Recurrent violence remains the primary concern for Darfurians
Upon completion of a 19-month mission, Yasmine Praz Dessimoz, head of operations at ICRC Darfur, talks about the current humanitarian situation in the troubled region and the obstacles and opportunities the ICRC is facing.
How would you describe the evolution of the conflict in Darfur since it started in 2003?
The current Darfur crisis erupted in 2003 between governmental and opposition forces and resulted in a disastrous humanitarian situation with the civilian population bearing the brunt of the conflict.
The situation in Darfur is complex and has too often been depicted in simple black and white terms. The dynamics of conflicts are rarely simple, but rather multifaceted. Since 2004, numerous peace processes and political initiatives have been ongoing without any solution thus far. During that time, the armed conflict on the ground has continued and the security situation has grown steadily worse. Fragmentation amongst armed groups has weakened their chain of command and tribal clashes over territories and resources are becoming more frequent. Moreover, lawlessness has spread to large areas of Darfur setting the stage for a breeding ground of opportunistic crime against the population and humanitarian organizations.
Today, the conflict in Darfur has moved from an acute crisis to a chronic one. Fighting now takes place in an increasingly fragmented and localized environment, creating in Darfur a patchwork of situations ranging from complete insecurity to fragi le stability.
What is the current effect of the ongoing conflict on civilians in Darfur?
As ever, civilians are paying the highest price for the conflict. Insecurity and recurrent violence remain the main concern of the population in Darfur, even before access to food, water or health care. While its scope and consequences vary from one area to another, the violence is affecting all the tribes in Darfur regardless of their ethnic affiliation.
In areas where there is active fighting or persistent insecurity, some people are fleeing to even more remote areas, some are being hosted in nearby villages while still others have no choice but to head to already overstretched camps. The decent services on offer in the camps are also a pull factor. When not under direct attack, many people in rural areas are facing hardship as a result of blocked migration routes, lack of access to markets, lack of access to health services and insufficient water for people and animals where large quantities of livestock have congregated.
As long as insecurity prevails, it will hamper substantial returns and even provoke new displacements. It will continue to harm farming and cattle-trading alike and prevent a return to normal life. On the other hand, stability has prevailed in some other areas, where people can sustain a satisfactory living and some small-scale return of the displaced to their homes is taking place.
What are the main humanitarian challenges the ICRC currently faces in Darfur?
The prevailing insecurity in both rural and urban areas has restricted humanitarian organizations'access to those in need, particularly in rural areas. The fragmentation and proliferation of armed groups have rendered the task of obtaining security guarantees an enormous challenge. In addition, the situation is exacerbated by an increase in banditry that targets humanitarian organizations, including the hijacking of vehicles, theft of telecommunication equipment and sometimes attacks on staff.
The precarious security situation makes it extremely difficult to plan and carry out field activities, and this means that the communities most at risk in rural areas are often reachable only sporadically, if at all. The ICRC strives to overcome these difficulties and is still present and active in the three states of Darfur. To this end, it adjusts its operations to the unpredictable environment and maintains a flexible approach in coping with insecurity as it attempts to reach rural communities in need.
ICRC teams are constantly working with all parties to the conflict to obtain the security guarantees they require to carry out their activities. Over the past months, we were able to return to certain areas that had previously been off limits due to security concerns and we even managed to step up activities to assist people before the onset of the rainy season. This access should, however, not be taken for granted and we must continue to enhance our presence and acceptance by all actors in the field in order to access more and more people affected by the conflict.
How does international humanitarian law apply in the context of Darfur?
As long as the armed conflict continues in Darfur, the rules of international humanitarian law apply and must be respected by all.
The lack of respect for basic rules of international humanitarian law is an issue of deep concern. I am not talking here of complicated articles of law but basic humanitarian principles that are understood and respected by all cultures such as'civilians must not be targeted'. International humanitarian law prohibits attacking, destroying, looting, removing or rendering useless objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population such as water points, food stock and crops.
You've already worked in different countries such as Sri Lanka, Serbia, Ethiopia and Iraq. How does it feel having to leave Sudan after 19 months?
I leave of course with mixed feelings that are always difficult to describe. On the one hand, a sense of achievement when, for example, I think of how quickly, efficiently and professionally the ICRC managed to ensure the basic needs of over 100,000 displaced people in Gereida at the beginning of the year. On the other hand, the shocking events triggering the withdrawal of humanitarian organizations from Gereida in December 2006 are unacceptable.
Although I am aware that the situation can change quickly, I am relieved to be leaving Sudan at a time when access to the field has improved and our presence and activities can be stepped up in certain areas. However, I continue to be very concerned about the high number of vulnerable people affected by the conflict that we haven't managed to access and assist; and I am worried about the security of our field teams moving i n an environment that remains extremely volatile and unpredictable.
I strongly believe in the added value the ICRC manages to bring, through the fantastic energy and commitment of its national and international staff, to the civilian population affected by the violence in Darfur. I wish them all the strength and courage they will need to relentlessly to strive to achieve the ICRC's objective to assist the vulnerable people of Darfur's conflict and foster awareness and respect for humanitarian principles.