War crimes move upped level of risk for aid workers


Shadowy armed groups with shifting aims make life in Darfur hazardous

DARFUR IS a hostile land. A dry, desiccated country awash with guns and tribal enmities, it has always carried risks for the thousands of aid workers bringing food, water and medicine to the region’s aid camps.

Banditry and carjackings are rife, but until this year foreigners had not been targeted for kidnap.

That all changed in March when Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was indicted on war crimes charges.

“It’s impossible to say how these things are connected, but there have been three kidnappings of westerners ever since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant – that can’t be a coincidence,” said one aid worker familiar with security conditions in Darfur.

Humanitarian officials and Sudanese security agents are still trying to establish contact with Sharon Commins’s kidnappers.

For now their motives remain unclear.

A diplomatic source in Khartoum said: “There are lots of rumours and theories flying around, but the truth is that no one knows anything until we hear from the kidnappers themselves.” Information is in short supply.

The government maintains a stranglehold on access to Darfur, making life difficult for journalists and aid workers trying to monitor security conditions.

Goal is one of the few organisations that works in and around Kutum, where their two staff were taken.

Darfur’s shifting array of rebel factions, tribal militias and bandits offers numerous possible motives.

Rebels could be flexing their muscles to show how the government has little control over its own territory.

So, too, the feared Janjaweed militias. Having been mobilised by the government in the capital, Khartoum, and used as a proxy army against Darfuri rebel groups, many Arab gunmen have become disillusioned with their government paymasters.

Islamic extremists in Khartoum have also tried to launch bomb attacks on Western embassies, and shot dead a US diplomat at the start of last year.

Alternatively, the lure of a ransom may have attracted armed criminals in search of an easy payday.

Four staff with Médicins Sans Frontières were kidnapped in March, days after the ICC indicted President Bashir. A previously unknown group calling itself the Eagles of Bashir claimed responsibility.

They released their hostages four days later after negotiations conducted by the local wali, or governor. Osman Yusuf Kibir said the gunmen wanted to show their support for the Sudanese president.

A French woman and a Canadian woman working for Aide Médicale Internationale were snatched during the following month by the Falcons for the Liberation of Africa.

They were held for three weeks, apparently in protest at a French charity which had tried to smuggle children out of Chad.

In both cases the groups emerged and then disappeared with their true identities and motives far from certain. Whoever they were, their involvement marked a new departure. In the past, aid agencies were not targeted for their western personnel but for cars and satellite phones.

Some 137 aid vehicles were hijacked in 2007, rising to 277 the following year, and 218 members of staff taken – mostly Sudanese drivers. Splintering rebel factions were often to blame.

Since then, agencies have swapped their expensive pick-ups for saloon cars. Some even use taxis to get around.

This year, political and security conditions have deteriorated across much of Sudan.

The two Goal workers were taken from the dusty town of Kutum, in north Darfur, close to areas where rebels had reported heavy bombing in recent weeks.

At the same time, concerns are growing that a deal to bring peace to southern Sudan and to hold countrywide elections next year is unravelling, with desperate implications for the whole of the country.

Fouad Hikmat, Sudan expert with the International Crisis Group, said hopes for peace in Darfur depended on finding a way forward in southern Sudan first.

“This is a recipe for the implosion of Sudan,” he said. “Everyone is now busy trying to advance their own agendas. This is the context against which we have to look at the kidnappings.”

No one operates in Darfur without recognising that the region is Sudan’s wild west: a dangerous, gun-ridden war zone.

For the band of international aid workers, the risks are getting greater every day.

Rob Crilly’s book Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African Warwill be published by Reportage Press in November