Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Darfur aid is threatened

Think the situation in Darur couldn’t get any worse? Think again. It is now becoming more and more difficult to deliver aid to victims because of resistance from the government of Sudan.

This is from today’s New York Times:
John Holmes, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, had come to Darfur to see the world’s largest aid effort in action — a nearly $1 billion-a-year operation involving about 14,000 aid workers helping 3.8 million people dependent on handouts of food, medicine and water.

But he did not get very far. He was turned back by soldiers at a military checkpoint on the road to the Kassab refugee camp in North Darfur, despite high-level assurances from the Sudanese government that he would be given unimpeded access to Darfur’s dispossessed.

“I find this quite extraordinary,” Mr. Holmes said as he stood on the dusty spot of his rejection. “We’ve come to visit a camp where the U.N. system is keeping people alive and we are not allowed access. It is quite an incredible event and I am quite frustrated and angry.”

Violence and bureaucracy are threatening to derail what has been perhaps the only success of the Darfur conflict: the humanitarian effort. For the past four years, Darfur has been a place of bloodshed and banishment, with at least 200,000 killed and more than 10 times as many pushed from their villages into camps and the wilderness by soldiers, pro-government militias and, more recently, clashes between rebel groups.

These people have been kept from dying in the arid moonscapes of Darfur by the aid effort — thousands of workers for dozens of agencies from Sudan and abroad who swiftly set up camps, dug wells and latrines, and handed out food. Those actions helped to slash death and malnutrition rates among the displaced, put hundreds of thousands of children in classrooms and give millions basic health care.

But now that effort is in peril, aid officials in Darfur say. In the past year, a dozen aid workers have been killed, dozens of vehicles stolen, compounds robbed and workers beaten, harassed and sexually assaulted. A United Nations map of a no-go area, where conditions are too dangerous for workers, shows a shrinking arena of operations, with wide swaths of territory off limits. More than 900,000 people are living or hiding in those areas.

Here in Deribat, a rebel-held town in the Jebel Marra mountains, help can arrive only by helicopter because government officials have closed off the road.

“They are strangling us,” said Ali Adam, a medical assistant who runs a clinic in Deribat, adding that 21 children have died here in the past three weeks of pneumonia because they have no antibiotics. “We are under siege.”

In other places, like Gereida, a vast camp of 130,000 people in a rebel-controlled area, violence has forced almost all aid workers to retreat. In December, armed men raided an aid organization compound, raping two women and stealing cars, satellite phones and computers.

Even in the areas supposedly within reach of relief organizations, like Kassab, bureaucratic stonewalling by the government keeps aid workers out much of the time. Aid agencies say their operations are tied in endless ribbons of red tape. Rather than being chased from the country by violence they are more likely to lose heart from the endless bureaucracy — a slow death by a thousand paper cuts.

“Many organizations are saying that the bureaucratic obstacles are the No. 1 problem and may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said one senior aid official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

The mountains of paperwork — including trips to government ministries to obtain official stamps and permissions for visas, travel permits and import tax exemptions — take up so much time that one large aid organization with operations across Darfur employs five full-time workers whose only job is to navigate the bureaucratic maze.

The government signed an agreement with the United Nations in 2004 that eliminated most restrictions on aid workers. But that agreement has been repeatedly violated: a United Nations list of incidents compiled in the first two months of the year cited more than two dozen cases of workers being forced off aid flights, turned back at checkpoints or denied paperwork and visas.

Visas are issued for a few months at a time, if at all. Exit visas are required for workers staying more than a month, but these, too, can take weeks to come through and cost $120 each. The cost of a single worker’s paperwork can add up to $1,000 a year.

Government officials say they are not obstructing aid workers and have lived up to the agreement to allow free access.

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