‘‘Little short of hell on earth” is how Kofi Annan once described the situation in Darfur. Ever since the brutal, Sudanese government-led counter-insurgency began there in 2003, it has been the remarkable work of humanitarian aid agencies that has allowed the 2.7 million people displaced by the conflict some measure of hope, dignity and survival.
On 5 March, the government of Sudan expelled 13 of those aid agencies. As a result, the situation in Darfur is no longer “little short of hell on earth”: for the suffering people of Darfur, hell has well and truly arrived.
On 4 March, the International Criminal Court had announced that it was issuing an arrest warrant for President Omar el-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. Bashir reacted in an all-too-familiar way – with criminal disregard for the lives of his own civilians. Thirteen leading international aid agencies were expelled, including Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. Between them, these agencies provide more than half of all the aid delivered in northern Sudan.
I was last in Darfur in late 2005. I still remember the desperate plea from a woman I met during a visit to a village that had just been bombed by government planes: “Please stay with us, don’t leave us,” she begged. Back then, I could not have imagined that life in Darfur could get any worse. But I fear that the 2.7 million traumatised and terrorised victims are now more isolated than ever.
The government of Sudan has inflicted the most damaging setback for delivery of aid since the conflict in Darfur began in 2003. The potential human impact of all this is unimaginable but not entirely incalculable.
We know, for example, that the expulsion of the aid agencies threatens to leave more than one million people without water, more than 1.1 million without food and 1.5 million without health care. People without water start to die after five days; children die first, and even if they do survive they remain physically and intellectually damaged for the rest of their lives.
This is happening already. At Kalma camp in south Darfur, home to roughly 90,000 people, water stopped being pumped last Wednesday, and there is no other source – clean or otherwise. As I write this and you read it, people will be dying from thirst. At Kass camp, home to 48,000 people, the main water pumps stopped working with immediate effect on 4 March. Disease will surely spread rapidly as a result, and the suffering will be compounded by the severe reduction in access to medical services.
It is no exaggeration to say that we could soon see a replay of the apocalyptic scenes of 1994, when I visited the refugee camps of Goma. Tens of thousands of Hutu refugees from Rwanda died there of cholera and diarrhoea.
The remaining agencies in Sudan simply cannot fill the gap left by the expulsions. The United Nations cannot fill the gap, either – much of the UN’s work is actually delivered on the ground by the agencies that have been expelled.
So what will more than a million desperate people do? It is likely that they will leave the camps in search of food and water. But there is no protection. Because they have no choice, there will be a large influx of refugees into local towns, which is likely to cause resentment and tension. Competition over resources such as clean water will aggravate an already shaky security situation across Darfur, which has seen renewed fighting and 50,000 people displaced in the past month. Many Darfuris may also cross the border into neighbouring Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world and already home to 250,000 refugees from Sudan. Some aid groups are already preparing for 100,000 extra arrivals, putting immense stress on their already limited capacity to help people.
The European Union has expressed grave concern about the situation and called on the Sudanese government urgently to reconsider its decision to expel the agencies. But over the years, the EU has issued countless statements of “concern” on Darfur and it continues to underestimate the intransigence of the government in Khartoum. Not surprisingly, that government draws its own conclusions about how serious the international community is about Darfur and acts accordingly.
It is vital that the EU works together with its international partners to step up diplomatic efforts to convince the Sudanese government to let the aid agencies resume their work. As a major donor to Sudan, the EU should convene an emergency summit to ensure that donors and key regional players work on getting help to those in need. Appointing a high-level humanitarian envoy to travel to Sudan, as President Obama has done, is also essential.
The African Union and the Arab League must consider whether to remain silent about actions in which innocent Darfuri people already living in squalid camps have their lifeline cut. Whatever the mood about the ICC in Africa and the Arab world, that is surely an argument that should be taken elsewhere. Is using human life as a bargaining chip in a battle with the ICC what innocent people deserve? The African Union and the Arab League must surely make it clear to Sudan that its callous actions are not acceptable.
On 16 March, Bashir announced that all foreign aid agencies will be expelled from Sudan by the end of the year. If he is testing the water, we must not dither, but be unequivocal in our condemnation. Unless the international community places urgent, concerted and serious pressure on Sudan, there is a real risk that Darfur will be closed to the world. We will not even know the extent of the humanitarian catastrophe until it is just too late.
Glenys Kinnock MEP (Wales) is Labour spokeswoman for international development in the European Parliament