Darfur activist says crisis is worsening

Expulsion of aid groups has put thousands at risk

A displaced Sudanese child walked behind the fence of a clinic at Zamzam refugee camp on Monday. A displaced Sudanese child walked behind the fence of a clinic at Zamzam refugee camp on Monday. (Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / March 25, 2009
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The Sudanese government's expulsion of humanitarian aid groups from Darfur has put thousands of displaced people at risk of death from outbreaks of meningitis and other infectious diseases, a leading human rights campaigner said.

Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Abdallah also said that two months into the Obama administration, the United States still lacks a coherent policy to confront the worsening situation in the Darfur region of western Sudan. He appealed for tougher action and greater urgency.

Ahmed traveled to Boston this week to meet with Cambridge-based Physicians for Human Rights and other groups about the trauma facing more than 1 million Darfur residents living without adequate water, food or medicine, as well as the inadequate international response to the expulsions.

He said in an interview that the crisis had worsened since Sudan's president, Omar Al Bashir, was indicted by the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court earlier this month for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Bashir responded by expelling 13 humanitarian groups that had been helping to provide food and medicine to some of the 2.5 million displaced people living in camps in Darfur.

Ahmed, a physician and professor who specializes in treatment of victims of torture and sexual violence, also is a longtime peace negotiator with the Sudanese Center for Rights Promotion and Peace Building, a reconciliation group. He is working with militias on both sides to get them to come to the bargaining table.

His years of work in his native Darfur earned him the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2007.

He said that after visiting with decision-makers in Washington, he is worried that the Obama administration still lacks a clear strategy for the Darfur crisis.

"We are urging this country, which gives more than 70 percent of the aid to Darfur, that it is time to stand up and say the right thing . . . Americans should be sure that this money and aid goes to the targeted groups. We need a very transparent mechanism. And we need more pressure."

Ahmed said the stress on internal refugees because of the food and water crisis may drive thousands more to make the dangerous trek from Darfur to camps in neighboring Chad.

He said residents of some camps in Darfur are refusing to work with Sudanese government officials who are trying to take over the food distribution duties of the expelled groups.

The expulsions put a sudden stop to a meningitis immunization campaign that Doctors Without Borders was about to start, just at the onset of one of the periodic outbreaks of the disease, which Ahmed said occurs every eight to 10 years.

Karen Hirschfeld, director of the Darfur Survival Campaign for Physicians for Human Rights who was escorting Ahmed in Boston, said she visited the refugee camps in Chad in November while conducting a Physicians for Human Rights study on women's rights violations.

"There is clearly not the capacity in the camps to deal with thousands of additional refugees," she said.

"If 100,000 refugees come across borders [from Darfur], the camps cannot cope."

Ahmed said solving the Darfur crisis demands a regional response, involving Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and Egypt, and that US policy needs to reflect a regional approach.

"It is very urgent," he said. "We are going to lose many of these innocent civilians' lives."

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