Darfur refugees face disaster as Sudan expels NGOs in al-Salaam Camp, North Darfur Bashir drives out 13 agencies in anger at his arrest warrant

Fri, Mar 6, 2009, 00:00

A MOTHER sat outside the deserted hospital set amid the simple shelters of sticks and plastic sheets.

“My baby is sick,” said Fatima Abdulrahmen, as she brushed flies from her daughter’s eyes. “She has a fever and I brought her here and now I don’t know what to do. Who will help me now?” Families who fled their homes in the face of government assaults in Darfur face a new emergency. Having fled to the safety of aid camps in search of shelter, food and water, they find the charities that supported them are being locked out by the very regime responsible for much of the region’s slaughter.

Aid officials warn that a humanitarian emergency is in danger of becoming a disaster after 13 international non-governmental organisations were expelled by Sudan.

The little hospital where Fatima sat is one of the casualties. Its doctors and nurses were told not to come to work and its patients sent home yesterday after the International Rescue Committee (IRC) was ordered out. The staff of 13 international charities, including Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Care, were boarding flights to the capital Khartoum.

Government officials began making telephone calls on Wednesday, seconds after the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it had issued a warrant for the arrest of president Omar al-Bashir. They told aid agencies their licences to operate were being revoked for passing information to ICC investigators.

Mr Bashir is wanted on two counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity in Darfur. The United Nations have estimated that 300,000 people have died in six years of fighting, many at the hands of the Janjaweed – Arab militias armed by Khartoum and deployed as a counter-insurgence force.

The government called mobs on to the streets of the capital yesterday in an angry show of support. More than 10,000 people, many screaming furiously and waving placards, poured in to Martyrs Square to cheer on their president. Some burned Israeli flags and effigies of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor. Mr Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, turned his ire on the US and Europe.

“We are telling the colonialists we are not succumbing; we are not submitting; we will not kneel; we are targeted because we refuse to submit,” he said, waving his cane aloft to huge cheers.

Human rights campaigners accused Sudan of holding the people of Darfur hostage. “Millions of lives are at stake and this is no time to play political games,” said Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Africa programme.

“These aid agencies provide the bulk of the humanitarian aid required by more than two million vulnerable people.”

In El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, government goons began the process of seizing millions of pounds in assets belonging to the charities. Men with dark glasses and clipboards arrived at the Oxfam office to begin itemising equipment.

They left with laptops, desktop computers and satellite phones, choking off communication. There was a similar scene at French agency Action Contre La Faim.

“We are due to start distributing food to the camps in a fortnight,” said one worker.

“Who else is going to do this and stop people starving? Words just cannot describe what is happening.”

All around Darfur, the Khartoum policy of murder by neglect has shifted matters of life and death towards the tragic.

Doctors and nurses with MSF were trying to contain two deadly outbreaks of meningitis before being expelled. Their clinics have closed. And the supply of food to 1.1 million people is in doubt, as the UN’s World Food Programme scrambles to find trucks to deliver sacks of grain. They had been using four of the expelled charities to get food to people in need.

In Abu Shouk, home to about 50,000 people, men dressed in dusty jalibayas were hammering at a water pump. Here this should be the work of Oxfam water and sanitation engineers. “We don’t know how to fix it,” said one, wielding a foot-long spanner, “but we are thirsty”.

In neighbouring Al Salaam, the umdas (chiefs) were gathered on rugs in the shade of a shaky reed screen to discuss the news.

Adam Mahmoud, the main umda, gestured one way then the next as he pointed out the IRC hospital, latrines dug by Oxfam, feeding centres and camp administrative offices, all run by foreign charities. All closed. “If these organisations leave then there is no doubt that we will all suffer again,” he said.

“It will be a disaster.”

Irish reaction: Minister condemns expulsion of NGOs

MINISTER FOR Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has condemned the decision to expel a number of international humanitarian organisations from Darfur.

Mr Martin said yesterday that Ireland fully supported the work of the International Criminal Court and called on all parties to co-operate with it.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the unjustifiable retaliatory decision to expel 10 aid organisations. This will leave hundreds of thousands of extremely vulnerable people without essential medical care and other humanitarian assistance. They should not be used as pawns by their own government,” he said.

“I call on the government of Sudan to reverse its decision. It is imperative that these organisations be allowed to maintain their operations and continue their essential humanitarian work unimpeded.”

Labour also criticised the Sudanese government’s decision, saying it was “very concerned” by reports coming from the region.

Sinn Féin said that if the Sudanese government refused to reverse its decision, the UN must mobilise to ensure refugees dependent on the agencies received the aid they require.

Oxfam Ireland, which has been supporting humanitarian programmes in Darfur since 2004, said its staff had been moved from Darfur to Khartoum while it appealed the decision.

The charity said its programmes would have to close if the appeal failed.

CHARLIE TAYLOR