Sudan preventing food, health care from reaching Darfur, aid group says

March 25, 2011

The Sudanese government is preventing aid organizations from delivering food and health services to hundreds of thousands of people in the conflict-ridden Darfur region of the country, according to one of the largest remaining groups there.

The crackdown has left displaced populations at risk of disease and malnutrition as the government increases military operations in the area.

Catholic Relief Services was forced to suspend its work in West Darfur state after the government told it to leave Jan. 20, the organization’s country director, Darren Hercyk, said in an interview.

The group’s international staff was relocated to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and its Sudanese employees have not been allowed to deliver services. “Right now, this means that 400,000 people in West Darfur are not receiving food rations,” he said.

Hercyk said the group did not speak out earlier because it hoped the government would reverse its position.

“All along, we felt we were just one week away from returning,” he said. “Before, we always felt like if we got back in, we could catch people up. But now we have reached the point that the situation is dire.”

Last month, the government expelled Medecins du Monde, the only aid group operating in the mountainous Jebel Marra region, which the Sudanese government has bombed in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch. Thousands of people in that volatile area now lack access to medical care.

Darfur became the subject of widespread international concern in 2004, when reports began to detail the Sudanese government’s counter-insurgency campaign against rebels in the region. Coordinated bombings, massacres and rapes by the government and its proxy, the Janjaweed militia, led the George W. Bush administration to label the atrocities as genocide. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people died and 2.7 million were displaced as a result of the violence.

The United Nations launched the world’s largest aid operation to ensure the survival of those forced to flee their homes. But in March 2009, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir expelled 13 major international aid organizations and disbanded three national aid groups after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The government accused the groups of providing information to the court, a charge they and the court denied.

According to the United Nations, the expulsions removed 40 percent of the aid workers in Darfur. Since then, the remaining organizations have scrambled to cover the gaps in humanitarian assistance.

Catholic Relief Services tripled its staff to help deliver food, health and water services to the nearly 1 million displaced people in West Darfur. No other organization has taken over that role in the past two months.

The Sudanese government has accused Catholic Relief Services of distributing Bibles in Darfur, a charge it denies. Darfur’s population is almost entirely Muslim, and apostasy is criminalized under the sharia law imposed by the Sudanese government in the north of the country.

“That is not something we have done or would do,” said Hercyk, adding that all of the group’s national staff members in Darfur are Muslim and that the government has been unable to show any evidence to support its accusation.

The government has also said it cannot guarantee the security of the group’s staff in Darfur. But Hercyk said he has not been informed of any threats. The representative of another aid organization still operating in Darfur, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, said the government often cites security concerns to keep aid organizations from accessing the populations most in need.

It has become increasingly difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the humanitarian need in Darfur. The United Nations stopped issuing a quarterly humanitarian assessment after the 2009 expulsions, and the Sudanese government has not granted travel permits for journalists to enter Darfur for many months.

But a Darfuri leader near the West Darfur capital of El Geneina, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the government, described the situation.

“Now for a second month we here did not receive any food ration. No oil. No beans. People are hungry,” he said in a phone interview.

In recent months, international attention has shifted to southern Sudan, where voters in January overwhelmingly backed independence from the north. With the focus on a different part of the country, the Sudanese government has intensified its military activities in Darfur, which will remain under its control after Sudan officially splits apart in July.

 The U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Sudan, Georg Charpentier, said in a statement this week that the new fighting has led to the displacement of more than 70,000 people since December, stretching the limited capacity of the remaining aid organizations.

Hamilton is a special correspondent.

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