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Darfur refugees in Chad (file photo) (AFP)
The humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan's Darfur province -- one of the world's most pressing refugee crises -- is deepening and spreading across the border to Chad. But the UN Security Council, which is discussing the issue this week, remains deadlocked over what to do.
PRAGUE, 28 February 2006 (RFE/RL) – International humanitarian organizations are warning that the three-year-old crisis in Darfur is worsening and could turn into an enormous humanitarian catastrophe unless UN Security Council members, meeting in New York this week, take action soon.
At least 180,000 people have died in Darfur and some 2 million others have been displaced since tribal clashes over land and water erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003.
The Sudanese government is accused of using ethnic Arab militias known as the Janjaweed in a proxy war against Darfur's local population, in a policy that former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once described as "genocide."
The Janjaweed are accused of burning villages, killing thousands of civilians, and carrying out mass rapes of women. Khartoum denies any link to the militia.
Deceptive Calm Broken
For a while, the situation in Darfur appeared to stabilize, especially after the African Union dispatched peacekeeping troops to the region and the international community began providing large-scale food aid.
But reports from the region say fighting has picked up, sending new waves of refugees into neighboring Chad. The conflict threatens to engulf parts of that country as well.
Several members of the UN Security Council, led by the United States and Britain, have been discussing possible sanctions against the Sudanese government this week as well as creating an international peacekeeping force to supplement the 7,000 African Union forces on the ground in the region.
But with China, Russia and nonpermanent Security Council member Qatar opposed, the talks appear deadlocked.
RFE/RL spoke to Ton Berg, in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, about the situation on the ground in Darfur. Berg is the in-country coordinator for Oxfam, a leading international nongovernmental aid organization.
Berg says that although there are about 2 million refugees from the Darfur conflict, many more locals now depend on international aid to survive.
"We estimate that in Darfur some 3.5 million people are dependent on aid because some of the people who haven't fled are also depending on aid, because they haven't been able to plant or to harvest because of the insecurity," she says. "So, everyone who is displaced is dependent on aid but a lot more people in the Darfur region are dependent on the international community for food and other services."
Refugee Children Face Bleak Future
Berg says most refugees from Darfur, who used to farm large areas, have spent the past three years in camps where they are surviving with just the bare necessities and little more than plastic sheeting for shelter. Their children are not being educated and face a bleak future, if the crisis continues much longer.
"You can't really call them houses or tents," Berg says. "They're really more [like] little shelters with the very limited remains that people still have. Some people fled before their villages were attacked, so they could take some of their belongings. Some people fled after their villages were set on fire, so they left with nothing. The only things they have are jerry cans and some utensils that have been distributed by the NGOs. So, especially, if you look at children and I'm looking, for example, at teenagers -- they have nothing to do in those camps. There's very limited education, only for small children. So the teenagers have absolutely nothing to do."
Although Berg praises the work of African Union troops in the region, she says they face an impossible task unless they are reinforced by thousands more UN forces.
"Don't forget, we're talking about an area that's as big as France. And we're talking about some 7,000 troops," she says. "So it's extremely difficult, if there's no peace agreement, or if the warring factions don't keep to the [existing] peace agreements, to really control such an enormous, vast area with a mandate that is concentrated on protection and not on an active military engagement."
Any international force, even if it ends up being approved by the Security Council, will have to win the endorsement of the Sudanese government. So far, Khartoum has indicated it would be opposed to non-African soldiers in the country. For the time being, it appears Darfur's refugees are no closer to returning home.