FRONTLINE/World reporter Amy Costello has covered Africa
for years as a correspondent on PRI's The
World. In this email interview with FRONTLINE/World
Web editor Sara Miles, Costello talks about the frustrations
of aid workers, reporters and the international community --
and why she feels compelled to tell the story of Darfur's tragedy.
What brought you to Sudan in the first place?
FRONTLINE/World reporter Amy Costello on her way to Darfur.
Last May, I traveled to Chad, which borders Sudan. During my stay there, I interviewed some of the tens of thousands of people who'd fled the fighting in Darfur and were living as refugees in the desert. I wanted to go to Darfur itself, but at the time, the government wasn't issuing visas to journalists. Once the Sudanese government lifted those restrictions, I applied for a visa and was granted permission to enter the capital, Khartoum.
One of the motivating factors that made me want to cover the crisis
in Sudan was the genocide in Rwanda. Just a decade ago in that
tiny east African nation, 800,000 people were slaughtered in about
90 days, and the world did virtually nothing to stop it. I had
traveled to Rwanda in April 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the
genocide, and met many people who were still suffering from and
traumatized by that horrific event. As a journalist based in Africa,
I believe it's important that I do my part, however small, to
keep the international spotlight focused on the crisis in Sudan.
How difficult was it for you to get into Darfur? How did
you decide what was safe?
Casey [producer Cassandra Herrman] and I relied on U.N. and African Union aircraft and helicopters to get from Khartoum to Darfur. Once we were on the ground in Darfur, we met with U.N. security advisors and spoke with aid workers to get a sense of which areas were relatively safe. We discovered that most areas had been declared no-go areas for U.N. personnel because of widespread insecurity and banditry. However, we wanted to meet the SLA [Sudanese Liberation Army] rebels, and we also wanted to travel to remote villages to see how the conflict was affecting ordinary people.
In the end, we decided to hire our own vehicle, driver and translator, and we headed out on our own. We trusted our driver to avoid roads that had recently been attacked; we relied on our translator to talk our way through checkpoints as we moved through the region.
There are plenty of aid groups working in Sudan. Why didn't
you travel with them?
Most aid groups didn't want journalists traveling in their
vehicles because of the extremely delicate political situation
that exists between aid agencies and the Sudanese government.
Aid workers have to renew their visas every few months. If they're
seen to have a role in assisting journalists to write stories
critical of the government, it could jeopardize their agency's
ability to remain in Sudan. Many aid workers were willing to
speak about the work they do to alleviate suffering, but most
refused to go on record about their frustrations with the government
and its policies in Darfur.
An officer from the African Union explains that rebels control large areas of Darfur.
How difficult is it for aid agencies to get access and to do their work? How safe are aid workers?
Aid convoys are being attacked and hijacked on the road with increasing frequency. This means that vital food shipments are not reaching the people who need them most. Many parts of Darfur have been declared no-go areas for the United Nations and its personnel. This means that many U.N. staff are bound to their offices and can't get into the field to actually see the people they're supposed to be assisting.
On the other hand, aid workers not affiliated with the United
Nations can travel on their own -- and often do. But the security
situation across Darfur remains extremely tense, and it's becoming
very risky for aid workers to travel around the region. Not only
are government forces and rebel groups violating ceasefire agreements,
but also, ordinary criminals have begun to take advantage of the
general lawlessness in Darfur. As a result, thefts, kidnappings
and hijackings are on the rise.
How does this conflict seem different from or similar to
other wars you've covered?
Many people in Darfur have fled their homes to live in camps. They share stories of government bombings and attacks by Janjaweed militia.
I don't think that African conflicts are much different than wars in many other parts of the world. I was reminded in Sudan, as in so many places, that it's civilians who pay the price when governments decide to go to war. People are forced to flee their homes; they have to abandon jobs and life savings.
There doesn't seem to be much international resolve to protect civilians in
active conflict zones. In two years of fighting in Sudan, no
international body has stepped forward to say it will protect
civilians who are being attacked. The African Union troops don't
have that mandate. The United States and the European Union
have refused to intervene. The international community has instead
chosen to provide money and materials to relieve a humanitarian
crisis that could've been avoided. All the while, the Sudanese
government and rebels continue to harm their own people as the
rest of the world looks on.
What do you think it would take, in the best-case scenario,
to protect the people of the region?
It's estimated that the African Union must deploy several thousand more troops in Darfur if it's going to adequately monitor the region, which is roughly the size of France. And there's a growing recognition that the troops need more authority to bring peace to the region. Right now, troops are working under a narrow mandate, which restricts their mission mainly to monitoring ceasefire violations. Critics say that the mandate must be expanded to give soldiers more power to actually protect civilians from harm. The reality on the ground in Darfur makes it clear that as long as the security situation remains precarious, African Union troops need to be able to step in, when necessary, to halt the attacks and protect civilians.
What do you see as the worst-case scenario for Darfur right
Local police used bulldozers to destroy this camp, leaving nothing but rubble.
I think it could be argued that the worst-case scenario for Darfur is a continuation of the status quo: the African Union troops not getting an expanded mandate; the number of their troops not increasing significantly; the government and rebels continuing to carry out attacks against one another and against civilians; the hundreds of thousands of refugees now in Darfur and Chad remaining in camps with no prospects of going home; the Janjaweed militias not being prosecuted for the crimes they've committed against humanity. To me, that would be a bleak outcome for Darfur.
I'm optimistic, however, that this will be avoided. I think that renewed diplomatic pressure from the outside could convince the government and rebels to lay down their arms once and for all and reach a negotiated settlement. This will enable families to return home so they can begin piecing their lives back together again.
What was the hardest thing for you about reporting from Darfur?
In my nearly four years of reporting around Africa, I've slowly learned how to draw boundaries between me and the suffering I witness. Even so, it doesn't get any easier to see miles and miles of families living in homes made of plastic and rags. It's still horrific to visit a clinic and look into the eyes of children who are gaunt-faced and weak. At the same time, I'm grateful that I can do something positive with the suffering I've witnessed. I do my best to transport listeners to where I've been so they might feel, in some small way, that they've been there too.
Do you think there's anything that ordinary people can do to respond to the crisis in Sudan?
People can support any number of aid agencies now working in Sudan to relieve the humanitarian crisis. You also can support groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group, which monitor and call attention to human rights violations in Sudan. Viewers of FRONTLINE/World, in fact, everyone, can contact their representatives in Washington and urge them to make it a government priority to resolve the crisis in Darfur.
Will you go back to Sudan?
I'll be following the story to see how it develops. I'd like
to return to Sudan one day to cover a happier chapter in its
back to top