to greater humanitarian access; but much of the prevailing insecurity is either instigated or quietly countenanced by the regime.

The ethnically-targeted destruction of civilians and the deliberate, politically and militarily calculated obstruction of humanitarian aid delivery to civilians in need—often desperate need—are certainly nothing new in Darfur. As long ago as December 2003 the International Crisis Group reported (“Sudan: Towards an Incomplete Peace,” December 11, 2003):

“Government-supported militias deliberately target civilians from the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit groups, who are viewed as ‘Africans’ in Darfur and form the bulk of the SLA and JEM [rebel groups] ethnic base. [ ] The latest attacks [by the government-supported Arab militias] occurred deep inside the Fur tribal domain, against unprotected villages with no apparent link to the rebels other than their ethnic profile.”

Tom Vraalsen, UN Special Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan, had also declared in early December 2003 that, "delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations in need is hampered mostly by systematically denied access [latter phrase emphasized in text]. While [Khartoum’s] authorities claim unimpeded access, they greatly restrict access to the areas under their control, while imposing blanket denial to all rebel-held areas." (Tom Vraalsen, Note to the Emergency Relief Coordinator; "Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur," December 8, 2003)

Last year we witnessed another terrifying example of Khartoum’s willingness to deny humanitarian access for military and political purposes. Following SAF’s brutal seizure of the town of Muhajeria in South Darfur, more than 30,000 civilians were displaced according to UN figures at the time. Some fled toward Nyala, more toward el-Fasher; some fled east. As a larger consequence of the violence, more than 100,000 civilians in the larger region were forcibly denied humanitarian assistance by the regime:

“UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Ameerah Haq, calls for immediate access to over 100,000 civilians in Muhajeriya, Shereia and Labado areas of South Darfur. International humanitarian agencies have attempted to reach the area four times since 7 February but are unable to obtain clearance for humanitarian flights.” (United Nations Country Team in Sudan, Khartoum, February 12, 2009)

The implications could not have been clearer—to the humanitarian community or to Khartoum. While Khartoum obstructed aid organizations, people were suffering and dying:

"‘As each day passes, people’s need for assistance increases and the humanitarian imperative to reach them becomes more pressing,’ UN coordinator Toby Lanzer said in [a] statement.” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], February 6, 2009]

The Khartoum regime, which during the long north-south civil war frequently obstructed humanitarian aid to both southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, has never made a secret of its view of Darfur as the site of a political and military struggle with outsiders, including International Nongovernmental Organizations (INGOs) doing humanitarian work. Amnesty International notes that in October 2006, NIF/NCP President Omar al-Bashir had declared:

“‘We have promised before God not to let Darfurians’ suffering be a pretext for foreign intervention or a subject for hostile media.’” (Amnesty International, “Darfur: Threats to Humanitarian Aid,” December 2006)

What we see today is just how this “promise” if fulfilled:

“European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva, speaking to Reuters after a four-day visit to Sudan, said Sudanese authorities had turned down 26 of more than 30 recent requests for aid road trips in South Darfur state. Flights were also being blocked, she said.”

"‘We are calling on the government to allow the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations that are key to get into more remote areas,’ she said by phone from Kampala. ‘One in five or one in six requests were granted... They have to shift more towards access being the rule rather than the exception.’” [ … ]

"‘The fact is that insecurity is worsening and that the populations in the camps is increasing as a result of more people fleeing more dangerous areas... Darfur must not be forgotten,’ said Georgieva. Aid groups said this week Sudanese security forces blocked flights and road trips in Darfur, stranding staff and stopping food deliveries.” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], June 13, 2010)

This is nothing more than a continuation of political and military decisions about humanitarian relief that have defined Khartoum’s response to Darfur for almost seven years. Not to so see this, not to see how continuous and continuously destructive of human life and livelihoods this callous policy has been, is to indulge in a most culpable ignorance. And yet this is precisely what we see in the recommendation made last year by Sudan commentator Alex de Waal of the Social Science Research Council:

“For Darfur and Sudan, what is needed now is to treat the [humanitarian] service delivery challenge as a technical issue and shift the focus of international attention to Sudan’s political process.” (Social Science Research Council Darfur website, “Attention and Deterrence,” May 11, 2009)

Nothing could be further from the truth, and any assessment of current humanitarian conditions in Darfur will reveal just how profoundly ignorant such a claim is. For to regard humanitarian relief in Darfur as a “technical issue” is to ignore the extraordinary lengths to which Khartoum has gone, in the absence of political and diplomatic pressure, to compromise the humanitarian aid on which some 4.7 million Darfuris now depend. It is to ignore the bureaucratic obstacles blocking deployment of humanitarian workers, which continue without end. It is to ignore the harassment and threats—even violence—against humanitarian workers by SAF troops and their Janjaweed proxies. It is to ignore the deliberate halting of humanitarian access to areas in critical need. It is to ignore Khartoum’s relentless suppression of data and reports bearing on humanitarian conditions, especially with respect to malnutrition, mortality, and the trauma of sexual violence. And it is to ignore Khartoum’s most potent political action to date, the March 2009 expulsion of thirteen INGOs, and the closing of three important Sudanese NGOs. Together these organizations represented over half the total humanitarian capacity in Darfur (as well as significant humanitarian capacity in Eastern Sudan and other marginalized areas of the north).

