TOPICS > Politics

Crisis in Sudan

July 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The humanitarian crisis in Sudan. We begin with a report from the Darfur region of the country. The correspondent is Neil Connery of Independent Television News.

NEIL CONNERY: The vulnerable are clinging to life. The severely malnourished babies are no more than skin and bone. The aid agencies are battling to do what they can in the fight against hunger and disease. Dr. Jerry Erlich is inundated with cases and fears things could get even worse.

DR. JERRY ERLICH: If we get something like a cholera epidemic or if we get a meningitis epidemic, it would be a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.

NEIL CONNERY: There are more than 63,000 people in this camp alone and over 130 such camps spread across Darfur. That’s one million displaced people in this part of Sudan who the humanitarian agencies are having to cope with.

Traumatized by their experience, everyone has their own story of despair. “We are surrounded by those desperate for the outside world to hear what they’ve endured. “The militia killed many people in our village.” “The government planes bombed us and then the militia attacked us.” The aid agencies say the situation inside the camps is critical.

STEVE MATTHEWS, World Vision: We are on the brink right now of a catastrophe and rapid action is needed here in Darfur to assist the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people who are in need.

NEIL CONNERY: We traveled across Darfur and found a recurring pattern in this unfolding tragedy. In the town of el Janine, near the border with Chad, more suffering: A three-month-old baby fighting to live. The head of the World Health Organization told me the world cares and is here to help.

DR. LEE JONG-WOOK: For these people they know that the world cares for them. Otherwise why would we be here? It is also a very important message for these people, for the political leaders, that we care. We do care.

NEIL CONNERY: Darfur’s pain is etched all over Abdullah’s face, the latest casualty of this conflict, his arm is shattered by a bullet. It’s taken him a week to reach this hospital, and he’s one of the lucky ones. His friend told me the Arab militia known as the Janjaweed attacked their village.

MAN: The Janjaweed come for all people in Yasim.

NEIL CONNERY: How many people in Yasim died?

MAN: Sixty-three people.

NEIL CONNERY: We were taken into the wards of Nyala Hospital. We found them full of victims from the Arab militia attacks. Fibbit was doused in petrol and set alight. Ten-year-old Mohammad was shot in the hip. In Darfur, the innocent suffer in silence.

JIM LEHRER: And Gwen Ifill has more on the consequences of what’s happening in Darfur.

GWEN IFILL: The deadly conflict in Darfur has killed many and has also created long-term health and humanitarian problems throughout the region.

Here to describe the toll on the ground are two people who have been watching the situation: Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, an international relief group active there; and Dr. Jennifer Leaning, a professor of international health at Harvard and a board member of Physicians for Human Rights. She visited refugee camps along the Chad/Sudan border last month. Welcome.

Mr. De Torrente, is there any way — we’ve just seen a report that told us anecdotally what the problems are, the health problems are, in Darfur. Is there any way to quantify the scope of the health crisis which that region is now facing?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, I think from a medical and nutritional point of view we’re already facing a very major acute emergency and with a potential of a major catastrophe really with the potential for major epidemic outbreaks, of diarreahal diseases, malaria and a worsening, nutritional situation in particular, malnutrition being on the rise. But I think to understand why we’re in this situation, the scope and the magnitude of it, I think we have to understand the nature of the crisis. And some of the images and the description in your opening piece hinted at it.

I mean, there has been for the past ten months a war… a man-made disaster. This is a man-made disaster. It’s been really a war against civilians. There have been hundreds and hundreds of villages that have been burned to the ground, attacked by these militia, the Janjaweed militia, and people have been left utterly destitute fleeing their villages, their burnt villages and trying to find safety in numbers and means of survival in these camps. These are the camps in which they find themselves now in which the health and nutritional situation is deteriorating at a rapid pace.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Leaning you’ve recently returned from a visit to some of those camps. What would you describe as being the biggest disease problems, I guess, which are awaiting… which are the challenges right now?

DR. JENNIFER LEANING: Right now the biggest disease challenges are diarrhea. This is a very common thing when we get large numbers of people together with very poor sanitation, poor water supplies and in the case of Chad as well as Darfur, deeply inadequate water supplies. And the problem is that diarrhea can take the lives particularly of children under five very, very rapidly. So the most important issue in many parts of the Chad refugee camps particularly in the Northeast and in many parts of Darfur is to improve the water and sanitation facilities, but I must say that I wish to agree with the executive director from MSF.

