Silent witnesses: 20 million civilians lost to the world

The innocent are the first casualties of war. Yesterday the UN admitted that it is powerless to help, reports Declan Walsh

16 June 2004 | The Independent

There are three actors in every Third World conflict. Each is armed with a weapon of survival. The soldier, usually unpaid and dressed in rags, has his gun. The politician, who stands behind him, has his voice. The civilian – who endures the brunt of misery, illness and death – has only her legs. They are only good for running. In most cases they are not fast enough.

Scruple-free governments, rag-tag rebel groups and other predators of conflict put the lives of more than 20 million people at risk, the chief of United Nations humanitarian operations, Jan Egeland, said in New York yesterday. UN and aid agencies were unable to deliver “the basic means of survival” to those that needed it most as a result of obstacles ranging from petty bureaucracy to callous obstructionism, to the outright menace of violence. “For every politician, aid is something to be twisted to their advantage,” one aid worker said yesterday.


At risk: 2 million people

The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the western region of Darfur, partly due to obstruction tactics by a government that Human Rights Watch dubs “The killers of Khartoum.” For months aid agencies were forbidden from entering large parts of Darfur, where the Janjaweed, a horseback Arab militia, was burning hundreds of villages to the ground as part of a vicious ethnic cleansing. More than one million people were forced from their homes; at the latest count 160,000 had crossed into Chad.

The tactic of blocking aid workers’ access is nothing new to Khartoum: for more than two decades it has used aid as a weapon in its war against southern rebels. In recent weeks intense international pressure has forced Khartoum to open access to Darfur by issuing visas to humanitarian workers within 48 hours, but huge problems remain. Up to 30 per cent of the region remained inaccessible, said one UN official, and a raft of new rules – such as requiring aid to be distributed through local organisations – were slowing the relief effort.

Some ministers were willing to help but their subordinates were “sabotaging” the aid efforts, Mr Egeland said in New York yesterday. The lack of access had already caused some deaths, and “many, many more” would follow if urgently-needed water and sanitation equipment could not be delivered soon, he warned.

Soon the travel papers might be useless: seasonal rains would soon flood Darfur, make roads impassable and trapping hundreds of thousandsin squalid camps. Up to two million lives were at risk, Mr Egeland said.

Darfur’s rebels have also caused costly delays. Two weeks ago the Sudan Liberation Army detained 16 aid workers for unknown reasons, interrupting efforts for desperately needy civilians. The aid workers were released unharmed after four days.


At risk: 1 million people

It is not unusual for children to freeze to death in Afghanistan, because their parents cannot afford a blanket. Savagely cold winters make poverty all the more dangerous.

Few countries are in such dire need of international aid. Many of the poorest Afghans live on nothing but bread and weak tea, year round. Shoes for children are a luxury, schoolbooks unimaginable wealth for many.

Yet the aid the US and its allies promised in return for Afghan help to overthrow the Taliban never materialised. This time, Tony Blair promised, the world would not forget Afghanistan, but in all the excitement over the Iraq, Afghanistan was forgotten again.

There is need everywhere in Afghanistan except, perhaps, Kabul. The greatest need is in the most remote areas, across the world’s most impenetrable mountains. The country was a nightmare to travel around at the best of times: its roads, rocky tracks that cling precariously to the ridges of mountains, a danger in themselves.

There are, however, much worse dangers for international aid agencies now, as the security situation, tenuous at best after the fall of the Taliban, collapses, in large part because the resources so desperately needed in Afghanistan have been diverted to Iraq.

The resurgent Taliban and al- Qa’ida are targeting international aid workers on the lawless roads. Even M?decins sans Fronti?res, whose volunteer doctors kept going to Afghanistan through some of its darkest years, have had to pull out in the after a threat was made against them.

The danger used to be just the Pashtun heartlands to the south and east, where support for the Taliban never failed, but now it is spreading. There has been an ambush in the Pashtun enclave of Kunduz in the north, and there have been killings inside Kabul.


At risk: 2.2 million people

Gunmen have held sway in this Texas-sized country since General Francois Bozize seized power in a coup a year ago. Only the capital, Bangui, is relatively safe for aid workers; the countryside is crawling with mercenaries and rebels from neighbouring Chad.

Last year they helped Gen Bozize to power. This year they are looting, raping and plundering civilians. The fighters refuse to be disarmed until compensation is settled: they are demanding $1,800 (?980) each for their services for toppling the former government; Gen Bozize is offering $250.

The row has resulted in two million civilians being held hostage. Farms have been abandoned, and planting seasons missed, as an estimated 300,000 people fled their homes. Another 40,000 have fled north into Chad as refugees.

International apathy is also a culprit in the CAR, one of Africa’s most ignored countries: as of mid-March, the latest UN appeal for $16.8 million in emergency funds had raised $700,000.