In Darfur, the provision of humanitarian aid—as governed by the NIF/NCP regime—is nothing if not political.


The UN humanitarian response to Darfur’s massive humanitarian crisis accelerated six years ago, with the July 3, 2004 signing of a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) between President al-Bashir and then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The terms have been consistently violated by Khartoum, with only fitful and largely ineffective responses from the political side of the UN. I have chronicled these violations and responses in detail over the past six years, and would highlight several lengthy analyses from the past two years:

January 17, 2010: http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article254.html

May 14, 2009: http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article242.html

March 25, 2009: http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article240.html

October 28, 2008: http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article227.html

Currently the UN operational humanitarian agencies have allowed themselves to be put in a dubious partnership with the major line ministries in Khartoum, including the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, as well as the notorious Humanitarian Affairs Commission—the latter the means by which Khartoum has done so much to obstruct, harass, and compromise humanitarian efforts. Moreover, because of this partnership, UN agencies find it exceedingly difficult to promulgate independent data and reports on key humanitarian issues: malnutrition, mortality and morbidity, water supplies, primary health care. The UN has acquiesced in an arrangement that effectively gives veto-power to the regime over any releases: if “disagreements” arise over data or analysis, these results are suppressed, even if critical to planning and the allocation of humanitarian resources.

The ultimate consequence of this suppression, as well as other efforts to obscure humanitarian realities, is that our understanding of conditions on the ground is much too limited, and permits grossly inaccurate generalizations of the sort offered, as I have noted, by the UN Secretary General in his April 28, 2010 report to the Security Council:

“The humanitarian operation in Darfur has been successful in stabilizing the situation in the food security, health, nutrition, and water sectors.”

As any examination of the extant evidence will show, this claim is simply untenable and ignores the findings of the Secretary General’s own Emergency Humanitarian Coordinator, John Holmes. Additional data contradicting the Secretary General’s claims come from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), from the UN World Food Program (WFP), and from UNICEF (see below). Holmes has been clear:

“The humanitarian situation itself remains with considerable need in many areas both for IDPs and for the rest of the population too. The main gaps left by the expulsion of the NGOs have been [indiscernible] but it is also clear that the quality of response and the capacity to respond in some areas and in remote areas in some sectors is not yet as good as before the expulsion….” (press release, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, May 31, 2010)

Another telling account, offered by a UN official who has worked closely on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, speaks to a key issue left unaddressed by Ban Ki-moon:

“[Khartoum’s] ’requirement’ to review all aspects of assessment, from methodology through to sample sizes and results, likely had greatest impact on advocacy, awareness-raising, and fund-raising efforts of UNICEF and its partners. Of course, it also allowed any disputed facts from being made public. This censorship, whether imposed or applied internally, began years ago and it took time for the [Government of Sudan] to understand exactly what bureaucratic vices worked to reduce the publication of such findings.” (email received May 30, 2010)

Non-UN humanitarian organizations—those remaining after the large-scale expulsions of March 2009—face a different obstacle in speaking honestly about conditions in Darfur. Numerous aid workers on the ground, Darfur program officers for major humanitarian organizations, even UN officials working on Darfur have repeatedly told me confidentially that they are paralyzed by the fear of being expelled themselves. Self-censorship has reached extreme levels following the expulsions, and organizations feel themselves ever more restricted in what they can say publicly. Moreover, since physical insecurity is so pervasive and Khartoum’s obstruction of assessment missions so relentless, humanitarian organizations simply know less than they did previously.

Not only are these organizations denied the opportunity to provide “protection through presence” to endangered civilian populations, they don’t know what conditions many of these populations face. Access has continued to deteriorate for several years because of insecurity, and is now frighteningly limited (for an access map from a year ago, see OCHA, July 2009). Currently access is critically limited in eastern Jebel Marra (Jebel Marra is home to some 300,000 Darfuris, mostly Fur), Jebel Moon (in West Darfur), and many locations in South Darfur. Ban Ki-moon simply doesn’t have enough information on which to base his generalization about a “stabilized situation,” and what evidence we have in many cases sharply contradicts his claims.

