In Sudan, Death and Denial: Officials Accused of Concealing Crisis as Thousands Starve

June 27, 2004 | Washington Post

by Emily Wax

MORNAY, Sudan — There are tents here that no parent wants to visit. They are called feeding centers, shady rectangular units where children fight death. Sitting on a mat and holding his son’s frail hand, Mohammed Ishaq and his wife, Aisha, have been here five days, nursing 9-month-old Zohar on drops of water from a large pink cup, praying that somehow he will survive.

Zohar spits up the water. His cough is rough, and his thin skin clings to his ribs. His withered left arm is connected to an IV. He is suffering from malaria, complicated by malnutrition. Near him, other parents rock, nurse and pray for their babies, who are passed out or moaning, their eyes rolled back as they vomit emergency rations of corn and oil.

Six hundred miles to the east in the capital, Khartoum, Mustafa Osman Ismail, the foreign minister of Sudan, stretched back in his plump leather chair in an air-conditioned office overlooking the Nile.

“In Darfur, there is no hunger. There is no malnutrition. There is no epidemic disease,” he said in an interview. Yes, he conceded, there is “a humanitarian situation.” But the hunger, he said, was “imagined” by the media.

Both hunger and denial are weapons in Sudan, according to U.N. officials and international aid workers. After accusing the government of imposing a policy of forced starvation on the people of Darfur, they now say that official attempts to conceal the crisis are endangering efforts to prevent famine among an estimated 1.2 million people.

Mornay is the largest refugee camp in the region. It is a labyrinth of suffering, where one child in five is acutely malnourished, aid workers say, where for six months 75,000 people have lived on less than half the food they need to survive, where six people die every day, mainly children and the elderly, from hunger and disease.

In the town of Mornay, near the camp, there is a market with no food. There is a tiny mosque where no one is praying, because 3,000 people are crammed into its dank and fetid spaces. There is arable land outside the camp, but crops cannot be gathered because militiamen on horseback, clad in government uniforms, roam the scrubby landscape. Assault rifles are balanced on their laps, and whips hang from their belt loops. Women are trapped inside the camp, unable to forage for firewood or food.

There are 129 such camps across Darfur, 31 of which are inaccessible because they are in areas held by the government or the rebels in the region, which stretches along the border of Chad. More than a million people live in the camps, many of which lack water, supplies and sanitation, and operate without any feeding centers.

The people in the camps were driven from their villages and farms by pro-government Arab militiamen, a ragtag collection of traditional tribal fighters and criminals known in Arabic as Janjaweed, which means “men who ride horses and carry G3 guns.” The Janjaweed fighters have terrorized and killed, witnesses say, and are also accused of rapes and beatings.

Tensions in Darfur have simmered since the 1970s, when drought and competition over scarce resources sparked clashes between largely nomadic cattle and camel herders, who view themselves as Arabs, and the more sedentary farmers, who see their ancestry as African. Both groups are Muslim.

The tensions flared in February 2003, when groups of students and political activists from three of Darfur’s African tribes started a rebellion against the government, complaining that the Arab ruling elite had failed to develop the area.

The Darfur groups thought it was time to press their case when a peace deal finally began to take hold in an unrelated conflict between the Islamic government in the north and rebels based in southern part of the country, a region that is largely animist and Christian, after 21 years of war and more than 2 million deaths.

The first major victory of the Darfur groups was the capture of the military town of El Fashir in a battle last year. They killed 75 government soldiers, stole weapons and destroyed four gunships and two Antonov aircrafts, government officials said. In response, the government began to arm local militias to boost the army and also launched an aerial bombardment of villages, witnesses say.

Over the past 16 months, more than 10,000 people have been killed and thousands driven from their homes by the Arab militiamen. Human rights and aid groups accuse the government of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign, targeting three tribes: the Fur, Massaleit and Zaghawa.

Sudanese authorities tightly restrict access to the region. But this week, NASA satellite photos still being reviewed provided a clearer view: 56,000 houses, with conical roofs known as tukels, have been destroyed in nearly 400 villages.

Aid workers predict that many more people will die, and that the U.N. World Food Program will be able to reach only 800,000 of the 1.2 million displaced people because of continuing violence. Aid workers are also concerned the rainy season will slow or stop food shipments. And waterborne diseases in crowded camps with no latrines will increase the number of deaths, they said. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that at least 350,000 people will die of disease and malnutrition over the next nine months.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plans to visit Darfur next week to urge the Sudanese government to disarm the Arab militias or face U.N. sanctions. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has also scheduled a visit.

Aid workers and analysts say they hope the visits will push the United States to lead an intervention that will provide airlifts of food and medicine. The U.S. military is considering sending a team to Chad to assess the feasibility of a humanitarian mission that would help refugees who have fled Sudan, State Department officials said.

