Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 May 2007
Issue No. 845
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

From one hell to another

In Geneva, Dina Ezzat surveys the colossal humanitarian toll that politics creates or leaves behind, as key regional political crises remain unresolved

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Refugees in the Arab world are facing catastrophic humanitarian disaster on a massive scale.

"Once I was called to an explosion site. There I saw a four- year-old boy sitting beside his mother's body, which had been decapitated by the explosion. He was talking to her, asking her what had happened. He had been taken out shopping by his mom."

This testimony, of a humanitarian worker in Baghdad, was printed in a report issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last month under the title, Civilians Without Protection: the Ever-Worsening Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq. It is but one example of recurrent stories of human suffering that are the mostly unseen backdrop of political meetings that produce banner headlines but little change. Such is the reality not only for Iraq, but also for other parts of the Arab world, especially Somalia and Sudan, where refugee crises are evolving into a living nightmare for millions.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres has the mandate and obligation to respond, but the underlying issues are all political. In the three countries mentioned, wars and violence have displaced millions internally, forcing millions more out of the country completely. According to UNHCR figures, there are close to two million internally displaced Iraqis with over two million more forced to flee Iraq altogether, mostly to neighbouring Jordan and Syria. As humanitarian organisations and concerned UN agencies race to assist the already displaced, unabated war in Iraq -- just as in Somalia and Darfur -- adds more to their number, already on a scale near impossible to cope with.

A few days ago, the ICRC declared an increase in its budget for Iraq. The ICRC operation is dedicated mainly to attend to the plight of the displaced. The ICRC said that it is asking donors for an additional $29 million to fund "a substantial increase in its humanitarian activities in Iraq" during the current year. The ICRC had already earmarked over $60 million for its 2007 operations budget in Iraq. The money simply proved too little in the face of an inundation of Iraqis needing access to basic provisions, such as clean water, medications and food. There are also the needs of host communities inside Iraq to consider, to which displaced persons have been moving, mostly out of Baghdad.

"Civilians bear the brunt of the relentless violence, and things are not getting any better," said Beatrice Megevand- Roggo, head of ICRC operations for the Middle East and North Africa during the public launch of the appeal for the budget extension at the organisation's headquarters in Geneva. The appeal of the ICRC came less than three weeks after a headline UNHCR-hosted meeting last month on ways to meet the humanitarian needs of Iraqi refugees.

UNHCR and ICRC sources in Geneva say there are signs that the international community is starting to pay attention to the humanitarian side of the situation in Iraq. However, both the UNHCR and ICRC, like other concerned UN and non-UN humanitarian agencies and organisations, are worried that the pace of reaction to the situation in Iraq is far too slow.

"It is a humanitarian crisis and it is definitely worsening," said Dorothea Krimistas, ICRC media relations officer for the Middle East and North Africa. "There is a great need to work towards protecting civilians [and not just providing for them]... bearing in mind that civilians include all non- combatant individuals, whether they are displaced, refugees, detainees or wounded," she added.

The ICRC has been particularly concerned about the unknown number -- estimates are in the tens of thousands -- of Iraqis detained in Iraqi and US jails across Iraq. Misery embraces not just those detained but also their families who lose contact with family members and are scared to approach prisons -- especially Iraqi ones -- for fear of their lives, or fear of violence that may be encountered on the way.

Krimistas states: "The ICRC calls on all those who have the power to protect and spare the lives and dignity -- and dignity is very important -- of civilians and [to end current violations] of international humanitarian law." This appeal, she explained, has been repeatedly addressed to all "state and non- state actors" who take part in the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

This appeal was echoed, but in a feeble tone, in the document adopted earlier this month by the international conference on Iraq. Humanitarian workers in Iraq complain that these appeals have yet to be heeded by those concerned. "Things are not getting any better," Krimistas said. Army operations, sectarian fighting, and other forms of violence are killing and maiming people, demolishing their houses, destroying their neighbourhoods, and rendering millions terrified, daily, for their lives.

UNHCR's "Iraq bleeds" project is a collection of testimonies addressed to the hearts and minds of the international community. Many of these testimonies speak of the forced break-up of mixed Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurdish families. "Iraq bleeds" tells the frightening story of cities once liveable turned into death zones of strict sectarian segregation.