One particular claim has been made repeatedly by the Secretary General, US Special Envoy Scott Gration, other international actors, and of course by Khartoum’s Humanitarian Affairs Commission, viz. that the enormous gaps in humanitarian coverage created by the March 2009 expulsions have been largely filled without readmitting the expelled organizations. In a much more honest moment of assessment, the Secretary General acknowledged in his November 2009 report to the Security Council both the unsustainable nature of the stop-gap measures introduced into Darfur in the wake of the expulsions as well as critical humanitarian shortages:

“[T]he sustainability of these initial actions remains a critical issue. In remote locations, international presence has been reduced by 50 per cent, as compared to pre-March 2009 levels. The kidnapping of international aid workers has also contributed to this situation, which has led to a serious shortage of residual implementing capacity and a dramatic reduction in monitoring and evaluation capabilities in Darfur.” (page 6)

This hardly sounds like a “stabilized situation,” and all indicators—especially nutrition and water—have deteriorated since last November. Again and again, aid workers have emphasized that it is not merely the raw tonnage of food or the number of NFI (non-food items) that reach Darfur, but rather the quality of distribution, monitoring, and evaluation. These have clearly suffered heavily, as has the overall provision of humanitarian aid. The Secretary General also notes in connection with a lack of implementing capacity:

“These shortages have contributed to an increase in malnutrition levels, particularly in rural areas, where relief assistance is stretched beyond capacity. In addition, of an estimated 800,000 households that have been left without humanitarian support in the food security and livelihoods sector, more than 40 per cent have not received vital seeds and tools. Livestock vaccination in Darfur remained below 20 per cent of the planned target, while environmental resource protection coverage was insignificant owing to limited funding, despite continued natural resource degradation. In the education sector, expulsions of NGOs left a significant gap, with 27 of 70 administrative localities either partially or not at all covered, potentially eroding gains achieved during the past years.” (page 6)

“800,000 households that have been left without humanitarian support in the food security and livelihoods sector”—this is hardly a “stabilized” situation, especially when we consider the humanitarian consequences of the sharp upswing in violence and civilian displacement that began in December 2009.

Conditions vary tremendously from camp to camp (see examples below), but the Secretary General’s November 2009 report rightly highlighted the situation in the new Zam Zam camp. Many thousands of newly displaced persons have fled to this camp, which reveals all too much of the humanitarian situation in Darfur:

“The rainy season brought a number of challenges, including the prevalence of waterborne diseases. Cases of ‘watery diarrhoea,’ or cholera, were reported and contained in Zam Zam IDP camp in Northern Darfur, while morbidity remained high in most IDP camps. This situation has momentarily increased the needs for health services in the camps and, in spite of the efforts made jointly by the Ministry of Health, United Nations agencies and newly reinforced NGOs in the health sector, all required needs could not be covered. In addition to the general deterioration in health and sanitation conditions, Zam Zam IDP camp is still grappling with the challenges of inadequate schooling facilities, especially for newly arrived children at the new extension site.” (page 7)

More generally a well-placed UN official recently declared of humanitarian capacity and reporting:

“Overall, the quality of aid provision dropped precipitously [following the expulsions]; this is unquestionable. The drop in regular presence (and therefore some measure of security) and monitoring and evaluation have had serious implications for the most vulnerable and [… ] the wider community, as levels of assistance would necessarily be held static due to an inability to ensure effective coverage. Not seen, not heard, not helped, therefore not recorded.” (email received June 1, 2010)

“Not seen, not heard, not helped, therefore not recorded”—precisely what Khartoum wishes.

Shortly after the expulsions UN Emergency Coordinator Holmes declared bluntly of the patchwork of humanitarian efforts (a number of which are still nominally in place):

"‘These are band-aid solutions, not long-term solutions,’ [Holmes] told a news conference on the results of an assessment of the situation in Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region carried out jointly by the United Nations and the Sudanese government.” (Reuters [dateline: UN/New York], March 24, 2009)

During his recent assessment mission to Sudan, Holmes again noted that “the mechanisms set up with the Government [of Sudan] to fill the gaps after the expulsion of aid groups have not been functioning in recent months, partially because of the election. Other problems [have included] difficulties in obtaining visas and permission to move around” (UN Department of Public Information, June 4, 2010).

This phrase “difficulties in obtaining…permission to move around” has been glossed by a number of INGOs, who stress how constraining Khartoum’s HAC has been in controlling the redeployment of critical humanitarian assets to new locations, including the sites of greatest human need. And even as it restricts the movements and access of INGOs presently operating in Darfur, Khartoum has brazenly declared its denial of access to new INGOs:

“The Sudanese ministry of humanitarian affairs revealed that it has refused to allow 15 foreign aid groups to work in the western region of Darfur on the grounds that the situation there has improved. The government-sponsored Sudanese Media Center (SMC) website quoted the state minister for humanitarian affairs Abdel-Bali Al-Gailani as saying that Khartoum [suggested that] these organizations work in South Sudan instead. Al-Gailani called on national relief groups to ‘play a strong and effective role’ in the coming period to close the door in front of foreign groups ‘that come to work for unannounced goals.’” (Sudan Tribune [dateline: Khartoum], March 19, 2010)

