Marco Longari  /  AFP-Getty Images file
A newly arrived refugee woman from the Sudan region of Darfur crosses into Chad on Jan. 27 in the direction of an improvised refugee camp.
updated 4/16/2004 11:28:36 AM ET 2004-04-16T15:28:36

In the Darfur region of western Sudan, a humanitarian crisis has already displaced nearly one million people -- and the United Nations has warned that the situation is getting worse.

According to reports, an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed has committed atrocities ranging from raping and murdering civilians to burning down entire villages, all with the aim of displacing the black Sudanese tribes.

This month, the U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs James Egeland characterized the violence as "ethnic cleansing."

The fighting and pillaging, which began in February 2003, has driven an estimated 700,000 black Sudanese from their homes to other parts of Sudan and an estimated 100,000 others across the border to eastern Chad.

The apparent objective of the group -- which critics claim is backed by the Khartoum government -- is to drive the tribes from their homes so that the militia can take over valuable water resources and land.  The government has denied the allegations.

As he marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the attrocities in Darfur left him with a "deep sense of foreboding" and warned the international community should be prepared to take military action, if necessary, to prevent the attacks.

Due to the extreme violence in the region, humanitarian assistance has been limited and the international group, Doctors Without Borders (also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or M.S.F.), is one of the few non-governmental organizations that is currently operating in the Darfur region.

Back from Sudan
Mercedes Taty, a 36-year-old Spanish doctor and the Deputy Emergency Director for Doctors without Borders in Paris, returned last week from a month working in Sudan.

Taty worked with the 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina, and Zalinge.

She spoke with about the gravity of the crisis. 

Can you describe the humanitarian situation in the Sudan?
Just imagine almost a half a million people having to leave their houses — homes behind, burning — subject to any sort of violence. Living in enclaves that they are not allowed to leave because they are afraid of being attacked — either looted, killed, raped, or beaten. And depending on whatever can be provided to them as they left with empty hands and depending [on aid agencies for] water supply, food distribution, and health care as they can not produce anything on their own, by themselves. Half a million people.

What is Doctors without Borders doing in the Darfur region of western Sudan?
We have set up emergency service response programs. So that means addressing priorities to prevent measles outbreaks, to provide water, to provide food, to take charge of malnutrition, and to develop primary and secondary health care for the displaced people we are trying to assist.

As a doctor, I have assisted wounded people — either gunshot wounds, knife wounds, raped women — so that is the reality for this population.

Compared to other humanitarian crisis you have worked with over your last six years with Doctors Without Borders, how bad is the situation in the Sudan?
In fact,I can only [call] it a huge, huge emergency. In the sense of the population figures, when I speak about figures, I am talking about people, persons, population — they are huge, huge numbers.

We are talking about displaced people living in miserable conditions, displaced from their homes, just regrouped in the middle of nowhere and absolutely dependent on any assistance that can be provided to them.

They’ve left their villages of origin, due to violence and burning of these villages. So now they are gathering at some crossroad points and they are absolutely dependent on any assistance that can be provided.

So, if no drinkable water, no drug supply and healthcare, no food is provided, these people have very little chance of surviving.

Just to give an example, but in other situations, when we speak about 5,000 people, we estimate that is already an emergency. Right now I am talking about almost 300,000 people that have been seen by Doctors Without Borders teams.

The United Nations has launched an appeal for $115 million for the Darfur region. Will that help?
Yes, that will be suitable, but it just needs to be translated into real action in the field as soon as possible. Otherwise it will be too late.

Do you think that comparisons between the crisis in Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda are justified?
I don’t think that we should be using the word "genocide" to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target — targeting one ethnic group or another one.

It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself. But, I think it’s important not to mix things and not to standardize our words. So, I would say no, I can not speak about genocide.

On the contrary, I can speak about a huge number of displaced people in an extremely precarious situation due to displacement forced by violence. It is severe enough without having to call for genocide or other words.

Many people are saying that the Arabs groups are driving the black Sudanese off their land so that they can access their land and water in a form of "ethnic cleansing." Is that label appropriate?
That is not necessarily accurate. There are several different tribes and clans and families and not all of them are persecuted or executed just for the sake of their tribe.

It, in fact, looks to me like a very effective military strategy, but I wouldn’t translate that into ethic cleansing. But, I am a doctor; I am not very good at analyzing military strategy.

Interview conducted by's Petra Cahill.


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