In Sudan, the Daily Battle to Administer Aid

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 25, 2005

NYALA, Sudan -- Julius Lanya, a nurse in mud-caked work boots, rushed out of his office, leaned over Haja Hamid and began gently examining the gaunt 12-year-old girl, limb by limb, as she rested on a straw mat under a tree.

Haja's skin was flaking badly, the sign of a chronic vitamin A deficiency, Lanya explained to her worried parents. He needed more time to examine her, but night was falling. The family of six, with no place to stay, would have to risk walking across the Darfur desert to their temporary home in a refugee camp.

Haja's father, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, begged Lanya to let the family sleep in the compound, local headquarters of Merlin, a British medical aid group. Lanya, a welcoming, easygoing man of 40, was tempted to agree. But he faced a difficult choice.

If he sheltered the African family for the night, Sudanese authorities might see him as siding with the rebels who have been fighting against government troops and their allied militias in Darfur for two years. If he refused, the family could be attacked while walking home and the girl's condition could worsen.

Haja began crying and pointing to her peeling arms and bleeding feet.

"Please ease my pain," she pleaded.

Lanya tapped his chin, and small beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He fell silent for a moment, then suddenly pointed to his small concrete bedroom.

"This is not a political issue," he said. "You will sleep here tonight."

Lanya is one of more than 10,000 humanitarian workers operating under the auspices of the United Nations in this region of western Sudan. Their tasks range from monitoring tubes at infant feeding centers to digging sanitation ditches and boreholes for water outside one of the dozens of squalid refugee camps that dot Darfur's war-shattered landscape. Like Lanya, a Kenyan, the vast majority are from the continent -- Africans trying to help fellow Africans.

In failed states or countries devastated by war, humanitarian workers become a de facto government, building schools and health clinics and helping with water and trash collection, at times even constructing roads and providing security.

But as relations among the United Nations, the rebels and the government grow increasingly tense, aid workers in western Sudan say they have been shot at, arrested by local government officials and repeatedly robbed by rebels as well as bandits, according to a report released this month by Human Rights Watch.

The impact has been dramatic, both on the workers and on those they seek to help. Roads have been closed; aid organizations are withdrawing staff. Drivers for the World Food Program have refused to transport food because of frequent muggings. After a worker for the U.S. Agency for International Development was shot and wounded last month near the Kass camp, home to more than 80,000 people in South Darfur, the United Nations closed the road to the site, saying it was too dangerous. The rutted desert track has been closed dozens of times because of the lack of security, leaving the displaced people in the village without food and medical supplies.

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