These supposedly “unannounced goals” are reminiscent of Khartoum’s explanation of the expulsions of INGOs in March 2009: they were essentially charged with espionage. Further, al-Gailani’s speaking of “national relief groups” playing a larger role in Darfur is despicably disingenuous: not only did Khartoum close down the three most important national relief and human rights groups in March 2009, there is almost no real capacity among these other national groups, with the exception of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society (SRCS), which is already stretched to the limit of its capacity. Indeed, humanitarian sources are emphatic: while the SRCS is indeed a large national organization, it has never had the capacity, infrastructure, or expertise to take on the responsibilities handed over to the organization in the years 2004-2008, and certainly not in the wake of the March 2009 expulsions. SRCS national directors have said as much to the UN and operational INGOs in Darfur. The consequence is that Khartoum has put them in a hugely difficult position, setting them up for failure. (There are simply no other “national” Sudanese NGOs, beyond those shut down in March 2009, that have the capacity to operate in more than one or two sites at a time—and there are very few of these.)

Khartoum has also encouraged the work of Arab “INGOs,” and refers to them frequently in speaking about replacing lost capacity. But these Arab organizations are without significant operational capacity, and instead simply send money to the Khartoum regime, nominally ear-marked for Darfur relief. There is, unsurprisingly, no accountability, no auditing of results, and no reason not to believe that the money is simply appropriated by the regime. Nonetheless, these Arab “organizations” are celebrated for any number of development projects in Darfur. This emphasis on non-existent national organizations and empty Arab organizations is yet another part of the ugly politics of humanitarian aid in Darfur. There is nothing “technical” about it.

Political and propaganda distortions of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur tie into a number of larger political concerns of the ruling NIF/NCP regime, including the recent election. Thus on February 24, 2010—the day after signing yet another meaningless agreement, this time with the Justice and Equality Movement—al-Bashir declared: “‘Now the war is finished in Darfur ... We must start fighting the war for development,’ Bashir told his supporters at the rally in the capital of North Darfur El Fasher” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], February 24, 2010). But this was transparently an election maneuver by Khartoum: that very day there was heavy fighting—including aerial bombardment of civilian targets—in Darfur, especially in Jebel Marra. Subsequently fighting between Khartoum and the rebel forces of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the various factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Abdel Wahid el-Nur (SLM/AW) has dramatically escalated. There have been hundreds of civilians killed by renewed fighting (447 in May alone, according to the UN’s IRIN), and perhaps as many as 100,000 newly displaced. Moreover, after the elections the regime has predictably initiated a sharp crackdown on human rights advocacy and political expression. Censorship is more constraining than ever, and civil society is increasingly the target of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). The recent brutal crackdown on a strike by doctors in Khartoum is emblematic.

There is no longer a viable peace process for Darfur. JEM has definitively withdrawn from the “Doha process” (which SLM/AW had never attended), and peace seems further away than ever; as a consequence, the insecurity that paralyzes so much of the vast humanitarian operations in Darfur has never been greater. Many organizations have either already withdrawn, hunkered down in major urban areas, or have come perilously close to setting off their own trip-wire for evacuation.


International humanitarian organizations that remain in Darfur, and many of those expelled, are much more blunt than UN officials in characterizing the present situation in Darfur. Many have insisted to me in confidential communications that more than one year later, the expulsions continue to have a significant impact on people in need, not only in Darfur but in other areas in northern Sudan where there had been an INGO presence (e.g., the deeply impoverished east of Sudan). The scaling up of new operations in Darfur has been slow, bureaucratic obstruction has been relentless, and coordination has been poor. Lack of coordination, which was well-developed prior to the expulsions, has led to duplication of efforts, sharply reduced information sharing, and a badly compromised ability to organize emergency programming. The UN High Commission for Refugees and UNICEF have lost most of their implementing partners with the expulsions, and these losses have not been overcome. Referral mechanisms for victims of sexual assault have largely disappeared (it is no accident that all organizations that had significant medical response capability in this area were expelled, including Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Holland, MSF/France, and the International Rescue Committee). This is so despite the continuing, widespread occurrence of Gender-based Violence (GBV).

But a number of organizations highlight as the greatest consequence of the expulsions the loss of protection that was provided by humanitarian presence. Many war crimes, civilian attacks, and episodes of looting were prevented simply by the presence of international eyes and ears, and those of the Sudanese nationals working for these organizations. This is a recurring motif in reports from these organizations, even as it is consistently overlooked by UN political officials, US Special Envoy Gration, and the African Union Peace and Security Commission, particularly its thuggish Commissioner, Jean Ping. The issue of protection is of particular significance, given the weaknesses, poor capacity, and lack of responsiveness on the part of UNAMID. Darfuri community confidence in UNAMID is at its lowest point, and many in the camps for displaced persons are convinced that UNAMID shares sensitive information with Khartoum’s security forces, sometimes resulting in retaliation by these forces. UNAMID’s record in handling cases of GBV is uneven at best. In the past, humanitarians have provided much more effective protection than the UN/AU force.

