Focus on Africa: Why we quit Darfur

Save the Children has withdrawn its humanitarian staff from the conflict in Sudan. Its UK director general, Mike Aaronson, explains the decision.

On 21 December I announced that Save the Children was reluctantly withdrawing from its emergency humanitarian operation in north and south Darfur. Our decision caused the UN secretary general to admit that the UN needed to rethink its policy on Darfur, which clearly wasn't working.

However, five days later the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean and Darfur was once again relegated to the inside pages. Nonetheless, the issues surrounding our withdrawal are still relevant and require the urgent attention of the international community.

Our decision was forced on us by the worsening security situation: within two months we had lost four staff members in Darfur. Staff and vehicles had been detained; staff had been robbed and seriously assaulted. In a Khartoum hospital in December I visited the Save the Children driver wounded in a brutal attack on one of our convoys in south Darfur. He had been shot at close range and had a smashed wrist. The wound had become infected and amputation of the hand was a real possibility: a fearful prospect for a man with a wife and six children. At least he was alive, unlike his colleagues, a medical assistant and a driver's mate, both of whom had been killed in the attack.

This attack took place on 12 December - the day I flew into Khartoum.

Part of the purpose of my visit was to give my condolences to the widow of our water engineer in north Darfur, who was killed, along with our British programme manager, when their Land Rover detonated an anti-tank mine in an area where, according to all parties to the conflict, no mines had been laid. The laying of such a mine was in any case a violation of the ceasefire, agreed months earlier but widely ignored by all sides.

All humanitarian agencies are affected by this descent into violence, and have themselves become a target. This does not represent a deliberate policy shift by any of the parties, but is a consequence of two things.

First, it is becoming clear that no party exercises full control over armed elements on the ground. Second, the blatant lack of respect for human rights and humanitarian values that has been so tragically evident throughout this conflict can only lead in one direction: if you don't care about the welfare of women and children, why should you care about the people helping them?

The unpredictable behaviour of the men with guns, coupled with a fuzzy picture of which side controls which bit of territory, is making it increasingly difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid. Already there is a crisis of operational security, and a real danger of a downward spiral into anarchy, as previously seen in Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In this situation, most hopes are pinned on the African Union as protector and mediator. In its protection role, it suffers from a weak mandate: a fudge bequeathed by a UN Security Council hamstrung by the aftermath of the Iraq war and by the shameful self-interest of some of its members.

The formal role of the union's mission in Darfur is to monitor the 'ceasefire'.

Its military component exists to protect the monitors. In the circumstances, the union's commanders have done a remarkably good job and have earned praise for interpreting their mandate as broadly as they can to protect civilians. But they still have only about 1,800 people to monitor an area the size of France or Iraq.

It has been suggested that they might also provide armed protection for humanitarian convoys, which would allow personnel and supplies to move to outlying locations. However, taking on this task would dilute the union's ability to carry out its existing role. This underlines the importance of its other pressing task: mediating between the warring parties to deliver a genuine ceasefire.

Humanitarian agencies have also had their neutrality publicly challenged.

Save the Children takes no political position on the conflict, yet we have been accused of partiality by both sides. It is sometimes said that being disliked by two opposing parties is a sign of neutrality, but this is cold comfort when being caught in the crossfire acquires a literal meaning.

Meanwhile, about 1.7 million people are unable to return to their homes and will almost certainly not be able to plant crops when the rains come in March or April. This means that the emergency relief operation will need to continue until at least 2006. I saw the inhabitants of the Abu Shok camp for displaced people in El Fasher making mud bricks for walls around their tent dwellings; they know they will be there for some time.

And women and children in their villages or on the move continue to live in fear of attack and abuse: rape is still endemic, and in at least one recent incident young children have been shot dead by armed men.

Even if the war can be brought to an end, the task of reconstruction will be immense. Whole communities have suffered atrocities at the hands of their erstwhile neighbours, and tribal animosity has soured the original shared political grievance of Darfur's marginalisation within Sudan.

Building a sustainable peace will require a difficult balancing of justice and reconciliation. Those from outside who wish to help will need to understand the complexity of the situation: the many different tribal groups in Darfur all have legitimate claims and grievances that will need to be addressed in a settlement.

This is not something one can feel too optimistic about in the new binary world of the 'war on terror', in which there are only good guys and bad guys. Years of neglect by the international community allowed the situation in Darfur to happen, and here the limitations of the doctrine of muscular interventionism practised by the west since the end of the Cold War have been all too evident - Darfur has proved to be the crisis the world couldn't handle. It is vital that lessons be learned from this depressing collective failure of the international system.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Noureldine Issa El Tayeb, Rafe Bullick, Abhakar el Tayeb, Yacoub Abdel Nabi Ahmed.

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