WASHINGTON - Sudan's government is seeking to dismantle displaced person camps in Darfur that house thousands of people ahead of the arrival of a joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, according to a Darfuri physician and human rights advocate honoured here this week by the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Memorial Centre for Human Rights.
"Protecting civilians is key to solving the situation in Darfur," said Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Abdallah, who directs the Amel Centre for the Treatment & Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, Darfur's leading local human rights organisation, and also serves on the faculty of medicine at al-Fashir University.
Established in 1983, the RFK Human Rights Award recognises an individual each year "whose courageous activism is at the heart of the human rights movement and in the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy's vision and legacy."
Ahmed has coordinated efforts at multiple locations of the Amel Centre to treat torture victims in Darfur's violent conflict, which erupted in 2003 after rebels from Darfur's ethnic African majority initiated a revolt against Sudan's predominantly Arab government. Since then, over 200,000 people have been killed in clashes between rebels, government forces, and the roaming, armed militias known as janjaweed.
An estimated 2.5 million people have also been driven from their homes. Oftentimes they end up in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where basic services are made available by humanitarian groups.
In late October, however, the United Nations reported that the Sudanese government was forcibly evicting hundreds of families from the Otash camp, home to over 60,000 displaced persons, near the south Darfur capital of Nyala.
U.N. officials denounced the situation, which some rights groups have called a violation of international law.
"While the United Nations notes the [Sudanese] government's concern about the security situation in the camps, it is imperative that any relocation be wholly voluntary, in agreement with the internally displaced," said John Holmes, under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
"Given that security forces were threatening the displaced with sticks and rubber hoses at Otash camp, the involuntary nature of this relocation is clear, and contrary to agreements with the government," Holmes said in a statement late last month, referring to a "memorandum of understanding" signed in 2004 by the government of Sudan, the United Nations and the International Organisation on Migration.
Khartoum's efforts to disperse the IDP camps date back to 2004, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). In November of that year, the government attempted to forcibly relocate residents of Kalma camp, the largest IDP camp in the Nyala area and home to 90,000 people.
When residents refused to leave, Khartoum exerted pressure on the population as well as on humanitarian groups, and in May 2005 it banned all commercial activity in the Kalma camp, including the import of goods from nearby Nyala, HRW reported.
Khartoum claims that its reasons for targeting the camps are related to security and sanitation concerns, but some experts view these events instead as evidence of a widespread policy to disperse Darfur's displaced persons, whose numbers may be as high as one million.
"There is no reason to believe that the reasons [Khartoum] has provided are valid ones," said HRW Darfur researcher Selena Brewer. "This is a way of gaining control over the population. They'll be much less of a threat -- politically, militarily, on every level -- if they're dispersed into small groups."
U.N. officials also expressed serious concerns last week after the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, Wael al-Haj Ibrahim, was expelled from South Darfur under accusations by the regional government that he had committed unspecified rule violations.
According to some, al-Haj Ibrahim was targeted because he was too vocal in his opposition to Khartoum's directives to dismantle the camps.
"The motive for al-Haj Ibrahim's expulsion was his refusal to acquiesce in Khartoum's policy of forced returns of displaced persons" to their villages, said Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has written extensively on the Darfur conflict.
The British-based Aegis Trust, a group that works to prevent genocide and has offices in Africa, said that al-Haj Ibrahim "was forced out essentially because he did his job so well", reported the Associated Press.
In addition, members of the human rights community fear that ongoing delays in the deployment of joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping forces will only exacerbate the IDP situation.
"The Sudanese government wants to get rid of these camps, which it sees as evidence against it, before the arrival of international peacekeepers," the RFK Centre said.
Although the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1769 in August 2007 authorising joint peacekeeping forces, known as the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the mission has stalled due to ongoing criticism from Khartoum about the troops' country composition, said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a statement last week.
If Darfur's displaced persons camps are dispersed and the population is forced to flee into the bush, the consequences could be devastating, experts warn.
"If these people are expelled from the IDP camps, they are going to die -- either by starvation, dehydration, or malnutrition," said Ahmed at a press conference here on Monday. "And the other thing is that the janjaweed will be waiting."
Reports from the ground in Darfur are limited, but some have described a security situation that is very poor, and deteriorating. Travelers by road in Darfur face dozens of checkpoints and demands for bribes, some sponsored by the government and many that are not, Ahmed said, and U.N. aid groups are "handicapped" by looting of their trucks and supplies.
Furthermore, many of the estimated 200 to 300 displaced persons camps in Darfur are located in extremely rural areas, some accessible only by helicopter -- making it difficult for humanitarian workers to reach the vulnerable populations should they be expelled from camps.
"The threat to civilians cannot be overstated" if the IDP camps continue to be dispersed, Reeves said.
© 2007 Inter Press Service