The Sudan advocacy community was on high alert – though cautiously quiet – when news publicly emerged late last week that one of the main suppliers of food aid in West Darfur would be forced to close down operations. On Friday, Catholic Relief Services said that its food program would end this month, leaving 400,000 people without monthly food rations. By Monday, CRS announced that it was given permission by Khartoum to resume services and that it would work with the local government to begin distribution quickly.
A number of prominent news outlets, including wire services and The Washington Post, picked up the story, helpfully raising the profile of the incident. Meanwhile, advocacy groups treaded carefully in light of the sensitivities facing humanitarian organizations that provide life-saving assistance, watching for CRS to take the lead in determining the right time to put on pressure.
The incident played out publicly over the last several days, but the controversy had been stewing since January when CRS received word from the Sudanese government that it could no longer assure the aid group’s security. But rather than immediately publicize the row and shame the government to reverse its position, CRS moved its international staff to Khartoum and suspended operations, knowing that the public scrutiny might further jeopardize its ability to return. However, after two months the conditions in the communities CRS had been serving became “dire,” said the group’s country director Darren Hercyk, speaking to The Washington Post.
At its most basic level, the incident highlights – yet again – the precarious environment in which aid groups in Darfur work. Khartoum’s expulsion of more than a dozen aid groups in 2009 in retaliation for the ICC’s arrest warrants is only the most public and blatant example of the government controlling who receives aid, and how and with whom aid groups communicate about the challenges of operating in Darfur. More regularly, as Enough has noted and as seems to be the case for CRS, unspecified “security concerns” become a catch-all to bar groups from accessing certain areas, often where operations against rebels are underway. Earlier this year, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting published an expose on how security restrictions imposed by the Sudanese government – and, crucially, too infrequently challenged by the U.N.-A.U. peacekeeping mission – are particularly undercutting the effectiveness of the peacekeepers.
And while aid groups get caught up sorting out questions of access, the needs on the ground in Darfur only seem to grow. More than 70,000 people fled fighting between government-backed forces and rebel groups in the past three months alone, according to the most recent figures released by the U.N. humanitarian coordination agency.
Amid continuous reports of the government’s attempts to eliminate the rebels and their sympathizers militarily, the denial of food aid looks like a clear extension of this militant strategy. Intent to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity is difficult to prove, but a case could be made, considering that the people targeted by the government’s campaign to eliminate and displace specific ethnic groups during the height of the bombing campaigns and Janjaweed raids are now those struggling to survive in Darfur’s camps.
While the situation remains fragile, the news that CRS is making preparations to resume services in western Darfur after a two-month suspension is encouraging. This time around, however, there was little praise offered to the Sudanese government for “solving” a humanitarian problem that it manufactured.
Photo: Abu Shouk camp in North Darfur (AP)