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Darfur: On the Brink

Aired October 7, 2006 - 12:30:00   ET


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Welcome to a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA. I'm Jeff Koinange in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. This week, we tackle some of the challenges facing the United Nations, the African Union and aid workers in Africa's largest country.
But first, we want to take you on the road to what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis -- Darfur.


KOINANGE (voice-over): North Darfur. It's been two years since I've been here, and it's worse now, a lot worse. A daily nightmare here for the tens of thousands of displaced people leaving in camps like Abu Shouk, just outside the town of El Fasher. Lives wrecked by a civil war raging for the better part of three years between government troops and rebel forces for control of the country's rich oil wealth.

25-year old Maka Osman (ph) recently became a statistic: One of tens of thousands of women raped by bandits as she ventured out to look for firewood outside this camp. Now, she's determined to fight back in the only way she can -- building a wall of mud to protect herself and her shack, made of sticks and plastic paper.

"Being here is like a punishment. Life is a punishment," is all she can say.

Aid agencies say half these women will be raped while here. Their biggest fear, they tell me, is the Arab militia known locally as the Janjaweed, which has been raping, looting, pillaging and destroying for three years.

The government denies it, but human rights groups charge that Sudan sponsors the Janjaweed to maintain its control of the nation's oil money.

(on camera): You are saying Janjaweed also here?

All the people -- you're saying all the people are hungry.

(voice-over): The last time these people were given food aid was a month, and the supplies have nearly run out. The local clinic here can hardly begin to address the growing malnutrition here.

He says, "I'm tired, I'm tired. We need more doctors here."

Chris Czerwinski is head of the World Food program in north Darfur, which helps feed more than 2.5 million people here every month.

CHRIS CZERWINSKI, WORLD FOOD PROGRAM, DARFUR: Well, it's as if everything is being taken away from you. You have no more home, you have no more land, you are abandoned here amongst all these other people that are in the same conditions. It's not very clean, it's hot, it's full of sand, and they can't be independent anymore.

KOINANGE: And that's just how Suleiman Kharoum Mohammed (ph) feels, helpless, hopeless and abandoned. There won't be another food delivery here for several weeks. All his wife can do is pound the last of the grain to feed her family of 11.

The world is suddenly beginning to pay more attention to this tiny corner of Africa's largest nation. But there's been no impact yet. For now, we're just seeing more disease, malnutrition and death.


KOINANGE: One of main problems is getting food and life-saving medicines to the more than 2 million people displaced. And sometimes, when the will is there, Mother Nature represents a problem. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta is in neighboring Chad. He traveled with an aid convoy trying to get supplies to tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees, who have sought refuge in camps there.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Providing aid to refugees along the war-torn Darfur border sometimes means just getting there. That is often much more difficult than it seems, with crossed fingers landing under runways.

As far as I can tell, this is a place civilization has forgotten. On this day, the transnational highway -- yes, this is the best road in Chad - - is suddenly flooded.

It is the rainy season here in Chad, and you can see rivers like this literally popping up out of nowhere, making it very difficult for cars to pass along this road. This is supposed to be a road right here.

Two things happen. One, it is difficult to get supplies into the refugee camps, but it also cuts down some of the violence, since the Janjaweed can't get to the refugees.

Today, we think we can make it across and continue to the Gaga camp on the Sudan border. We can't. Bad idea.

LAURA PEREZ, UNICEF, EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER: During five months of the year here in Chad, there is a rainy season, which means that all the wadis and the rivers get filled with water. It makes it very difficult for us to cross those rivers, and get our supplies to the refugee camps, and to the IVP (ph).

GUPTA: As the UNICEF trucks we're in start to sink, we struggle to stay afloat, climbing higher and higher.

(on camera): It is often very difficult to get to some of these refugee camps. Case in point, I'm standing on top of a car, on a car that has now been stuck in the riverbed. We have to cross over this, what used to be a road, to actually get to some of eastern Chad's most populated refugee camps.

(voice-over): And here is a clear example of the real daily challenges that aid organizations face. Just getting across the road proves impossible. Finally, we give up.

Without a clear idea of just how deep the water is, we wade across. It's only chest-deep today, but the rainy season is still upon us. As water gets high, the refugee camp supplies get low, cut off. Providing aid in a war-torn area sometimes means just getting there.

PEREZ: If we don't preposition materials ahead of that rainy season, materials such as vaccination, then medical equipment and food, it's very hard for us to have access to the population that lives on the other side of the river.

GUPTA: Today, we don't even accomplish that.

(on camera): And eventually, we all ended up walking across that river. These rivers, or wadis, can literally spring up out of nowhere, and it's worth pointing out that while the rainy season is still upon us, it is only going to be here for a couple more weeks.

Now, many of the refugees that we talked to are worried. They're happy that the supplies are going to be getting in, but they're worried that the rebels might start coming in as well. That's a concerning fact.

