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Darfur: "Everybody has been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the crisis..."

17-06-2004 Interview

Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's Head of Operations for the Horn of Africa, on the mounting humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.

    Jacques de Maio, ICRC's Head of Operations for the Horn of Africa  

 1. Has the international community's reaction so far to the situation in Darfur been fast enough and on a large enough scale?  
The definite answer to this is a flat " no " . I think the humanitarian response since the early onset of the crisis has been unfilled, little and late. Everybody has been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the crisis and the pace of its developments. Now, an interesting point here is to know why. And I think there are many factors behind these objective obstacles to assess and also the difficulty for any given humanitarian player to deploy fast enough, meaningful enough in an area which is the size of Iraq, which is not very well known and where difficulties of access for various reasons, have definitely jeopardized the possibility of substantial surveys, independent assessments and therefore subsequent reaction.
 2. Does the ICRC now have the necessary level of access to allow it pursue significant operations in the region?  
Presently yes, but this has not alway s been the case. One could identify, as far as the ICRC is concerned, two phases. The first one was between the beginning of the conflict that was in March-April 2003 and the end of February 2004. During that period we could achieve a significant level of operations in the field of assistance and water and sanitation and medical to some 150,000 IDPs and residents throughout Darfur, but which definitely did not cover the very wide range of needs. But at least we could do something. And then between November and February access was simply denied. Starting beginning of March things changed for the better and we must say that we were given the necessary facilities to deploy on the ground in the first stage to identify priority needs and also to set up the platform from which our delegates could operate in conjunction with the Sudanese Red Crescent. Now, this should not veil the fact or hide the fact that there are many areas which are not today accessed by the ICRC. Some off them are not accessed by the ICRC because of an institutional choice, based on priorities and also based on our security assessment on the situation on the ground and there are also areas where we deem it quite important to have access soon but where the prevailing insecurity and prevailing clashes, armed clashes, prevent us from getting the locally-based authorization to move to all the areas where we wish to work.
 3. How is the ICRC operating in Darfur and what is the extent of its activities both in terms of assistance and protection?  
The ICRC is currently deploying one of the most challenging, difficult and complex operations it has on earth. Sudan altogether now is becoming the biggest operation on earth, both in quantitative terms but also in qualitative terms, giving the extent and the magnitude of the province. In Darfur we have presently close to 50 expatriates and we are stepping that up until we reach the targeted set up, w hich is around 80 expatriates and some 500 Darfur nationally recruited colleagues, and we are operating all throughout Darfur on emergency priority-based modes, in conjunction with the Sudanese Red Crescent and our main operational priorities are in the field of water and sanitation and we are targeting here half a million persons throughout three states of the Darfur province. Non-food and material basic assistance to some 300,000 people again throughout Darfur, rehabilitation reactivation and support to the main hospitals and clinics, significant rehabilitation of primary health care units and posts in the areas that are most affected by the conflict and by the prevailing continuing insecurity. Then in the field of family links reestablishment, which must be seen also in the light of a more regional approach - the set up of an office in Abichu in Chad, it should enable us to significantly step up our level of performance in the field of exchange of Red Cross messages and finding displaced persons and reuniting displaced families, and also there is room for nutritional support to some 100,000 people for six months at least, most probably the people, the communities who will be somehow inaccessible or might be inaccessible or who might experience specific urgent needs against the background of the WFP operating on a massive scale in Darfur and then last but not least, there is all the proximity-based protection that our delegates are carrying out. In other words, it is about identifying and responding to abuse and violations of international humanitarian law that are being documented and addressed through strictly bilateral and confidential dialogue with the relevant authorities, wherever they may be, in the capital or at the local level.
 4. Looking forward, what are the main requirements necessary for the humanitarian programme in Darfur to be as successful as possible?  
The first main requirement I w ould say is the capacity to adapt oneself and to adjust to what is a very important crisis but which is evolving by the hour. The other problem, the humanitarian problem, is directly generated by the conflict and then the whole chaos and turmoil and drama that is devastating now Darfur is definitely taking its toll also on the capacity of the local populations, and I am thinking here about 3 million people, to actually sustain themselves for the next 18 months, the two harvests have been missed, these people are close to one million displaced persons and are now in camps, with more that 120,000 refugees in Chad in addition. The infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed on a large scale throughout the whole of the region, the medical sanitary conditions are extremely alarming, and I think MSF and others have launched vibrant appeals to sensitize everybody on the skyrocketing raids of mortality, morbidity, especially among the most vulnerable layers of the victimized populations. So adaptability will be the first requirement, the second requirement will be the capacity to englobe whatever humanitarian response is being carried out within a protection oriented approach. In other words, assisting the IDPs should by no means be perceived as condoning or facilitating the practices that would ultimately detrimental to their wishes and to their well-being and to their safety and to their dignity. So it must be a professional protection-oriented action. Thirdly, humanitarian players they want to deploy and operate in Darfur need to have the professional capacity and the resources to deliver what they are committed to in a very difficult volatile environment, where the stress levels and the hardships levels of daily life and work of delegates is extremely high.