Khartoum of course very much desires that humanitarian presence and observation be even more attenuated, and this is why they have prevented aid workers from traveling to areas under government control and places where atrocity crimes have been committed. In the case of Jebel Marra, long a rebel stronghold of SLM/AW, there is another ambition in reducing humanitarian presence: denying food, water, and primary medical care has forced many tens of thousands of people either deeper into the hills or to camps that lie on the fringes of Jebel Marra. This is yet another version of Khartoum’s “drain the swamp to catch the fish” genocidal counter-insurgency strategy.

Protection programs by INGOs have also focused on children, the most vulnerable of Darfur’s conflict-affected populations. Education, recreation, and psycho-social assistance have been of enormous importance. These have been largely lost following the expulsions. Programmatic efforts by humanitarians to facilitate dialogue and communication between displaced persons and UNAMID had also been notable, increasing the likelihood that monitoring by peacekeepers would be effective. In a number of camps, INGOs have helped mediate disputes within divided communities. But it was precisely the success of these protection programs that made them the target of Khartoum’s disapproval: the UN assessment following the expulsions indicates nine of the sixteen targeted organizations, international and national, had significant protection programming.

A number of particular locations have been left with no protection program: in the Kass area, for example, the only organization providing assistance to victims of GBV was the International Rescue Committee; they were one of the organizations expelled. Some of the camps have become so insecure in the absence of a humanitarian presence that displaced persons attempt to return to their homes and lands, often encountering even greater insecurity. Camps without an INGO presence are much more likely to see threats of rape directed at women and girls leaving camp confines to forage or collect wood. Rural populations, including nomadic Arab communities not involved in the fighting, have always been the most difficult to provide with humanitarian assistance. Here again, the almost total absence of INGO presence has led to sharp increases in violence and insecurity. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had long been one of the most important actors in rural Darfur, but the recent kidnappings of ICRC workers has forced a scaling back of its reach and activities.

The broadest conclusion reached by one important humanitarian actor in Darfur is that “2009 and early 2010 witnessed a stark deterioration in the ability of the international community to respond to humanitarian needs in northern Sudan.” Since February, violence and insecurity have produced yet further deterioration in the humanitarian responses. Such an assessment is radically at odds with the UN Secretary General’s claim that, “The humanitarian operation in Darfur has been successful in stabilizing the situation in the food security, health, nutrition, and water sectors.” Notably there is no mention of protection in this summary; and data and reports from the other sectors all suggest that politics—a concern for how Khartoum will respond—has determined the UN Secretariat in its assessment of humanitarian conditions.


Has “food security” “stabilized” in Darfur? This is an unsupportable conclusion, and ignores what data and reports we have. As long ago as last November, the UN World Food Program (WFP) had issued an alarming and highly detailed assessment of food security in South Darfur. Its major conclusion stands in stark contrast to Ban’s assertion:

“Data collection for the fourth round was carried out with the start of the harvest period; however, the food security situation has dramatically deteriorated among IDPs and mixed communities. A huge shift from food secure to moderately food insecure has occurred among these two groups compared to August. The situation is of concern as the food security status is supposed to be favourable during this season.”

WFP also reported that,

“Food consumption has however slightly improved and remained acceptable among mixed and resident communities and in most of the sampled locations. This is mainly attributed to the fact that households had more variety at this time of the year.”

But as more recent reports on malnutrition in Darfur indicate, this “variety” did not long remain the case. The WFP report also takes note of October/November increases in food prices, increases that have continued and are now critical in assessing food security.

More recently, the latest Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) report (May 2010) offers a number of deeply ominous data and conclusions:

Most of Darfur currently suffers from “moderate food insecurity,” although there are a number of places that are already “highly food insecure.” But the “most likely scenario, July-September, 2010” (Figure 2) shows that virtually all of Darfur will be “highly food insecure.” The lean season “started earlier than normal” this year, and “is expected to peak in August.” The FEWS report notes that, predictably, the food security situation in Darfur “deteriorated considerably in May compared to April” (page 2). Last year’s poor harvests have produced sharp and uncharacteristic increases in food prices; indeed, prices increased even during last fall’s harvest, the time when cereal prices typically decline. And Figure 3 in the FEWS report suggests that food price inflation will continue indefinitely, putting it beyond the means of many Darfuris. The recent collapse of the notorious al-Mawasir “Ponzi scheme” in el-Fasher (involving lower-level NIF/NCP officials) has stripped many households of their cash and physical capital. It is, as the FEWS report puts it, “an additional shock to the already war-devastated economy.” The grim conclusion is inevitable:

“The rainy season (June—September) is expected to disrupt access to markets, further reducing grain supplies, and increase waterborne diseases and rates of malnutrition, which tend to peak in August among children under five.”

