Darfur's children deserve our protection
|The Observer , 16 Avril 2006|
'We send our grandmothers to collect the firewood. We know they will be beaten. But we have no choice; if we send our men, they will kill them. If we send our women or our girls, they will rape them.' I could see the bitterness and despair on the young woman's face as she described the cruel choice that her family is forced to make every day. We were standing in Abu Shouk displaced persons' camp in Darfur, Sudan, in front of the flimsy tent that she called home.
She explained how her community faces attack from the mounted Janjaweed militia, the same people who had driven her from her village two years ago: 'First, the planes came, then the men on horseback. They shot at us and burnt our huts. We had no choice but to run.'
Later that day, I spoke to newcomers to the compound, who had been forced from their land in just the last few days. They described how they packed their meagre belongings on to donkeys and trekked for 19 days to reach the camp. As we approached their row of huts, the people rushed to greet us, eager to tell us their stories. The villagers were clear: the Janjaweed that forced them from their land had been armed, abetted and encouraged by their own government. One man described the terror of an air attack, a frequent occurrence over the last three years: 'First, we heard the aeroplanes coming. Then, we saw them flying low overhead. They dropped bombs. We knew it was time to flee.' While the world watches, weeps and dithers, ethnic cleansing is continuing.
This was the first time I had been to a refugee camp. I heard tales of suffering and saw scenes of poverty and degradation that I will never forget. Even in this bleak situation, people seemed able to maintain some basic human dignity. I was amazed that among such squalor and deprivation, people could still smile, children still play and families still live in a reasonably orderly and decent way.
But Darfur is tragedy on a vast scale. Aid agencies estimate that between 180,000 and 300,000 have died in the region and more than 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes. Some 200,000 refugees are estimated to have fled westward into neighbouring Chad, while the majority remain trapped in camps in Darfur.
In the context of such suffering, and the blatant and immediate need for humanitarian help on a massive scale, the decision by the government of Sudan to bar UN relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland from Darfur is as perverse as it is deplorable. It is not, however, atypical. The government appears to pursue a systematic policy of making life difficult for the NGOs and international organisations working to help the people of Darfur. Visa applications for humanitarian workers take weeks to process. Access to essential fuel is limited. Movement between regions is impeded. The obstruction and harassment is subtle but insidious and seriously affects the ability of the aid agencies to do their job.
Before travelling to Darfur, I had sometimes wondered how much of the money we donate to charity here in the UK actually gets through to people on the ground. But I left Darfur with a deep sense of pride in our aid agencies and enormous admiration for their staff. Abu Shouk could easily be a breeding ground for cholera, typhoid and other killer diseases.
The reason it is not is because of the excellent work of Oxfam in providing clean water and sanitation for the 50,000 people in the camp. Life for an aid worker in Darfur is not easy. As well as government harassment, they face simple daily deprivations: limited contact with home, spartan accommodation, no social life, no alcohol, an 8pm curfew every night. They are dedicated, talented individuals who are saving countless lives.
With the exception of these brave individuals, the world's response to the crisis in Darfur has been feeble. International attempts to stop the government in Khartoum from killing its own people have been thwarted by other countries more interested in pursuing their economic or political advantage than in promoting human rights. Sudan's status as an Islamic government, oil exporter and a significant importer of arms has proven to be a successful deterrent against any united international action.
The deployment of the African Union force in 2004 left the task of protecting the civilians of a region the size of France to 7,000 peacekeepers who are seriously underequipped and overstretched and who lack the mandate to do anything other than monitor the country's tenuous ceasefire. So the people of Darfur have been caught in limbo between warring factions not interested in peace, a government wishing to ward off foreign involvement and an international community hoping for the best.
The people I spoke to in the camps will not return to their homes until the arrival of an international force with the mandate, capacity and political will to keep the peace. The only practical way to guarantee this is through the UN. The African Union has made a reasonable start, but it lacks expertise and experience.
It should be transformed as soon as possible into a UN-led operation with a beefed-up Chapter Six mandate, backed by extensive logistical help, including air support as necessary, from Nato.
Further, we must not allow the government in Khartoum to operate in a culture of impunity. Asset and travel sanctions against individuals responsible for planning and assisting ethnic cleansing in Darfur should be robustly applied. And we should insist on Sudan's co-operation with the special investigations of the International Criminal Court in Darfur in accordance with UN resolution 1593.
If the responsibility to protect so enthusiastically embraced by the international community last year is to mean anything, we must take action in Darfur. Ethnic cleansing is happening before the eyes of the international community. At the main airport used by AU forces, we saw Sudanese government helicopters that, we were told, were being used in attacks. In future years, when we look back at the terrible crimes that were committed in Darfur, we may be able to find excuses and explanations for failing to take action, but we will certainly not be able to plead ignorance.
• William Hague is shadow foreign secretary