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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Sudan's 'human catastrophe'

By Martin Bell
Unicef UK ambassador and former BBC correspondent

I can't claim to have enjoyed total freedom of movement these past few days.

Plans to visit the vast Kalma refugee camp near Niala on Sunday were cancelled because of an outbreak of shooting, apparently related to a government attempt to return some of the refugees from the camp to their villages.

But it has been possible through Unicef to obtain some of the travel permits necessary, and to talk to many refugees about what has happened to them.

Sudanese refugees
Over one million Sudanese have been forced from their homes
They have horror stories about the Janjaweed, the Arab militia that drove them from their homes.

They are absolutely unanimous that they will not return until the Janjaweed have been disarmed and until they are absolutely sure that their safety is protected.

On the government side, we have obviously been able, through Unicef, to celebrate some of their achievements here, but also to talk to some of the people making decisions on the ground in southern Darfur.

Those included, I wouldn't say an interview with, but an audience with, the governor last night, who has only been in his post for three weeks and is a very powerful man.

He has promised that there will be 3,000 central police, well armed, well able to look after themselves, looking after security here within 20 days or so, and he hopes that this is going to help to encourage some of the villagers to return to their homes.

What we are facing here is the possibility of a conflict catastrophe followed by a refugee crisis followed by a famine
We have just been in the town of Kass, a town of normally 37,000 people but now swollen by the addition of 42,000 refugees from the villages round about.

Those villagers are not going home. In fact, if anything, more are coming in.

In places like this, the aid agencies are able to do magnificent work.

The difficulty lies in the one-third of this state of southern Darfur which is too unstable and dangerous even for those agencies to get to.

A Sudanese refugee
Arab militias are accused of mass murder of Darfur's black Africans
Experienced observers of human catastrophes are putting this right up there with the worst. We simply don't know quite how bad it is yet.

One of the difficulties is that this is the planting season. The heavy rains are about to come.

A large proportion of the land will need to be farmed, but the people are too afraid to go back to it.

So what we are facing here is the possibility of a conflict catastrophe followed by a refugee crisis and followed by a famine.

We don't know how bad it is going to get but the agencies, Unicef included, are really stretched to the limit.




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