Preceding the FEWS report, but containing more detailed information about levels of malnutrition, is UNICEF’s “Nutrition: Summary Issue No. 23” (covering October 2009—January 2009). Of most concern is the finding that “Global Acute Malnutrition rates” (GAM) for six out seven surveys released during this period reported GAM above 15 percent [generally regarded as the threshold for a “humanitarian emergency”], regardless of whether the data collection occurred during or after the hunger gap.” [Otash camp reported a GAM of almost 20 percent.]

For greater Darfur the UNICEF summary also noted,

“Additional information from nutrition related sectors in terms of food security, production, and water and sanitation also suggested that [responses to] [ … ] the underlying causes of malnutrition may not be as robust as in previous years, Under these conditions, the potential for deterioration and the need for adequate analysis, monitoring and response across sectors is warranted.”

And here again we see the consequences of the stop-gap measures devised in the wake of the March 2009 expulsions of humanitarian organizations—many of them implementing partners for UNICEF and WFP:

“[UNICEF] endeavoured to find sustainable solutions to the [child nutrition] service delivery gaps through negotiation with the Ministry of Health and partners, in addition to continued provision of operational costs. As of the end of December 2009, UNICEF was no longer in a position to continue the full-scale financial support, and began the process of transferring financial responsibility to the MOH as part of integration of nutrition services into Primary Health Care services.”

This should be seen as deeply ominous, considering that the Ministry of Health (MOH) is one of the line ministries in the NIF/NCP regime. While not as crassly political and deliberately destructive of humanitarian capacity as the Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC), the MOH is in many respects a creature of the regime; it lacks adequate capacity and is completely dependent upon the regime for funding. We should be deeply troubled by the prospect of turning child nutrition over to the Ministry of Health, to be integrated into “Primary Health Care services.” Again and again, Khartoum has short-changed humanitarian efforts in Darfur, and certainly exerts more than enough influence to determine MOH policies and resources.

Elsewhere the UNICEF report notes:

“Some gaps in service delivery persist following the March 2009 decision to expel NGOs. These have not been sustainably addressed, in particular in

South and West Darfur. In some cases where services were re-established it was not possible for supporting partners to offer the full package provided before March 2009. The ultimate sustainability of gap filling arrangements is still tenuous.”

“Even where gaps following March 2009 have been addressed, there has been an overall decrease in capacity on the ground to expand into areas that have been underserved in the past.”

All this is especially worrisome in light of the much more recent FEWS report, particularly for North Darfur. For example, UNCIEF finds it “of note” that:

“…the average number of admissions into SFCs [supplementary feeding centers for malnourished children] in North Darfur increased by a factor of four compared to the same period in 2009. With limited changes in the operational environment, additional monitoring of the situation is merited.”

There are other strong indications that North Darfur is experiencing the most serious food deficits and greatest levels of malnutrition, particularly if we include the part of eastern Jebel Marra that reaches into North Darfur. One especially well-informed Darfuri reports that even local officials acknowledge a vast and urgent grain shortage, exceeding 150,000 metric tons—this after Khartoum’s meager response to the shortage (email received June 18, 2010). This source goes on to say that as a result of last year’s poor rains, insecurity, and insect infestation, the harvest was “an absolute failure.” In other words, there are no reserves to see people through the hunger gap. GAM rates may already be as high as 40 percent, far in excess of the “emergency threshold” of 15 percent.

Radio Dabanga—an increasingly important news resource, with many excellent sources on the ground and in the camps in Darfur—reports (June 17, 2010) on rebel claims that Khartoum’s regular forces and militia allies have attacked villages northeast of Kutum (North Darfur), forcing hundreds to flee to Kutum town (UNAMID has not investigated). The attacks were intended to prevent displaced villagers who had returned to their lands from cultivating crops for fall harvest. Militias are accused of seizing the lands for grazing purposes. Radio Dabanga has also recently reported another characteristically callous act by the Khartoum-controlled state government in North Darfur, one revealing of how little oversight Arab “INGOs” actually provide:

“[Displaced persons] in North Darfur accused the state government of selling items that had been donated to the IDPs by Arab countries. The government allegedly introduced the donated food items into the market rather than conveying them to the displaced. One resident of a displaced camp who works in a warehouse said that he witnessed 300 jerrycans of donated vegetable oil being sold.” (June 16, 2010)

More generally for Darfur, the UNICEF report notes (under the section “Food Security Monitoring System—Fourth Round Results”):

“In South Darfur food security situation dramatically deteriorated among IDPs and mixed communities in November [2009] compared to August. Income levels in nearly all sampled locations reduced and caused by limited work opportunities. Simultaneously, the cost of the minimum food basket continued to increase and was more expensive than in the other two states.”

“West Darfur: the situation of IDP and mixed communities deteriorated and many households have moved from a food secure to a moderately food insecure status. The proportion in the food insecure category in these population groups is the highest since the start of the FSMS [Food Security Monitoring System] in February this year. This comes at a time when the food security situation is expected to be favourable.”

