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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 03:08 GMT
Wave of violence threatens Darfur camps
Mike Thomson
BBC News, El Fashir, northern Darfur

Children in the Abu Shouk camp for displaced people
Aid workers are finding it hard to get to camps like Abu Shouk
After four years' violence that has left 200,000 dead and forced nearly two-and-a-half million people to flee their homes, you might have thought things could not get any worse in Darfur. Yet they have.

A proliferation in the number of armed militia groups has led to a new wave of violence that is hitting the millions inside the region's refugee camps, as well as those who try to help them.

Oxfam's representative in Sudan, Alun MacDonald, says that dangers facing aid workers are now completely unacceptable.

"Our staff are being targeted on a daily basis. They are being shot, robbed, beaten and abducted," he says.

"We can't use the roads, we have to fly to the majority of our programme locations. In terms of actual violence against aid workers, seven were killed in October."

The security situation, he insisted "is the worse since the entire conflict began by a considerable way."

Oxfam, like other aid organisations, has no plans to pull out but Mr MacDonald believes this may soon change.

"We can get staff to Darfur then they can't move, they can't get to the villages and the camps. These aren't conditions we can keep working in," he says.

Agency difficulties

If aid organisations like Oxfam were forced to pull out of Darfur, the consequences for the four million people who rely on such agencies to survive would be unthinkable.

Yet with 75% of the region's roads now too dangerous for them to use, that possibility grows by the day.

Sudanese people in the Abu Shouk camp
Factional fighting within the camps is growing as arms begin to flood in
Most of those who have found sanctuary in the 60 or more camps littered across Darfur are still getting food, water and medical supplies. Getting adequate security is a much bigger problem.

Factional fighting within the camps is growing as arms begin to flood in.

Fatma Issa Mohammed Drama, a mother with six children at El Salam camp near El Fasher told me: "After dark it isn't safe to leave your place. You must keep out of sight. We live in fear. People wander this camp at night with guns, often army people, and if they come across you, you could be killed."

Those leaving the camp to fetch water or firewood face being attacked and men with guns roam many of the settlements at night. Robberies, car-jackings and rapes occur almost daily, sometimes in the centre of Darfur's main towns.

Some see the imminent arrival of a combined 26,000-strong United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force as the best hope for the future.


African Union patrol
The new force's mandate will be stronger than that of the existing contingent
Its mandate is stronger than that of the existing African Union contingent and it is nearly four times the size. The problem is that even this number of troops will find it difficult to cover an area the size of France.

To make matters worse, its request for a fleet of attack helicopters, which are vital for this kind of conflict, has been completely ignored so far by the international community.

Furthermore, the Sudanese government, which refused to accept the force for many months, has yet to confirm that it is happy with the composition of this one.

Then there is the continuing delay in getting the full force on the ground. This was supposed to happen at the beginning of January but the joint force's second in command has told me that this may now be delayed for months.

It has long been argued that the solutions to Darfur's troubles are political rather than military. High hopes rested on the start of peace talks in Libya last month but gloom has since replaced optimism.

Most of the main rebel leaders failed to turn up for the conference and the talks, due to continue in December, may not resume now until early next year.

One young mother in a camp near El Fasher in Northern Darfur summed up the concerns of many when she told me: "I can't see peace coming soon, if ever. I may spend the rest of my life in this camp."

Let us all hope she is wrong.

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