Also, the types of supplies that we're talking about are things like water, obviously, but not just water; also purification tablets and supplies to sanitize the water. Food, but also things like oral re- hydration solves, tarps, latrines, and, of course, medicines. It's worth pointing out that many of these supplies, for example, with UNICEF, come from as far away as Copenhagen. You can get an idea just how hard it is to get those supplies from one location simply to another.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN.


KOINANGE: When we come back, a closer look at what the rest of the world is doing or not doing to help the people of Darfur. Stay with us.


KOINANGE: According to the scientific journal "Science," at least 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur, and millions of others have been forced to flee their homes. Longstanding tensions between various groups in the Sudan erupted into a full-blown conflict in 2003. That's when black African rebel groups rebelled against the government for favoring the Arab population in Sudan.

Humanitarian organizations and others say the violence is getting worse. They accuse the Sudanese government of launching a major military offensive, including the aerial bombardments, of civilians.

This week, the Sudanese government warned that any nation pledging U.N. troops for Darfur was committing a hostile act, and that it would consider it a prelude to an invasion.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: If the Sudanese government chooses confrontation, if it continues waging war against its own citizens, challenging the African Union, undermining the peacekeeping force and threatening the international community, then the regime in Khartoum will be held responsible. And it alone will bear the consequences of its actions.


KOINANGE: Welcome back to "Darfur on the Brink," a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA.

Now, that was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking earlier this week, and frantically urging the Sudanese government to allow U.N. forces into Darfur. Rice emphasized that African Union troops are far too weak to secure Darfur and Sudan.

I discovered that for myself, while joining them on patrol earlier this week.


KOINANGE (voice-over): These are the men trying to stand in the way of genocide. We tagged along with this battalion of the African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, to see what chance they have of succeeding. Their assignment on this day is to travel 50 miles to the town of Tawila, the scene of a recent attack that forced nearly 15,000 villagers to flee their homes. It was a journey these peacekeepers could not complete.

Along the way, the patrol takes a routine stop for information. Just as they're moving out, their commander's radio crackles with the message from headquarters.

(on camera): Halfway on the road to Tawila, we've just been informed that there's some rebel activity not too far from where we are, and that we have to turn around immediately and head back towards El Fasher.

(voice-over): Four weeks ago, this battalion lost nearly a dozen men in a gun battle with anti-government rebels, who stole their vehicles and weapons. They're not about to take chances on this day.

We return to base, and these men are tired, frustrated, their morale low. Their new force commander is only days into his new job, but this peacekeeping veteran of wars as far away as Kosovo, Liberia and Congo, will be the first to tell you his mandate here is a mission impossible.

MAJ. GEN. LUKE APREZI, AU FORCE COMMANDER: Simply put, the force has inadequate, gross inadequacy in men and materiel. We cannot carry out simple peacekeeping duties. We cannot provide an enabling environment for humanitarian services to do their work.

KOINANGE (on camera): If you had a wish list, if someone said here, General, what do you need to carry your mission, what would it be?

APREZI: I need at least twice the number of troops I have on the ground, and I have need adequate logistics and air assets to be able to carry out the duties, as for me to carry out demanded and given to me.

KOINANGE (voice-over): But the battalion is back on patrol, despite their lack of resources and manpower, heading to this makeshift city of plastic tents, population 43,000 internally displaced people -- a polite term for refugees in their own country.

People like 47-year-old farmer Abubakar Ahmed Abdallah, who recently fled fighting in his village 50 miles away with his wife and 12 children, now trying to make a living selling fruit with protection from these African Union peacekeepers.

"I'm alive because of these peacekeepers," he says, "God bless them."

But these peacekeepers didn't reach Tawila, and they don't achieve peace here. There just aren't enough of them, and they don't have enough firepower to protect even themselves from the warring factions here. So, these are the men trying to stand in the way of genocide. They don't stand a chance.


KOINANGE: The United Nations special representative to Sudan says African Union troops should be given the chance and the assistance to do the job. I sat down with Jan Pronk earlier this week, and he says there is no time to waste and no time to wait for U.N. troops.


KOINANGE: Ambassador Pronk, first of all, thank you so much for agreeing to speak to CNN. Sir, you've been quoted as saying that the world should stop clamoring about a United Nations peacekeeping force coming to Darfur, and should concentrate on the African Union peacekeeping force. Could you please tell us about that?

JAN PRONK, U.N. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE: We have to keep pressure on the government to accept the invitation. We need to strengthen the present force of the African Union. They don't have the money, not enough, to pay for the fuel which they need desperately in order to go around with their equipment, in order to protect the people.

Now, that is urgent today, because today there are attacks on people, and a U.N. force can only come after a couple of months. So I need much more attention for the needs of today, including also attention on the implementation of the peace agreements, which was a beautiful agreement, but it's dead now or nearly dead, because the parties are not living up to their own agreement.

