No More Deadlines for Sudan

Executive Director of the American World Service

The August 30th deadline given by the United Nations Security Council to the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed milita that has killed and forcibly displaced more than one million people from Darfur has, as expected, come and gone with little fanfare. The world powers seem much too comfortable talking but not acting.

Having returned from Darfur on August 25, I can assure you that there are not any visible serious attempts by the Khartoum government to address the UN demands; in fact, I would contend that the government continues to support the removal, by whatever means possible, of the African tribal farmers from the Darfur region.

There is a continuing and systematic program in Darfur of expulsion, rape and murderous violence, of determined ethnic cleansing. It is built on top of a long standing battle over land and was dramatically fueled in 2003 when the government, armed the Janjaweed to help quell rebel actions in Darfur. It is now being carried out by the Janjaweed, directly aided by the government, trying to rid the area of their enemies, the African Muslim farmers who lived there, and claim it for themselves. There is a vast majority of these enemies are, of course, civilians, not rebels: they are women, the elderly, and children.

I met many of these people and listened to their chilling and all-too-similar stories. The government bombed their villages; and then Janjaweed men on camels rode in, often yelling and shooting wildly. They plundered the farm animals that were the lifeblood of these communities. They stole, they raped and they killed. They burned villages to the ground. People I spoke with lost cattle, saw parents and children killed, were raped and were driven out of their homes.

And, in at least some areas, the same men who destroyed these villages are still visible just outside the camps to which many of the displaced have moved. Some have been selected by the government as “police” to provide “security” for the camps. Women are still disappearing from the camps when they venture out to collect firewood to sell to buy food.

The people who had lived in the villages fled-in terror, with few possessions, on donkeys if they had them, on foot if they did not, carrying children, supporting the elderly, looking for safety. Some were on the road or in hiding for months. They came gradually to camps being set up to receive them-now probably 140 camps scattered throughout Darfur (a region the size of Texas). They are living in tent cities packed with tens of thousands of families fighting hunger, illness, displacement, boredom, and depression. They are wounded and frightened, have been left with no sense of a workable future, and are desperate about the circumstances of their lives.

Adults who were independent have no means of support. Parents are certain it will never be safe to return to their homes, but their children cannot wait to go back to the lives they knew and loved; their body language and affect signal depression. Schooling is available only a few hours a day and, as one of the teachers said, “How can we help children deal with trauma when we are traumatized ourselves?” There are no activities for children or adults at the camps, threats of growing food shortages, and constant health dangers.

To be in the camps, to meet the victims of this displacement, to hear their stories is to feel overwhelmed by what people can do to each other, to cry at the most visible evidence of these violations of basic human rights, at the realization that some of the children in the medical tents will die from malnutrition and diarrhea. It is also to marvel at people’s resilience, to wonder how people who have experienced terror, lack the resources for their survival, have been robbed of their vision of the future are nevertheless making do, trying to care for each other, struggling to protect their loved ones and thanking strangers for their help.

There is an amazing handful of non-governmental organizations from Europe and the United States, only some of whom operated in Sudan before, working in some of the camps, patching together funding from governments and private donors. They are putting up tent shelters as fast as they can, registering families (often now just women and children because the men were killed or have wandered from the camps to look for work) and providing clean water, latrines, schools, and health services.

Unfortunately, the situation can only get worse. The populations coming into the camps keep growing, it is estimated that only 50% of those displaced have had access to aid, and there is already not enough food. Apparently the United Nations World Food Program cannot keep pace with demand, and not enough funds have been provided. to pay for the food they need.. Since a planting season has been missed, it will be necessary to feed all of the displaced persons for at least the next year, but the supplies for this are not now available. Medical staff know that there are already too many cases of dehydration, malnutrition and deadly diarrhea, that living in close quarters like this breeds its own set of sanitation, physical and mental health problems, that mortality rates could rise suddenly.

Confronted with these realities of a grimmer and grimmer future I felt determined to respond, to mobilize more people to make a difference. There can be no more missed deadlines. Additional humanitarian aid is desperately needed-not only more food and clean water but teachers and recreation personnel, social workers and community health advocates. Sudan must be forced, first, to improve access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and supplies, and it must then be sanctioned unless and until it stops its ongoing support for the Janjaweed militia and their ethnic cleansing campaign. The world powers should fund the African Union to send in a monitoring and peacekeeping force. Its first task could be to secure the roads, stop banditry and allow supplies to be shipped to the camps over land rather than by air. The United Nations Security Council should then deploy international monitors and peacekeeping forces. Every effort must be exerted to restore safety to Darfur.

Failure to act properly now will result in endless, preventable and meaningless human suffering. Three quarters of a million children are waiting to see if the world cares enough to intervene; we cannot disappoint them.

Ruth W. Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, an international development and emergency relief organization.

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