TOPICS > World

Fighting Prompts Thousands More to Enter Darfur Camps

August 14, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Three months ago, there was some optimistic news from the troubled Darfur region of Sudan, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and at least two million displaced in three years of fighting.

A peace accord was signed on May 5th that was supposed to end fighting between rebel groups and the government-backed militia called the Janjaweed. But in recent weeks, there has been troubling news of new fighting and continued problems in the refugee camps.

For an update, we turn to Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International, a humanitarian organization. He recently returned from Sudan.

And welcome to you. Why don’t we start with the situation in the refugee camps? What did you see there?

KEN BACON, President of Refugees International: Well, the most disturbing thing is that the displacement is continuing and, in fact, it’s increasing. Up until several months ago, displacement had pretty much stabilized. There were about two million people displaced internally. But in the last couple of weeks, the displacement has really increased: 25,000 people have been displaced in northern Darfur alone.

So in the camps, particularly in the Al Salaam camp, which is in northern Darfur, we saw new arrivals who were living in the most pathetic circumstances. And we’re talking about heat of between 100 and 110 degrees. They’re under makeshift shelters made out of fragments of blankets, paper bags, plastic bags, et cetera, rugs, just sheltering themselves from the sun.

And, of course, the rainy season is starting, so they won’t have any shelter from the rains. But these people are coming in with all their possessions or anything they could carry with them, with a donkey, maybe, having walked two or three days to get to these camps. It’s a very sad situation.

Stories of violence

Ken Bacon
Refugees International
There's a total breakdown of law and order. So cars are being stolen. More cars of NGOs have been stolen in the last two weeks than in the previous two years, for instance.

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds as though there is also more violence in these camps. There was a report today -- just today U.N. officials said that more aid workers had been killed in the last couple of weeks than in the last few years?

KEN BACON: Yes. The sad irony is that, since the peace agreement was signed in May, the violence has increased pretty much throughout Darfur, and it's increased in three fundamental ways.

The first is there is increased fighting among the rebel groups, particularly between the one group that signed it, the Minni Minnawi faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, and the factions that didn't sign. There were two rebel groups that didn't sign, one that did sign. So you have inter-factional fighting.

The second is there's much more banditry taking place. There's a total breakdown of law and order. So cars are being stolen. More cars of NGOs have been stolen in the last two weeks than in the previous two years, for instance.

And, finally, there's much more violence within the camps. The camps have become more politicized. They've become more militarized. They've become more armed and much more violent.

So the poor people who have come into the camps to escape violence are now finding that there is violence in the camps. But most of that violence is being aimed at the African Union peacekeepers and at humanitarian workers. And I think this partly reflects a great deal of dissatisfaction with how things are working out, a lot of frustration.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's of course, then the individual stories remain as horrific as ever. We're showing some photos that you brought back from there. You were telling me about one woman you met in one of the camps.

KEN BACON: Yes, we call this woman the woman in red, and it's a totally horrific story. She had just arrived at the Al Salaam camp in Al-Faser (ph) in northern Darfur. And she was speechless. She didn't speak the whole time. She wouldn't answer questions.

She looked very traumatized, but she had a series of rope burns on her arm. One arm was bandaged; the other was not. But she clearly had been injured. And what we were told was that she had been captured and hung from a tree for two days and raped.

Now, we couldn't verify this by talking to her because she wouldn't talk to us, but this is very -- it's very much in line with the reports we are hearing, that the attacks against villages involve rape. They involve shooting young men and boys and a lot of violence against women.

Selfish motivations for peace

Darfur refugees

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you describe the increase in violence recently since the May peace agreement. From what you could see, why isn't the agreement working?

KEN BACON: Well, I think it's not working for one fundamental reason, which is that the two signatories to the agreement, the government of Sudan and the Minni Minnawi faction see the agreement primarily as a way to continue augmenting their territory and augmenting their influence.

They see the agreement as a way to advance their causes. It doesn't look like they're interested in peace and reconciliation; it looks more like they're interested in attacks and retribution.

JEFFREY BROWN: The peace agreement envisioned a U.N. peacekeeping force. And I know that Kofi Annan proposed and talked about a very large force, 24,000 troops. But at the same time, the Sudanese government has never agreed to a U.N. force.


JEFFREY BROWN: You were able to talk to some officials there. What are they saying?

KEN BACON: Well, the officials say that they don't want an international force. They think it's a violation of Sudan's sovereignty. And also they say that it's an affront to the African Union, which does have a much smaller peacekeeping force of 7,000 people in the country, in Darfur now.

But there was one ray of hope that perhaps the government might be willing to compromise. While we were there, they said that they would accept perhaps an Islamic force, in other words, a force from Islamic countries.

Now, many of the biggest providers of the U.N. peacekeepers happen to be Islamic countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Jordan, although a small country, provides a lot of peacekeepers, and they're very good soldiers. So it might be possible to put together an Islamic force.

That may be the way to work out a compromise that allows the government, which has dug itself in pretty deeply against a U.N. force, to accept a U.N. force.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the meantime, this smaller African Union force that you mention, when you're there, do you see any signs of its effectiveness?

KEN BACON: It really has very limited effectiveness for a couple of reasons. One, it was never set up to be a peacekeeping force. It was set up to be a cease-fire monitoring force, but there's never been a cease-fire that's held.

So the people expected them to protect them, but they didn't come there with a mandate to protect anybody except themselves. And they've barely been able to do that. So the African Union force has been pretty much a disappointment. Everybody says the key to peace is to bring in a much larger, more capable U.N. force. And that's really something that has to happen if we're to end this violence in Darfur.

And the prime victims of this violence have been civilians. So bringing in a protective force will protect civilians.

Back-sliding in Darfur

Ken Bacon
Refugees International
[W]hile this has been a real disaster for the people of Darfur, it's been somewhat of a humanitarian success, in that the U.N. has moved in and it's feeding almost three million people a day in Darfur...

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, finally, we can't sit here now without noting that the world's attention is clearly elsewhere, in Lebanon, in the Mideast at this point. Do you see that having an impact on what's going on in Darfur?

KEN BACON: I don't think so. This is a crisis that has really lived by its own terms. And the real tragedy here is that, while this has been a real disaster for the people of Darfur, it's been somewhat of a humanitarian success, in that the U.N. has moved in and it's feeding almost three million people a day in Darfur, half the population of Darfur.

That's why the people in some of these pictures look so healthy: There's not a food shortage in Darfur.

All of that can be jeopardized now. The U.N. said that, because of the increased violence, it's finding it much harder to reach people. It's reaching less than 80 percent of the people it has to feed now. That's the lowest number, the lowest percentage since 2004. So we're actually sliding backwards, after several years of improving humanitarian coverage, we're beginning to slide backwards. That's a real tragedy.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ken Bacon of Refugees International, thanks very much.

KEN BACON: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: For more pictures of the Darfur camps, please visit our Web site at