Darfur's Human Disaster

Simon Crittle
Spokesman, U.N. World Food Programme
Wednesday, June 20, 2007; 10:00 AM

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan has spent all but 10 years engaged in internal armed conflict. The current Darfur crisis has become one of the worst human disasters in Africa, with an estimated 450,000 killed, 2.5 million displaced and up to 4 million dependent on outside aid.

U.N. World Food Programme spokesman Simon Crittle was online Wednesday, June 20 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the Darfur refugee crisis and humanitarian efforts in the region.

Interactive Report: Focus on Darfur

The transcript follows.


Simon Crittle: Good morning to all. I'm here in Khartoum, Sudan, looking forward to the discussion on Darfur. Please post any questions you have and I'll try to answer them. As a spokesman for the World Food Programme, I travel to Darfur frequently and have a pretty good handle on the situation on the ground.


Washington, D.C.: With Oxfam America pulling out of Geneina, how is the international humanitarian community planning on filling the vacuum?

Simon Crittle: For the benefit of those who aren't familiar with the situation, Gereida is the biggest camp in Darfur. It has about 130,000 people living in a sprawling area beside a small town. Indeed, Oxfam recently did announce it was pulling out of Gereida because of the lack of security. In December several non-government agency workers in the area were brutally attacked, including some from Oxfam. The International Committee for the Red Cross still has a presence in Gereida and is carrying out food distributions for the residents of the camp. However with Oxfam and others having left, you are right in saying there is a vacuum in services. Until the the security situation has improved and the armed groups in the area cease their attacks, aid groups will be reluctant to return, and ultimately the displaced people living there will suffer.


Caracas, Venezuela: Are there currently any international efforts in place to help the people of Sudan, or is only the U.S. trying to help?

Simon Crittle: Yes, absolutely. Darfur is now the location of the biggest aid operation in the world. There are some 15,000 aid workers from all over the world now in the three states of Darfur, working hard to bring badly need services and relief to about four million war-affected people. Over the last four or so years the aid effort in Darfur has been largely successful. Malnutrition has halved and is now below what we consider to be emergency levels. Many people living in camps now have access to clean water, health clinics and education. There are also 7,000 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur and now there are plans for a joint A.U.-U.N. peacekeeping force to deploy next year.


Herndon, Va.: Why aren't we helping/doing more? What can the average American citizen do to help?

Simon Crittle: As far as getting aid to Darfur is concerned, we are actually doing a pretty good job. For example, the World Food Programme, the organization I work for, fed more than 2 million people last month. Because of insecurity, however, we weren't able to reach about 100,000 of our targeted beneficiaries. Recent debate has centered on putting more peacekeepers into Darfur, and the good news is that Sudan has just agreed to allow the U.N. to boost the number of peacekeepers to about 20,000.

What can you do to help? Firstly, to be completely honest, you can donate to one of the many aid organizations working hard under very difficult conditions in Darfur, so that they can keep doing their life-saving work. Secondly, you can write to your local congressman, calling on him or her to keep up the pressure so that the U.S. government continues pressing for peace in Darfur -- a peace that so far has gone begging.


St. Louis: Aren't there lots of refugees who have left Sudan? Can you tell us a bit about what the World Food Programme and the international community are doing to help these people?

Simon Crittle: The people who have been affected by the war fall into two categories -- refugees and internally displaced people. Yes, about 220,000 Sudanese refugees have fled across the border into Chad. However, the number displaced inside Darfur is far greater -- about 3 million. About 2 million of them are living in camps and the rest are living in urban areas. The international community has mounted one of the biggest aid operations in history to help the people in both Sudan and Chad. The World Food Programme distributes food to them every month. Other organizations cover the remaining basic needs and human rights. But all of us are constrained by two things: insecurity and a lack of funding.


Summit, N.J.: How many people is the World Food Programme feeding in Darfur right now? And what does it cost each day to feed someone?

Simon Crittle: The World Food Programme last month fed 2.2 million people in Darfur. Last year, during peak months, the number reached more than 3 million. It is difficult to say how much it costs to feed one person. What I can tell you is that the Sudan operation for WFP this year will cost about $685 million. Some 70 percent of that will go to Darfur and the rest goes to other areas, including the south and the east of Sudan. The scale of the operation here is enormous.


