A quarter of a million died of hunger in the Sudanese region of Darfur in 1984. Now the UN warns such a catastrophe could happen again if it can’t reach those who need help.
The UN World Food Programme’s Marcus Prior has been travelling from the Sudanese capital Khartoum to the embattled region of Darfur since fighting began early last year. The scene when he arrives back in Darfur tomorrow, he says, is likely to be grim.
“I was in Darfur about five weeks ago and the conditions people were living in at the refugee camps were shocking. There’s very little primary healthcare, and as a result both the food situation and the levels of acute malnutrition, particularly among the younger children, are very alarming at this stage.
“It’s very clear that the UN and international community response to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur has been slow, and that has put us in an extremely difficult position now, where we’re in a race against time to get as much help into the region before the rains come and before what is now a crisis becomes a major catastrophe.”
The most basic essentials are all but absent, Prior says.
“There’s a desperate shortage of adequate clothing among the refugees and water is a major problem. The daily requirement for a human being is about 20 litres, but most people are surviving on somewhere between seven and nine litres per day; that’s sharing with any livestock they could gather when they fled their villages – it’s the most basic living imaginable. They’re almost entirely dependent on outside assistance for their daily needs.”
International organisations tasked with delivering this assistance are about to face a fresh series of challenges, Prior explains.
“Ongoing hostilities caused by the militia groups in the three Darfur states are hampering our work there. The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) – one of the two main rebel groups – is certainly making its presence felt in terms of setting up checkpoints to let us know they want recognition.
“Since the ceasefire of April 8 our ability to work in the Darfur region has improved substantially, there’s been a much better environment for us to go about our work. But newly displaced persons are reporting renewed attacks and every incident forces us to reconsider from a security point of view whether we should be going into those particular areas. It’s a hugely serious situation, but we have to be sure our staff are safe when they go to deliver food.”
The biggest problem, Prior says, is the sheer scale of the needs in Darfur. “We’re targeting 1.2 million people for aid and that number will go up to two million in October when 800,000 people who have otherwise been affected by the war in Darfur will need food aid,” he says.
“It’s a crisis in one of the most inaccessible parts of Africa – it’s essentially a desert with very few tarred roads.
"The rains are due soon, they’ve already started falling in south Darfur, and it means that although we’ve got a fleet of 650 trucks moving into Darfur, and we’re using the railways and small planes to airlift in food, and although we already have 19,000 tonnes on the move there – that’s almost three football fields packed every square inch with food and piled seven or eight metres high – the needs are absolutely enormous and our window of opportunity to get the food into Darfur is closing fast. The rains mean access by road will be substantially curtailed and in some areas shut off altogether.”
Collaborating with other relief outfits in the region is essential, Prior says.
“We’re working hand-in-hand with just about every other NGO and agency that has been registered in Khartoum to work in Darfur, from Unicef to NGOs like Oxfam and Medair – there are many NGOs who are still awaiting approval by the government so they can set up operations in Darfur.
"These delays concern us because the urgency of our response now is paramount – if NGOs are awaiting registration in Khartoum it means we’re a few pairs of hands short that we might otherwise have had on the ground.
“We’ve seen cases of NGOs waiting for weeks and months for their aid to be cleared at customs. That kind of impediment makes everyone’s jobs far more difficult in the field.”
Prior adds that conditions for the relief workers themselves can also slow their progress when working in the region.
“There are only a limited number of flights into Darfur, and when you get in there are only a limited number of places to stay.
“Communications here are not as reliable as in other parts of the world. Communications in west Darfur are particularly tricky.
“Working and living conditions are also very difficult for the staff themselves. Water for taking a shower is quickly drying up. It’s a very, very difficult operation.”
Just as violence in Darfur has exploded in recent months, so the long-running civil war in Africa’s biggest country inches towards a possible conclusion at talks in Kenya.
But this latest conflict now risks spilling over into neighbouring Chad, Prior warns.
“In the region as a whole, now there’s a tentative peace deal being signed in the south, you would hope that’s going to be a great step forward for Sudan. But it doesn’t help that as soon as one war finishes another starts up here – it means the resources of the international community are stretched that bit thinner.
“We have mounting operations on the Chad side. Its government has expressed concern that the conflict in Darfur will spread there.
“There’s a very, very weakened people on that side of the border who have travelled by foot for days, sometimes weeks, to get there,” Prior says.
“We can’t even countenance the idea that this conflict could spread to Chad as well. The situation is bad enough as it is.
“On Monday, I’ll meet more desperately abused and incredibly frightened people. All of them will say they want to go back to their villages, but they’ll add that they’ll only return there when it’s safe.
“Of course, that could be some time.”