At risk: 3 million people

Some 5 million of Nepal’s 26 million population are at risk in the brutal low-level conflict being waged between the government and a Maoist insurgency. Kathmandu has created local civilian militias – known as rural volunteer security groups and peace committees – in what risks becoming an alarming escalation of the conflict.

Civilian militias are developing into an untrained, unaccountable and undisciplined force that worsens a conflict that has already taken almost 9,000 lives.

Although the government has denied that it has already started distributing weapons, there is evidence that it is going ahead, with serious long-term consequences for the population caught in the middle.


At risk: 1.2 million people

M?decins sans Fronti?res is one of the few relief organisations still working in Russia’s northern Caucasus region to help the 1.2 civilians displaced or otherwise at risk from the brutal conflict in Chechnya.

However, it had to suspend humanitarian activities in Dagestan and considerably limit operations in Chechnya and Ingushetia after the kidnapping of a Dutch worker, Arjan Erkel, who was held hostage for 20 months before being released for a ransom last April.

Kidnappings are rife in the region, which has been torn by war almost continually since 1994: Unicef suspended operations in 2002 following the abductions of two aid workers. Russia, which is still heavily engaged in the military struggle against the Chechen separatists, has been accused of placing bureaucratic obstacles in the way of the humanitarian effort.


At risk: 1.6 million people

Incredibly, a vast swathe of northern Uganda is hostage to the Lord’s Resistance (LRA), a small but brutal rebel group. Led by the enigmatic Joseph Kony, the LRA claims it is on a mission from God to save Uganda. Yet his army has visited a virtual plague on the local population. A total estimated at 1.6 million have been displaced from their homes and forced into squalid, highly dangerous refugee camps.

Last week the LRA attacked yet another camp, the fourth in as many weeks. At least 35 people were killed. “Many people were hacked to death, while others were burnt in their huts,” said a local Catholic priest, Father Joseph Garnar.

Aid agencies travel to the remote bush camps only with an army escort. Even then, security is not guaranteed, and some food convoys have been attacked.

The LRA has abducted about 10,000 teenage boys and girls in the past three years, brainwashing and beating them into becoming the next generation of fighters. To avoid this fate, thousands of youngsters flood into the main town every night, where they sleep in aid agency shelters, or on the streets.

Many local people blame President Yoweri Museveni’s government for failing to find a peaceful solution to the LRA war. Mr Museveni has repeatedly stated his determination to quell the rebellion by military means.


At risk: 3.5 million people

United Nations containers packed with flour or wheat destined for Palestinian refugees have been delayed for as long as six weeks at Israel’s Ashdod port before they have been allowed to be delivered to the Gaza Strip. Other relief supplies may be held up for four hours at checkpoints in the West Bank.

For the UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides food aid to about one million of its 1.5 million Palestinian charges, Ashdod is the only available port. “Our biggest challenge” said Paul McCann, the UNRWA spokesman, “is getting the food into the occupied territories and moving it around once it’s there. Often we have thousands of tonnes sitting in Ashdod because of security restrictions.”

The UN also complains that Israel refused to allow its workers into refugee camps during extended military offensives, such as last month’s Operation Rainbow in Rafah on the Egyptian border. “We didn’t get people into Rafah for five or six days,” Mr McCann said. “We couldn’t get assistance in. There was a shortage of water; food was rotting because the electricity was cut off. We couldn’t get emergency cases, like diabetics, to our clinics. In Jenin two years ago we did not get in for two weeks.”

Most of UNRWA’s 60 international staff and all of its 12,000 Palestinian employees are restricted in their movements between Gaza and the West Bank. All UN vehicles leaving Gaza are checked by sniffer dogs, unless one of the passengers carries a diplomatic passport. Very few do.

Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli military spokesman, said: “We appreciate UNRWA’s work. We try to facilitate them in doing their job. But because the terrorists are finding it harder to hit targets inside Israel, they have tried to use cargoes and vehicles of humanitarian organisations to move people and explosives. We have to check everything very carefully.”


At risk: 500,000 people

Relatively few aid workers risk going to Somalia, which is possibly the world’s most lawless country. There has been no central government since 1991. The only rulers are gangster-like warlords, who have carved the country into a patchwork of rival areas. It is a chaotic, perilous environment that is becoming ever more hazardous for aid workers. Last month the capital, Mogadishu, was gripped by days of street battles that claimed more than 50 lives.

Other, more sinister forces may also be threatening humanitarian relief. Five foreign aid workers have been assassinated in the northern breakaway republic of Somaliland in recent months. The circumstances remain unclear, but extremist Islamic terrorists are suspected.

Last month aid workers pulled out of Dinsor, a southern town, after a freshly laid land mine was discovered on the local airstrip. UN officials said the sophistication of the device suggested it had been planted by al-Qa’ida or its local sympathisers.

The escalating security risks have forced most international aid workers out of Somalia. UN bosses must seek security clearance from New York for every trip to the capital, Mogadishu. They are often refused.

Further reporting by Anne Penketh, Eric Silver and Justin Huggler

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