Humanitarian groups are facing a new escalation of violence in Darfur, with more than a dozen of their vehicles hijacked in recent days and several employees abducted or critically wounded. Several aid groups are questioning how much longer they can go on amid the spiraling chaos.
Most attacks occurred on roads to refugee camps housing some of the 2.5 million people chased from their homes by Darfur’s warfare. But gunmen have also struck within Nyala, capital of South Darfur state.
A driver from the Christian aid group World Vision was ambushed and his car hijacked in Nyala this week, as was another the week before. Three of the group’s local employees were wounded, one critically, in a separate attack on a convoy Sept. 20.
“The gunmen just jumped onto the road and sprayed the cars with bullets, it’s a bit traumatizing,” said Michael Arunga, the spokesman for World Vision.
The New York-based group has asked all nonessential staff in South Darfur to go on leave, cutting its team by about two-thirds.
“We aren’t stopping our operations, but we’re scaling down to regroup and understand what is happening,” Arunga said. World Vision, one of the largest aid groups working in South Darfur, feeds 500,000 people and runs a half-dozen clinics, emergency nutrition centers and child care centers.
Aid group freezes vehicle movement
In the Otash refugee camp next to Nyala, refugees lined up at a World Vision clinic on a recent morning fearing aid workers wouldn’t come for lack of security. The group has frozen all movements for its vehicles because it fears its expensive four-wheel drives are targets for hijackers. But over a dozen nurses and health assistants showed up nonetheless in a rented bus.
“We need the charities to stay in the camps,” said Khadija Moussa, a refugee who has spent four years in Otash and was being treated for malaria.
“We can’t survive without them, the government knows that,” she said, echoing widespread suspicions among Darfur refugees that authorities orchestrate the violence against aid groups so that they will leave and let refugees fend for themselves. The government denies it.
Several other camps around the town are also so unsafe that humanitarian work is all but grinding to a halt.
Darfur’s violence is constantly shifting, one sector flaring up as another calms down, making it difficult for humanitarian workers to assess why they are being attacked, and by whom. Beside the government-aligned militias, suspects include bandits and the region’s various splintered rebel groups.
The U.N. says Darfur hosts the world’s largest ongoing humanitarian effort, with a budget of over $1 billion a year and over 14,000 aid workers. It has repeatedly warned this effort could collapse if aid groups feel they are being targeted.
The four-year conflict, in which more than 200,000 have been killed, pits the Arab-led government against ethnic African rebels who rose up complaining of discrimination. To put down the rebellion, Khartoum is accused of unleashing Arab janjaweed militiamen, blamed for widespread attacks and atrocities on villagers in the vast region of western Sudan.
Increasing number of attacks
Attacks on humanitarian workers in Darfur rose 150 percent from June 2006 to June 2007, the U.N. says. This calendar year alone, more than 100 aid workers were kidnapped and 66 assaulted or raped, while over 60 aid convoys were ambushed and 100 vehicles hijacked, the U.N. says.
The pace of attacks appears to be picking up throughout Darfur. Since last week, a dozen cars carrying aid workers have been ambushed and their passengers robbed, three aid workers were kidnapped, and a half-ton of food was looted in a refugee camp, the United Nations says.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, UNICEF, the U.S.-based Samaritan’s Purse and the French-based Action Contre la Faim are among aid groups or agencies caught in the latest violence.
Aid workers say violence in South Darfur, the biggest of the three states that make up the region, and home to the most refugees, has considerably worsened in the past six months.
“We don’t know if it’s a trend or just a reflection of the general chaos,” said Abraham Hadoto, who heads World Vision in the area.
While several organizations have pulled out of Darfur or frozen their operations this year, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, Medecins du Monde and Save the Children UK, Hadoto says his group will continue.
“It can be demoralizing, but we are aware this is a war zone,” he said. “We’re committed to stay until we reach absolute breaking point.”
World Vision spends over $1 million per month in South Darfur, with over 20 expatriate and 400 local staff proving aid to hundreds of thousands in refugee camps and remote villages.
Groups decline protection
The Sudanese government has offered armed protection to aid convoys, but humanitarian workers have declined the offer in order to preserve their neutrality. Meanwhile, a 7,000-strong force of African Union peacekeepers has been unable to secure the region.
In the Otash camp, made up mainly of straw huts that house over 60,000 refugees, World Vision’s center treats over 3,000 people a month for disease, malnutrition and pregnancies.
Patients all worried the clinic would close if attacks continued. They urged aid workers to cling on, hoping security would improve once a new hybrid force of 26,000 U.N. and AU peacekeepers begins to deploy in October.
“But if you want to leave, take us on the planes with you,” said Moussa, the malaria patient. “We’ll go anywhere away from this hell.”