“More than 80 percent of excess deaths in Darfur were not a result of the violence” is the much talked-about conclusion of a new study detailing why health issues such as diarrhea have killed the majority of the 300,000 Darfuris who have died since violence began in 2003. The study, by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium, was published Friday in the British medical journal The Lancet and created quite a stir in the community of those concerned about Sudan.
The study, conducted through heavy analysis of an online database, found that those most vulnerable are “displaced individuals living in conditions of poor sanitary infrastructure, making them susceptible to diseases associated with diarrhea.” In these deprived conditions, “adequate humanitarian assistance to prevent and treat these potentially fatal diseases is essential.” The authors make clear how vital humanitarian assistance is to the volatile region, noting that times of reduced assistance ushered in a higher mortality rate. It’s a dense read, but the details are valuable and should be heeded by the aid community, donors, and policy makers alike.
Media outlets highlighted the study, often fixating on the fact that violence has commonly been attributed to the high death toll in Darfur. Unfortunately, most missed a critical point: Widespread violence in Darfur, carried out by local militias sponsored by the ruling party in Khartoum and by factionalized rebel groups, forced Darfuris into the camps in the first place, where they were susceptible to diseases and malnutrition. Not only does the ruling party in the North bear responsibility for much of the violence – for which President Omar al-Bashir and others are wanted by the International Criminal Court – it further endangered these vulnerable displaced populations by expelling many of the aid organizations providing basic services in the region.
Without delving into culpability, the Lancet report’s authors emphasize this final point throughout the study: Humanitarian aid is a vital lifeline for those who have been displaced due to years of conflict in Darfur. Citing the aid agency expulsion in the wake of the ICC warrant for Bashir as a most compelling case, the authors state: “Humanitarian aid has often been sidetracked because mortality data have been used for political purposes and the resulting legal implications.”
The Lancet study emphasizes a valuable nuance to understanding the Darfur conflict and provides an important takeaway that we must always consider when looking at war zones around the world. The victims of conflict are not only those killed by guns and air raids, but also those who are perish due to the poor sanitation, malnutrition, and disease rife in the camps that Darfur’s people have been forced into to escape state-sponsored and rebel violence. But far from downplaying the severity of the conflict in Darfur, the study should serve to reinvigorate the resolve to bring peace to Darfur; while the air raids and attacks peaked in 2004, five years later, nearly three million people still remain in tenuous conditions unable to return home.
Laura Heaton contributed to this post.
Photo: Woman and children at a camp for displaced people in Nyala. (Doug Mercado)