Shortage of Relief in Darfur

A court in Sudan recently sentenced nine Darfur rebels to death. The rebels had taken part in an attack on Sudan's capital Khartoum last year. A total of 91 rebels have been ordered hanged for the offensive. Darfur has been plagued political and ethnic violence for the past six years. In March, Sudan's government expelled over a dozen international aid agencies from the region. The move was seen as retaliation after the international criminal court in the Hague issued an arrest warrant accusing Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir of war crimes. United Nations Humanitarian Chief John Holmes traveled to Darfur this month to see how the region is faring with limited humanitarian aid. He joins us from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

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MARCO WERMAN: Mr. Holmes, what did you find in Darfur and what has been filling the gap for the displaced international aid groups?

JOHN HOLMES: The worst gaps have been plugged by the efforts of the government, by efforts of the U.N. agencies, by the efforts of the NGOs who are left and, therefore, although there is still a very serious humanitarian crisis in Darfur as the background, we're not at least in the immediate future facing any new crisis because of the expulsion of these NGOs. We should never have had to do this. I mean, the government should never have expelled these NOGs. There was no reason to do it. It wasn't a logical response to the International Criminal Court decision.

WERMAN: I mean, the fact that you're saying the crisis seems to have been alleviated without these thirteen international aid groups, so it would seem to indicate that there's kind of a substantive change in Khartoum and their approach and attitude toward Darfur, is that right?

HOLMES: What there has been in the last two and a half months since that expulsion is that the first month was extremely difficult? The emotions were high on all sides. The way they did the expulsions was very brutal and unnecessary and there were a lot of accusations from the government that NGOs were thieves or spies or useless or whatever. The situation has calmed down a lot since then. The government made clear while I was there that whatever they may have done in terms of expulsions, they do welcome NGOs on the ground, they do recognize the value they provide in help people. They welcome the existing NGOs. They will welcome new NGOs and they even said more or less clearly that NGOs who wanted to come with new names and new logos--in other words, some of the ones that are expelled--they will be able to come back, too. So, they have adopted a much more pragmatic attitude and that's welcome insofar as it goes. But what we need to see is a genuinely helpful attitude towards the humanitarian community, and that we are still waiting to see whether it actually happens in practice. But beyond that, of course, what we need to see as soon as possible is some kind of proper peace settlement in Darfur. We don't want to go on providing humanitarian aid to two-thirds of the population; four and a half million people or slightly more, for another five years. We want to see the situation resolved so we can stop doing that. And there's money. It's a billion dollars a year that can be used in more productive ways to develop the area, for example.

WERMAN: Do you think the International Aid Groups will be permitted to return to Darfur any time soon, and will they be sporting new logos and new names?

HOLMES: I think some will take advantage of that possibility. Certainly, some of them are discussing that with the government at the moment. I think the offer is open to all of them if they want to take it. Some may not wish to do so, because their experiences were so bad particularly during the expulsion.

WERMAN: Now, Darfur isn't the only crisis you're cooking with these days. The exodus from Pakistan to Northwestern Swat Valley is of great concern and high on the U.N. agenda at the moment. The total displaced has now risen to more than 1.4 million which is a pretty astonishing number, but it seems to be the price that has to be paid in Pakistan to deal with the Taliban. What sort of time line is the U.N. using for the crisis in Swat?

HOLMES: If you add the previous caseload of people who fled fighting from other areas in that Northwest Frontier area, you reach well over two million, and that figure is still rising and that's a huge number of people. We are trying to help them as much as we can. We will be launching an appeal for several hundred million dollars later this week to do that. It was very welcomed that the American Administration announced yesterday, I think, that they would provide $110 million towards that. That's extremely welcome. But we have to plan on the fact that although we hope that people will be able to return quickly, as soon as the military operations are over, the military operations might spread elsewhere. Therefore, we have to plan on one and a half million, two million displaced people for the rest of this year.

WERMAN: John Holmes is the Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs with the United Nations. He is also the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator. He joined us from the United Nations.

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