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Darfur: improved security is needed now

04-04-2007 Statement by Jakob Kellenberger

In this editorial, the president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, calls for improved security in Darfur and explains why the organization has had to resume a wider range of assistance activities on behalf of those living in the camp for displaced people in Gereida.

  Portrait of a woman in camp for displaced people in Gereida.    

  ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger visits Gereida camp for displaced persons.    

  ©ICRC/J. Barry / sd-e-01545    
  Gereida. Mothers waiting for treatment at the ICRC clinic.    

During my recent visit to Gereida camp in South Darfur, where over 120,000 displaced people are living in flimsy makeshift shelters, I was struck by the resilience of the women who are caring for their families in such difficult conditions. Their ability to gather all the elements needed to survive – enough food, clean water, basic hygiene and health care - in a vast, untidy settlement of sticks and sheeting was impressive. They build a life out of the emergency goods and services provided to them by humanitarian agencies. 

" ... violations are still being committed on all sides. It is high time that they stop. (...) the rules of International Humanitarian Law must be respected by all. " 

When I consider how vulnerable these women and their families are, I find the attack on aid workers in Gereida last December all the more shocking. It prompted great anxiety among the camp population - to say nothing of the trauma it caused to those who were targeted. The evacuation of over 70 aid workers the same day – leaving the ICRC as the only agency with expatriates still on the ground – raised consternation among the camp's sheiks and residents who felt they were left in limbo.

The people in the camp told they were increasingly anxious about their future, especially about running out of food. Presently, there was a rather low rate of malnutrition in the camp. However, without the basic provisions of food and water and health care, their wellbeing would soon been at risk.

At the end of January, although it had not been part of our planning for 2007, w e decided to take on the responsibility for the provision of water and food and to oversee the health services, waste management and other services in the camp until the other aid agencies returned.

The ICRC began working in the Darfur camps for displaced persons in 2004, but as other agencies arrived to help displaced persons, we progressively moved out into the rural areas to provide assistance to people still living in their villages. It was and still is a priority for us to help people to stay at home rather than joining the camps. 

However, we maintained a continuous presence in Gereida, running nutritional feeding and primary health care programmes together with the British and Australian Red Cross Societies, and distributing food until the World Food Programme kicked in in August 2006. Now the wheel has turned full circle and the ICRC is once again running all the services in the camp.

Gereida's ragged shelters are an illustration of the tragedy that has struck the population of Darfur. There are similar smaller camps scattered across all three Darfuri States, crammed with people. Their numbers risk increasing should the ongoing widespread violence continue. Or get worse.

I returned to the Sudan in February principally to see how conditions had changed since 2004 when I was last in Darfur. After travelling to southern Sudan, I visited Al Fashir, Nyala and Gereida in North and South Darfur. I met with local authorities, rebel commanders and tribal and community leaders. I was greatly disturbed by how volatile the security situation had become in many areas. I was even more concerned by the terrible suffering of the civilian population throughout the region. And I was frustrated to see the difficulties the ICRC and other humanitarian agencies are facing while trying to provide help. These were concerns I shared with all those I met on the spot and with government ministers and others u pon my return to Khartoum.

The primary responsibility for protecting the population lies with a country's government. But in times of armed conflict International Humanitarian Law obligates all parties to respect its rules. Each party must in particular distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, and no party may ever directly or indiscriminately attack civilians. Destroying, damaging or looting objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population – such as food, crops and livestock – is equally prohibited. 

This was the message I passed to all my interlocutors during my visit. I also made it clear to them that the ICRC's continued presence on the ground is not unconditional, and that security assurances, once given, must be honoured by all sides.

Back now from Darfur, I am reminded of one displaced woman's story I was told about in Gereida – we'll call her Aisha. She stands as an example of so many women's courage and tenacity in the face of adversity.

When Aisha fled to the camp with her family in 2004 following an attack on her village she lost everything she had. During the days that followed she had to forage for food, borrow cooking pots from her neighbours, and make do without a latrine or water to wash until the aid agencies came to her rescue. All she had kept by that time was her will to survive.

Today, she has adapted to life in the camp. One of her most useful possessions is a jerry can in which she can store water for washing and cooking. She has even come to think of her sagging, plastic-covered shelter as " home " . She has a new baby to care for.

Like many other women she has assumed responsibilities she never had before. She manages her household's resources, fetches the monthly food rations and sells part o f them to get money for other necessities. She has found herself a small job advising other women on how to keep their children healthy. Her improved economic stability means she no longer has to venture beyond the relative security of the camp perimeter to gather grass or firewood. Others are not so lucky.

When she or her children get sick she crosses the dusty camp to the ICRC's primary health care clinic which offers both preventive and curative care. Besides providing advice on treatments for women who have suffered violent attacks, there are regular immunization campaigns, outpatient consultations and other services.

The nearby feeding centre, besides caring for both moderately and severely undernourished children, offers women health education and promotes breast feeding.

What Aisha and her family lack most today are no longer the basic necessities of life, but security. Without that, there is little hope that they will ever return home to their village. In order to guarantee that security, all parties to the conflict must fully respect the rules and norms of International Humanitarian Law. Presently, violations are still being committed on all sides. It is high time that they stop. There is talk about peace processes and political solutions which may or not be found soon; regardless of this, while the armed conflict continues, the rules of International Humanitarian Law must be respected by all.