Freising, Germany: I've read that intertribal skirmishes have made many of the refugee camps into no man's lands for many Westerners, and also that some aid workers have been kidnapped. What is the purpose of these kidnappings? Is it an attempt to have their grievances told to the world, or are they attempts at petty crime and profit? If it's the latter, then this reminds me of how Baghdad succumbed to chaos and terror.

Simon Crittle: The security situation in Darfur is chaotic. You have many different types of armed groups including Arab militias, more than a dozen rebel groups and the Sudanese army. In the confusion, aid workers have become targets in the past 12 months. The attacks often occur when aid workers are moving by road, in and around the camps. The armed groups often take the vehicles and abduct the staff. More than 70 cars have been taken this year already. The reason they do it is usually because they need the cars for their own purposes. The armed groups also attack food convoys and break into warehouses. People who are abducted usually are released and are not held for ransom or political reasons. These attacks are usually crimes of opportunity.


Herndon, Va.: What's the best course of action for any of the major world powers to take in response to the crisis in Darfur?

Simon Crittle: The best course of action is to continue supporting the aid effort and the moves to bring peace to Darfur. The Darfur Peace Agreement, which was signed last year, lays out a framework for how peace can be achieved. The world powers need to convince all the armed groups in Darfur to sign onto that agreement. To date, only one rebel group has signed. Also, the world powers need to fully support the just announced U.N.-A.U. hybrid force by committing troops and resources, sooner than later.


Bethesda, Md.: Given that you have interacted with the Sudanese people first-hand, could you tell us a little about their perspective on what is going on? How do they view the actions of al-Bashir?

Simon Crittle: It depends on who you talk to. In Darfur, where millions are directly affected by the conflict, people obviously are suffering greatly. They have lost family members and are struggling to survive. But in places like Khartoum, a thousand miles away, some have trouble understanding what is going on and question what they read in the international press. The president has many supporters here but there is also a healthy opposition.


Richmond, Va.: Good morning, Simon. I am curious to know how you and other aid workers deal with your emotions when faced with such a devastating situation as the crisis in Darfur. Relief work is quite a challenge; I've done short-term stuff, but no long-term and nothing near the scale of Darfur. Thank you and God bless.

Simon Crittle: This is an important question. As an aid worker you are torn between the many, many people who need your help, and the stories of individuals. While you have to focus on the big picture, you can't help but be touched and saddened by people whose lives have been torn apart. But what comforts me is when people come up and say "thank you" with huge smiles on their faces -- they want to know the international community is aware of their plight, and when they see me they know we haven't forgotten them.


Concord, N.H.: Describe a typical day in the life of a WFP worker in Darfur.

Simon Crittle: In the field, the life of an aid worker is very tough. Many live in tents, and access to electricity and running water is sporadic. Besides a few DVDs and a shower at the end of the day, they don't get much respite. Aid workers on the front line get up early and usually head straight to work in the camps, where they spend most of the day under the desert sun.


Miami: Are there specific programs WFP is implementing to help feed the people of Darfur?

Simon Crittle: For the most part we are distributing what we call emergency food relief. We are giving rations to households every month so that they can just get through the day. Ongoing development programs won't get into full swing until the fighting subsides, but we also are carrying out some recovery programs including school feeding, in which children get a hot meal when they go to class. We also have just started giving out hand mills so that families don't have to pay to get their grain ground.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the current status of the African Union? There have been articles written indicating it is not as potentially effective as it was a few years ago. Would you agree or disagree with that assessment?

Simon Crittle: The African Union is the first to admit it has big problems in Darfur. The Darfur region is the size of France but there are only 7,000 A.U. peacekeepers on the ground. They don't have enough equipment and their mandate is limited. This is why the international community has pushed so hard to get more peacekeepers into Darfur. But it will take time to roll out the new force, and in the meantime the A.U. peacekeepers are coming under fire, losing men regularly.


Simon Crittle: Thanks very much for your time. I've enjoyed discussing this vital issue. Kind regards, Simon Crittle.


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