There is other, less discouraging news in various sections of the report; indeed, there is even improvement reported in some areas. But since the document strongly suggests that further malnutrition and food security studies are being obstructed, delayed, or curtailed by Khartoum, we would do well to take note of the most ominous findings, including:

“Levels of GAM in New Zam Zam remained higher than those reported from Old Zam Zam camp, and well above the emergency threshold. Similarly, crude mortality (1.18/10,000/day) and under five mortality (2.8/10,000/day)

in New Zam Zam [both of these Crude Mortality Rates are above the UN World Health Organization’s “emergency threshold”—ER] were higher than crude mortality (0.6/10,000/day) and under five mortality (1.0/10,000/day) reported from Old Zam Zam. The overall findings suggest that sustained and additional support is needed in New Zam Zam camp in nutrition related sectors….”

“…of note, while GAM was reported as 17.9 per cent in Krenik locality in

October, SAM [severe acute malnutrition—an extremely dangerous condition for children under five—ER] was reported as 5.7 (95% CI: 4.4 -7.5), including 4 cases of oedema, which highlighted the seriousness of the situation in that area.” [The UN’s World Health Organization contends that “severe acute malnutrition remains a major killer of children under five years of age”; a SAM rate of more than 5.0 indicates a “poor” nutritional environment—ER]

Morbidity—illness, often leading to death—is typically high among malnourished adults and children, and UNICEF reports some striking child morbidity figures for several locations. In a November 2009 survey of the “Yassin area of Shereia locality,” “morbidity was high, as almost half of the children (45.6 percent) were reported to have been ill in the two weeks prior to the survey.” The “Nyala-Gereida corridor [South Darfur]” reported that morbidity from a December 2009 survey was “high, [w]ith 63.7 percent reporting an illness in the two weeks prior to the survey.”

Other reports give us a sense of conditions at the present moment. In one of many dispatches characterizing conditions in the camps as conveyed by residents, Radio Dabanga reports:

“The displaced persons in Mershing camp in South Darfur are suffering from a humanitarian crisis, the residents say. They face an acute food shortage, since food was not distributed for them for a period of sixty days. One of the residents in the camp said they are struggling to get food after the humanitarian organizations halted disbursements of food.” (June 17, 2010)

“For their part, people living in Abu Shouk displaced camp complained about the deteriorating nutritional situation and poor security. Refugees have gone without food from humanitarian organizations for a period of three months, according to one displaced person who spoke with Radio Dabanga from the camp. He added that there are cases of malnutrition in the camp along with water shortages and a deteriorating health situation. The IDP accused the government of using policies of oppression and starvation in order to break up the camps.” (June 17, 2010)

Other data give a corroborating sense of how significant a problem food security will be going forward. But amidst this deepening crisis it is important to remember that the people of Darfur are Sudanese citizens: they have every right to expect that national resources, including massive oil revenues, will be used to alleviate suffering and respond to their acute food needs. Instead, the Khartoum regime has engaged in self-serving policies that see grain and other foodstuffs profitably exported, primarily to Arab countries. This includes huge amounts of sorghum, the very grain that is imported at enormous cost to supply the aid operation, and with significant transport challenges. The New York Times reported two years ago that even as food rations were being cut for the people of Darfur, Khartoum was doubling its sorghum exports. Beyond this, the regime and its agribusiness cronies are leasing out some of Sudan’s most valuable agricultural lands, again mainly to Arab countries in search of alternative food sources, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This makes fortunes for the men in Khartoum, even as most of Sudan suffers grinding poverty, acute food shortages, and frequent rises in food prices because of shortages.

Nothing could be more revealing of the attitude in Khartoum toward the realities of Darfur—what we might well call “the politics of humanitarian aid.”


The recent increase in violent displacement of civilians from Jebel Marra and other locations has brought unanticipated stresses on humanitarian operations in a number of camps. Here it is important to remember that since UNAMID took command in Darfur on January 1, 2008, more than half a million people have been newly displaced, a great many of those very recently. As of January 1, 2010, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that there are 2.7 million internally displaced persons in Darfur; OCHA also estimated that as of June 2009 there were 268,000 refugees from Darfur (overwhelmingly in Eastern Chad). Together these two populations are almost half the population of Darfur. There have been several estimates by humanitarian organizations about total displacement in the Jebel Marra region, but no clear consensus; estimates range from 80,000 – 110,000. Absent a thorough assessment of the region—something Khartoum continues to deny humanitarian organizations, as well as UNAMID—we will have no clear answer.