KOINANGE: The Sudanese government says that this -- the situation that's happening right now in Darfur is a ploy by the West to take over this country, an Islamic country.

PRONK: Their line of reasoning is absurd. The plight of the people in Darfur is the making of the Sudanese. People have been forgotten, neglected, marginalized. Then you get an insurrection, you get a rebel movement, you get a civil war.

They're afraid here, definitely. They're afraid, and the international community also should understand that, that Sudan is going to be a kind of an Iraq. And I understand that fear, but they should understand, here, in Khartoum, that that is not the intention of the Western countries at all.

KOINANGE: You talk about too little, too late. Can Darfur be salvaged now, Ambassador?

PRONK: For many people, it is too late. They cannot be salvaged anymore. But -- because they have been killed, they have been raped. Atrocities are taking place, and we should be putting end to the impunity which is dominating in this part of the -- of the country.

But it is possible, anyway, to make peace. So you need a parallel approach. Robust international force to keep the peace, political talks in order not only to make peace, but also to address the root causes of the problem.

KOINANGE: I'm going to ask you this one more time, the window of opportunity. Obviously, it's fast closing. How soon -- what -- what can you tell the world -- if it's not done by X amount of time, then forget about the whole thing?

PRONK: We go for (inaudible) meeting, and I think we now are five minutes before midnight. The coming three months are crucial. Deadline after deadline. You know, this is the last one. We need interjection of a U.N. force, I would say on the 1st of January.

If not, then I don't see much of a perspective. So, everybody has to work together in order to -- to help these people.


KOINANGE: U.N. special envoy Jan Pronk speaking to me earlier this week.

You're watching a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA. Coming up after the break, while much of the world talks the talk, few here are willing to walk the walk. We'll take a close-up look at aid workers in Darfur.


KOINANGE: Welcome back. You're watching a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA, "Darfur on the Brink".

Now, aid workers have come under increasing attacks in Darfur. They've had their vehicles stolen, their drivers kidnapped and even killed. Still, they press on. We visited the refugee camp of Abu Shouk, right outside the town of El Fasher in north Darfur, housing some 54,000 people, to get a first-hand look.


KOINANGE (voice-over): They have come from comfortable surroundings far away, at enormous risk to themselves. Anne Cecile Mellet and Balginder Heer are part of a fast disappearing breed in this region: Foreign aid workers.

ANNE CECILE MELLET, ACTION AGAINST HUNGER: No, no problem (inaudible). Just we have to continue the treatment.

KOINANGE: Six months ago, Mellet was a pediatric nurse making the rounds in one of Paris' leading hospitals, when she was offered an overseas assignment. She said yes even before she learned her destination would be Darfur.

MELLET: From my side, it was at the beginning to all my life change completely.

KOINANGE: In her native French, she comforts a young malnourished girl named Yasmina (ph). "Don't worry," she tells Yasmina and her mother, "it won't hurt."

Yasmina is 13 months old, and weighs just 15 pounds. That's what six months old babies should weigh. What Yasmina really needs is an intravenous drip to build her up. The best they've got here is some high- protein milk and an old plastic cup.

And then there is the constant danger lurking both within and outside these refugee camps.

(on camera): Here is an interesting statistic for you. Ever since a peace deal was signed five months ago, 12 aid workers have been killed, all of them Sudanese nationals. That's more aid workers than in the entire history of this conflict. The foreigners, too, are feeling vulnerable that they could very well be next.

(voice-over): 31-year old Balginder Heer was a researcher into tropical children's diseases for nearly a decade in London. She wanted to put her research into practice, and she chose to do it here. Her parents tried to talk her out of it.

BALGINDER HEER, ACTION AGAINST HUNGER: (inaudible) this is a conflict zone. It is dangerous. It's not as bad as people may imagine. It can be just as dangerous, if not worse, in some of the big major capitals around the world, like New York or London.

KOINANGE: She is also constantly aware that women here face an unusually great risk of being raped. She spends her nights in a protected compound a 20-minute drive away.

HEER: Of course, when you hear about instances like this, it sends huge shockwaves through the NGO and the U.N. agency communities. Very traumatic, and it has huge impacts and direct impacts on the work that we do and how people feel here.

KOINANGE: Both admit what they do out here in the middle of nowhere in Africa is not suitable to everyone.

MELLET: We have nothing, no -- no tools. We have nothing to -- to work with them, so with what we have, we try to do our best.

HEER: Sometimes, it can be very hard, especially when you lose a child. It can be very, very difficult.

KOINANGE: There are more than 14,000 aid workers in Darfur alone, and only 1,000 of them are foreigners. The risks are huge; so are the rewards.


KOINANGE: That's our show for this week -- "Darfur on the Brink."

I'm Jeff Koinange, at the Abu Shouk refugee camp in north Darfur. Thanks for joining us. The news continues in just a moment.



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