Aid workers also hope the attention will remove a crucial obstacle to stopping the famine: government denial. Headlines this week in a government newspaper, Sudan Vision, read: “Situation in Darfur Under Control” and “Ethnic Cleansing Sheer Fabrication.”

A U.N. report issued in May on conditions in the village of Kailek in western Darfur accused local government officials of ordering “a policy of forced starvation” by insisting that the villagers faced no problems, even as militias prevented food deliveries. Nine children in the area reportedly died of malnutrition every day.

At the same time, the government has also restricted access to humanitarian workers and journalists, granting travel permits infrequently and allowing only a small part of the affected areas to be visited. Last week, Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said the government was holding up visas for non-U.N. relief workers and delaying the shipment of necessary equipment.

Pacing inside a Doctors Without Borders compound in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, Jean-Herv? Bradol, president of the group, said he was angry at the Sudanese government and the United Nations for their slow responses after officials toured feeding centers in Mornay. He puffed frantically on a cigarette, his face ghostly, his brown hair strewn wildly.

“This is the attitude that accelerates crisis. If you deny there’s a problem, you don’t have to address it,” Bradol said. “We asked for food planning. We asked for trucks. They say they will come — yes — in six months, when it’s too late. I am hoping I am wrong. In the meantime, thousands will die.”

“By denying that there is a humanitarian crisis, the government can continue phase two of its ethnic cleansing campaign,” said John Prendergast, a former Clinton adviser on Africa and an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Brussels. “Phase one consisted of driving people out of their villages. Phase two is designed to use starvation and disease to finish the job started by the government-supported Janjaweed militias.”

“If Khartoum is pressured to remove the obstacles, and the U.S., EU and U.N. vastly increase the airlift and delivery capacity for moving humanitarian supplies, hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved,” he said. “Rarely in the history of these kinds of humanitarian emergencies is the choice so stark, so simple.”
Not Safe to Go Home

On a recent afternoon, the Sudanese government’s commissioner general for humanitarian affairs, Sulaf Din Salih, visited Western Darfur and told aid workers that refugees should be encouraged to return home. Aid workers said that similar orders to return were being issued across Darfur.

In Zalingei, a camp about 50 miles southeast of Mornay, elders from the village of Zulu told aid workers that officials said the villagers would be paid to return home, in the hopes that others would follow. When they journeyed back, they said they found 40 corpses of their relatives rotting in the sand, the aid workers said. They returned immediately to the Zalingei camp, where a food shortage is raging.

On a recent visit to the city of El Geneina, the governor told the French Foreign Ministry’s envoy, Renaud Muselier, “Everything is fine. No problem. Everyone can go home.”

A trip with the French official down a dirt track, however, exposed a war zone where gunmen roamed. Sunburned men rode on camels, guns cradled on their laps, just steps from Mornay camp. One held a whip. Others herded hundreds of sheep, cattle and camels, smiling and waving as visitors passed. Aid workers and the displaced people in the camp said the animals were stolen.

Rapes and attacks continue around the edges of the camp every night, women there said, as they rocked sickly babies with hollow eyes. Each week in Mornay, at least five women and girls as young as 12 have been raped when they left the camp, according to a report by Doctors Without Borders. The real number is thought to be far higher because many women are reluctant to report attacks.
Stalked by Disease

With her 8-month-old malnourished twins at her breasts, Khadija Mohammed, 32, did not know how to help her children. Habiba was crying, and Hussein was passed out, unable to drink her milk. He has malaria, fevers at night, diarrhea and vomiting, his medical chart shows. His weight is half what it should be.

Mohammed came to the Mornay camp six months ago from her village in Ber Medina, 3 miles south. Her 6-year-old son and two brothers were killed.

“The nomads said, ‘Lie down on the ground.’ One pointed his gun toward me. Then he aimed his gun up and started firing,” she said.

Her 5-year-old daughter, Arfe, who has a halo of curly braids, was hit in the buttocks but survived. “Now she sometimes gets fever, she sometimes gets headaches. She has trouble walking,” her mother said.

Arfe tried to help her mother with the twins and struggled to help lift Habiba. Her mother shook her head no and lifted her daughter’s frayed yellow dress to show nine stitches, a scar and a bullet lodged in Arfe’s right buttock.

“We are hungry here,” she said. “But where else can we go? I am afraid.”

Others in the camp also said they would not leave. Mohammed Ishaq, the father of tiny Zohar, said he couldn’t leave even if he wanted to, because his son is too ill to be moved.

“I am very much afraid for my son,” he whispered, looking at his child’s hand, each tiny finger clinging to his. “I can’t love him. He is too sick.”

In the noon heat, Sandrine Normand, an exhausted-looking physician with Doctors Without Borders, ran her hand over Zohar’s mother’s back. She then took the pink cup from her hands and gently, drop by drop, tried to make the baby swallow the water.

There will be many funerals here soon, Normand said, crouching down to sit with Zohar’s parents.

Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for forwarding this article. –BL

Leave a comment