But we do have partial numbers come from a variety of sources, including the OCHA March 1, 2010 Situation Update for Darfur:

• In Nertiti (eastern Jebel Marra) a UN-INGO assessment estimated that 2,000 households had newly arrived;

• In Guldo (eastern Jebel Marra) community leaders gave an estimate of 3,000 new arrivals;

• Local reports indicate 4,000 people are displaced in Selea (near Jebel Moon, West Darfur—site of previous mass displacement in 2009);

• Local sources indicated that most of Gosdor’s (North Darfur) 12,000 people had moved into the hills because of recent fighting; this was in an area that had especially poor harvests;

The USAID situation reports for East and Central Africa (#2, May 2010) and Sudan (#7, May 2010) find:

• Inter-ethnic fighting between Misseriya and Rizeigat Arab groups had displaced 10,000 people into Kass town (South Darfur);

•The UN estimates that the vastly overpopulated Kalma camp near Nyala (the largest in Darfur) received more than 1,000 additional displaced persons;

• As of May 10, relief agencies had verified the arrival of more than 11,000 people in Hassa Hisa, Hamidiya, and other IDP camps near Zalingei in West Darfur;

Radio Dabanga, relying on a range of sources in Darfur, has reported:

• On May 20, 2010, six hundred families from the (Arab) Misseriya tribe, victims of fighting with (Arab) Rizeigat militia forces, were staying in or near the Kubum IDP camp in South Darfur (some had only the trees for shelter, and no food);

• On May 24, “480 families had fled to Kalma” in the wake of renewed fighting between rebel and regime forces;

• On May 11, 2010, fighting had driven approximately 2,500 people to Birak in Eastern Chad—from Jebel Moon, Gergi Gergi, Bir Salila, and Holeilat; the refugees are now reported by Radio Dabanga (June 18, 2010) as having arrived in Goz Amir refugee camp in very bad shape, having received no humanitarian assistance for “up to six months.”

The UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reports that, “at least 10,000 [newly displaced persons] recently arrived in Zam Zam camp” (June 18, 2010)

This is only a partial list, but gives a sense of how widespread human displacement continues to be in Darfur; the numbers also make clear that Ban Ki-moon’s description of a “stabilized” situation is simply ignorant or disingenuous.


This assessment has focused on protection, food security, and displacement as they define our understanding of current humanitarian conditions in Darfur. In each of these areas it is painfully clear that Khartoum’s political, military, and diplomatic calculations have determined the extent of the present crisis. And yet the information currently available has not been used effectively or substantially, either by advocacy groups, humanitarian organizations, or even human rights groups. This has made it all too easy for the UN Secretariat, the US, UNAMID officials—and Khartoum—to downplay or simply ignore how dangerous Darfur remains for bereft and endangered Darfuri civilians. The recent sharp escalation in fighting has captured some attention, but only because it is so conspicuously dangerous.

And even now there is no concerted political or diplomatic effort to pressure Khartoum to allow truly unfettered humanitarian access to Darfur, or to provide the security essential for civilians and continued humanitarian presence. Although they cannot say so publicly, many INGOs and UN humanitarian relief officials believe that insecurity in much of Darfur is entirely a function of actions, or calculated inaction, on the part of the regime (especially Military Intelligence) and its militia proxies, now often incorporated into the Border Intelligence Force and the Central Reserve Police.

After seven long and unfathomably destructive years, the imperative could not be clearer for meaningful international action. But those looking to the UN Security Council had best bear in mind the telling account of Council thinking offered by Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN and one-time Security Council member:

“If you want to look at the future of the Security Council, remember the accountability point, because the Council is in a very peculiar situation today. As its role and importance grow significantly, it is affecting more and more lives on the ground in Asia, Africa, Haiti and Latin America.

“Who owns the Council? Who provides its legitimacy? Maybe the best way of understanding this is to understand the core function of the Council.

“The work of the Council has been compared to a fire department. The Security Council is supposed to come out and put out the conflicts no matter where they happen. But in practice, the Council’s record is mixed. If it affects Park Avenue, the Security Council reacts. If it doesn’t affect Park Avenue, in some parts of Africa, the Security Council doesn’t react. And these double standards are beginning to be perceived.

“The 1994 Rwandan genocide was the lowest point for the Council. We all assume that after the mistake of Rwanda, the Security Council will not fail again.

“Unfortunately, I learned one big lesson after visiting Burundi in the Great Lakes region. When we returned to New York, the 15 Security Council members met with Gareth Evans, who asked us a simple question: “You’ve been to Burundi, you’ve seen how fragile the situation is. This time around, if a genocide breaks out in Burundi, what will the Council do?”

“There was an awkward silence before one P5 [permanent] member said, ‘My country has no vital national interest in Burundi, and we will not react.’ A second P5 member said, ‘My country has no vital national interest in Burundi, so we will not react.’ And this went around....”

(Carnegie Council: The Voice for Ethics in International Affairs, on-line debate, March 4, 2004)

Darfur finds itself not in the hypothetical position of Burundi, but in the all too real cataclysm of suffering and destruction that the Security Council has countenanced for more than seven years. If we wait for appropriate political action by the Council, we will wait in vain—and the destruction of Darfur will continue apace.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of "A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide"

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