CROUCHED IN A FILTHY CAMP in Darfur, Hawa Hamed, 25, tells a tragic but too familiar story. Three months ago her village was attacked by an Arab militia. Her hut was burned and several of her relatives killed. "They came like a storm," she said. She and her husband managed to escape with their infant daughter, walking for days through the desert with thousands of others. But Hawa's experience has one major difference that sets her apart from most of the two million others living in Darfurian camps.
She is from Chad, not Sudan. When she fled from her persecutors across a dry river bed in the desert, she crossed an international border, making her a "refugee" and not an "internally displaced person." Nomads have traditionally moved back and forth between Sudan and Chad in search of water and pasture for their livestock. But in the context of the four-year-old Darfurian conflict, Hawa's flight across an invisible line in the trackless sands of central Africa marks a new and deeply troubling development.
The Darfurian crisis is no longer confined to Sudan. It has burst into neighboring Chad and even into the wild northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR). Today, Janjaweed attacks don't happen only in Darfur's bad-lands. Last year, rebel fighters, backed by Arab militias, mounted a major offensive against the government in eastern Chad, where, the United Nations estimates, 110,000 residents are now homeless, double the number from a year ago.
CAR, too, is gripped by rebellion and it is estimated that a quarter of a million people have recently been displaced by insecurity across the north of the country. To escape the chaos, tens of thousands of civilians are now crisscrossing borders, running from one conflict zone into another. Refugees are not a new phenomenon to the Darfurian conflict. More than 220,000 Sudanese have languished in camps in Chad since their villages were destroyed by the Janjaweed in 2003-04. Meanwhile, continued displacements from CAR into Chad have brought the number of refugees to close to 50,000. Such is the security vacuum that Chadians, like Hawa, and Darfurian "returnees" are seeking asylum in Darfur, of all places.
All together, more than 3 million people now rely on food aid from the World Food Program (WFP) in Darfur, eastern Chad and northeastern CAR. To avoid a catastrophe, hundreds of thousands of tons of grain will be shipped to the region and trucked to a remote, war-torn area that lies at the farthest point from the sea on the continent. If appeals for donations are realized, the combined cost of the three-country operation will be more than $600 million in 2007.
Securing funds isn't the only problem stopping the job from getting done. When hostility flares, humanitarian access is often cut, depriving hundreds of thousands of access to food. After a wave of violence that left 12 humanitarian workers in Darfur dead, 14 U.N. agencies were recently moved to issue a joint public warning that the line could not be held much longer. In Chad, all non-emergency aid operations in the east have been cancelled for over four months, while in CAR access to the worst-affected areas is restricted by insecurity and poor transport infrastructure.
Now the spread of the conflict into Chad and CAR threatens to destabilize much of Africa's heart, putting hundreds of thousands more in harm's way. The looming crisis across the three countries confronts WFP, indeed all humanitarian organizations and aid workers, with a challenge of a kind that has rarely been seen. Should security across the region continue to deteriorate, possibly denying life-saving relief to millions, the international community could be faced with a situation that spins so completely out of control that it will eventually spiral beyond help.
While the world presses for a political solution to the conflict, with U.N. peacekeepers proposed for all three countries, aid workers must be guaranteed access to the region to ensure that sorely needed relief continues to flow. It is up to the political stakeholders to provide those guarantees. Otherwise, there may be countless more innocents ensnared in the same terrible trap as Hawa Hamed, forced to flee one battlefield only to be caught in another.
Kenro Oshidari is chief of World Food Program operations in Sudan; Felix Bamezon heads WFP operations in Chad.
© 2007 The Providence Journal