This is a man-made crisis where the fundamental problem is a security problem. The humanitarians are working extremely hard to get the supplies in and to improve the water supplies but until there is more access to more people in Darfur, we are going to look at something that is catastrophic. Over half of the camps that we know exist in Darfur have not yet even been reached by the humanitarian community. Those pictures from Nyala and from that hospital there are much better than the situation I saw in mid-June in Northeast Chad, and I am sure they are much better than in those camps throughout Darfur that have not yet been accessed by the humanitarians.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. De Torrente, there seems to be a cycle that’s built in. First you talk about the man-made crisis which has then led to people fleeing to these camps which breed poverty. They bring with them the poverty, breed sickness. Then the cycle begins again because the violence is not yet over. What should medical professionals be trying to do to stop that cycle, to break into it?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, I think you pointed to the two main ongoing problems. One is that the violence that created the problem in the first place has not stopped. And the people who are in the camps, some of them have described these as virtual prison enclaves. They cannot leave the camps. The Janjaweed militia still operates. They intimidate the climate of fear. People cannot go outside the camps to gather shelter materials, you know, wood to be able to cook their meals. Rape is ongoing. So this makes people, in fact, utterly dependent on outside assistance. That’s the crucial point.

They have to be helped by the outside. And, on the other hand, the assistance has been very slow and insufficient in coming to their rescue. Jennifer is right; about only half of the people have received any assistance at all. And even in the places where assistance is there, I mean, for instance, we have about 100 international staff there — we’re reaching about 400,000 people. But still in the places that we are working it’s still very insufficient. Water supply but also food, we have rising rates of malnutrition. The food distributions are insufficient. So this is the twin problems: One is the ongoing violence and two is the assistance deficit. Agencies are trying now to catch up with. But they’ve started very late. Access has improved but they’ve started very late. And the relief effort is still far short of requirements and far short to prevent a major catastrophe.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Leaning, who are the most vulnerable in this situation? We just heard Mr. De Torrente talk about rape as one of the weapons which is being used here. We also saw the pictures and faces of children. Who are the most vulnerable? Who is dying?

DR. JENNIFER LEANING: Well, in the attacks that started this entire problem, in the attacks, the men are the ones who were killed. The women are raped and the children are gathered up and protected to the last ounce of energy that these families have. But once they’re in the camps, then the children are the first to die from high levels of malnutrition, from diarrhea, from dehydration from measles if there haven’t been measles vaccination campaigns.

Then with the onset of the rainy season, we face a terrible problem of malaria because in the standing water, the mosquitoes will breed. And there just has not been the time, the capacity, the access to the camps and the people to deliver the bed nets that are needed to keep the mosquitoes away, let alone the medicines for prophylaxis.

So in the short term and by that we’re talking about the next month or two months, we are looking at the potential of a really high death rate among the children and then among some of the other people that are older or pregnant women or who for other reasons have not been able to get adequate nutrition. This is an extremely serious crisis.

The international community, the humanitarian community has studied and worked in this part of Africa for a very long time. And when they say that they are, as in your film clip, on the brink of catastrophe or you hear from Nicholas talk about the high level of urgency, what they are saying is that unless something extremely robust and vigorous takes place in the next month to deliver the food, the medicines and the materials to improve the water supplies, we are going to be looking at something that is on a very large scale of death.

That is going to require to improve things a support pipeline, a solid pipeline. That’s going to take a lot more money that’s coming in. The Europeans have pledged a lot of money — the European Union — but well under half, probably only a quarter of what they have pledged has yet even reached the humanitarians for their use.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. De Torrente, one of the things that Americans think of when you talk about pipelines for aid is the government. Has the Sudanese government which has come under some criticism from the United Nations as well as from the United States, has it been a help or a hindrance in trying to address this crisis?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, I think that the– in terms of the assistance side of it, they obstructed and blocked assistance for a very long time. It was very difficult to get into Darfur. Access was very hard. They made it very hard. that has under pressure In the past month or so been lifted so there is better access now. It’s easy to get visas and travel permits to get into the area. That has led to a start of a larger humanitarian response.

But again Jennifer is completely right. We need a real change of scale here. You know, in terms of the food just to give you an example, in places that we work, the population has received about half of what they should be getting. And, that over… I mean for people who are utterly dependent on outside aid over a time that means that their nutritional situation will deteriorate and we’ll have more kids like the ones that you saw in the picture.

And we’re not seeing the real efforts to make… to give full ration distributions throughout Darfur. That is not happening. The logistical obstacles are great. You need air capacity. You need something much more massive to be happening in terms of the assistance. Just trying to gradually increase things and mobilize bit by bit won’t do it. We need something much more dramatic here.

GWEN IFILL: Nicolas De Torrente and Jennifer Leaning, thank you both very much.