Image: Mideast Darfur women
Nasser Nasser  /  AP
Displaced Sudanese women and children wait their turn for medical treatment outside the clinic of the Humanitarian Aid and Development Organization at Zamzam refugee camp, outside the Darfur town of al-Fasher, on March 23. With her health options limited, one woman in this photo is considering a risky alternative: a traditional healer who promises his potion of holy water, charcoal and glue, touched by verses of the Quran, can cure her uterus inflammation.
updated 4/8/2009 5:33:13 AM ET 2009-04-08T09:33:13

With her health options limited, one woman in this Darfur refugee camp is considering a risky alternative: a traditional healer who promises his potion of holy water, charcoal and glue, touched by verses of the Quran, can cure her uterus inflammation.

It's not a choice 22-year-old Mastoura Hussein would have considered before the Sudanese government threw out some of the biggest aid groups working in war-torn Darfur. The order forced the departure of the doctors she had been seeing at a specialized women's health clinic.

The expulsion has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis across Darfur, where several million rely on agencies for food, health care and shelter.

Aid workers warn that the greatest impact will be on women and children, who make up more than 60 percent of the 2.7 million people driven from their homes in the 6-year-old war. Health facilities focused on women and children have been gouged, and workers fear women will resort to so-called "baladi" methods, a mixture of traditional herbs and magic.

They also fear they will be less able to deal with sexual assaults against women in a conflict where observers say rape has been used as a weapon, particularly by Arab militias allied with the government.

Hussein has had an inflammation for years, but only recently started to get it treated at the women's health clinic. Those doctors have been thrown out, so the mother of two has turned to a general clinic set up by an Egyptian military team, but she's not sure whether it will have the medications her first clinic was giving her. And with fewer health facilities in Abu Shouk camp after the expulsion, there are longer lines at the remaining ones.

Waiting in line for five hours last week, Hussein mused about her other option.

"We will all have to go back to baladi healing," she told a woman next to her in line. That woman had been trying for a week to get treatment for her 9-year-old son's diarrhea because the camp's remaining clinics can't cope with all of those in need.

Health efforts in Darfur have long focused on women, since they are usually the primary providers and caregivers of the family in refugee camps. Aid workers say they had made modest gains in health benchmarks for women and children in recent years. Now they fear those will be reversed.

The expulsion of 13 international and three Sudanese aid agencies from Darfur in March interrupted nutritional programs for malnourished children and pregnant and nursing mothers and shut down many programs to train midwives, promote hygiene and help women suffering from violence.

Increase in sexual assaults feared
It has also removed many of the experts who were dealing with and tracking sexual assaults. Getting women to report attacks has always been difficult. With trusted experts now gone, it gets even harder, U.N. officials say. Women may also be less likely to report attacks to government aid agencies, which are now taking a larger role in treating refugees.

"We may not have information" on violence, one U.N. official said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Even non-governmental Sudanese aid groups "won't be free to report" harassment or sexual violence for fear of government reprisals, the official said.

The issue is a highly contentious one for the government, which denies systematic rape or violence against women ever took place.

If supplies like water in the camp diminish, women may have to leave the camps more often, exposing them to attacks, aid workers fear. Rapes often occur when women venture out to fetch water or firewood.

Zahra Abdel-Rahman, a women's leader in Abu Shouk camp, fears an increase in attacks, even inside Abu Shouk. "When the aid groups are gone, violence comes inside our camp," she said.

Abdel-Rahman said she has recorded five cases of violence against women in the past month. In one, she said, a woman was knocked off her donkey and raped at the camp's edge, then left on the side of the road.

A peacekeeper, speaking to The AP on condition of anonymity because she was not allowed to speak to the media, said she has heard of three cases this month, but has not been able to verify them.

Retaliation for war crimes arrest warrant
The expulsion of aid groups came in retaliation after an international tribunal ordered the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes charges, accusing him of leading a campaign of atrocities — including rape — against Darfur's ethnic Africans. Khartoum has been battling ethnic African rebels in the region in a war that has left up to 300,000 dead.

So far, the United Nations and remaining groups say they are containing the damage, rushing in water and food. But they warn of a growing humanitarian threat a few months down the line.

A joint U.N.-Sudanese assessment found that 14 percent of health facilities in Darfur were either shut down or had reduced staff because of the expulsion. Six of the expelled groups had been carrying out emergency nutrition programs for children and mothers. The report found that 650,000 people don't have full access to health care, and at least 700 severely malnourished children have been left without treatment.

Aid workers already fear outbreaks of disease because of the reduced care and monitoring. They also suspect many women will turn again to dangerous traditional medicines.

One traditional healer, 85-year old Abu Bakr Mohammed, is expecting more patients at his straw hut near Abu Shouk camp. He says he has cures for hundreds of diseases, including malaria, pregnancy difficulties — even a protection against bullets.

For Hussein, he said he would prescribe a mixture to drink made of charcoal, glue and water, all poured over a wooden board with Quranic scriptures to give it powers.

"People go to the doctors, but they always come back here to me," he said as he sifted through his remedies of talismans with Quranic verses and mystic prayers, herbs and holy water.

More on: Darfur | Omar al-Bashir

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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