The result is not just sectarian killings and broken families but, as humanitarian workers stress, the complete breakdown of national education as well as poverty and terror for millions of families. Iraq's national infrastructure, subjected to two decades of war and sanctions and now four years of occupation and sectarian strife, is simply unable to meet the demands of the Iraqi population.

For many humanitarian workers on the ground in Iraq, one reason the world appears indifferent to displaced Iraqis is that most move from their own homes to the hospitality of other families. Awareness of the problem of internal displacement is consequently low compared to awareness of the problems of Iraqi refugees proper, upon which Iraq's neighbours have been speaking up vociferously. In this sense, the national sentiment of hospitality among Iraqis -- unremarked by media obsessed with sectarian difference -- conceals the vastness of the problem while sharing the burden across the community. Due to continued violence, humanitarian workers find it almost impossible to reach those who need assistance, even when those in need can be identified.

Meanwhile, due to restrictions imposed by many Arab states on the influx of Iraqi refugees, the chances of Iraqis escaping the hell of living in Iraq are declining.

Radhouane Nouicer, UNHCR director of the bureau for North Africa and the Middle East, says that Syria and Jordan have been generous but that they understandably have to worry about their capacity to accommodate more refugees at a time when the UNHCR has not secured financial assistance for either state, short of a promise made by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to grant an emergency budget of $25 million to both countries to help them meet the needs of over two million Iraqi refugees distributed between them.

Some critics in humanitarian aid circles have looked down upon this offer, arguing that the amount is too little in view of the huge number of refugees, while others noted the irony of the Iraqi government paying foreign states to house Iraqi citizens, especially given the existence of widespread suspicions of the sectarian bias of the current Iraqi government. UNHCR, however, elects to encourage the Iraqi government to provide this budget despite the fact that it is in no position to monitor whether the government will actually do so, or verify distribution to recipients, given that no specific timeframe has been agreed upon for the money to be transferred to Damascus and Amman.

"The Iraqi government wants to reach out to the displaced and refugees, but we need to be fully aware of the huge volume of the humanitarian problem," Nouicer simply said.

On the record, humanitarian workers in Geneva would not venture opinions on the political crisis in Iraq. This is off- limits for them, they said. Off the record, however, many stated that the failure of the international community to produce a political solution to the situation in Iraq is bound to prolong the misery of millions of Iraqis.

"There will come a time where only very few Iraqis will be spared from the present agony if the political situation continues the way it is, or if it worsens, which is expected," said one humanitarian worker on condition of anonymity. According to this and other humanitarian workers concerned with Iraq, the volume of displacement in and out of Iraq has been particularly stark since the Samaraa attacks in February of last year. Today, many humanitarian workers, mostly Iraqi nationals, are warning that another big sectarian explosion might be in the making if the world continues to watch and wait without taking the necessary moves to end the entire political crisis.

Complaints are also flooding in to Geneva from Darfur over deteriorating security conditions and inadequate humanitarian assistance. "Millions are still at risk. The need is urgent to put pressure on all the parties to the conflict -- government, rebels and neighbouring countries -- so as to convince all involved of the need to spare civilians and to facilitate the continuously interrupted work of humanitarian agencies that are always accused by the government of being spies for the West and at times, by some rebels, of turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by the government," said one humanitarian worker just back from Darfur.

According to this worker, the impact of ongoing political talks here and there on the situation in Darfur is not yet visible. Civilians still suffer and humanitarian workers are still hampered from carrying out their mission, either in providing relief or restoring family links or general social stability. According to humanitarian workers, due to unending violence, family reunifications are proving tough. Many families are separated with children having fled to neighbouring Chad while parents stay behind in refugee camps in Darfur and face ongoing threats and acts of violence.

With the failure of the Sudanese government, rebels and mediators to find an answer to the political problem in Darfur, most humanitarian organisations and agencies have been calling for an increase of budgets allocated to reduce suffering in Darfur. Some have been successful in securing more funds but have been interrupted by the Sudanese government as they seek to allocate funds and aid to those in need. On the other hand, groups who maintain close ties with the Sudanese Red Crescent and other concerned national Sudanese NGOs have been able, reportedly, to gain access to the many millions who are still at risk across Darfur.

Anna Schaff, ICRC media relations officer for Central, Southern and the Horn of Africa, says that the ICRC has no illusions about the workload ahead in Darfur, especially regarding displaced persons living in remote and almost cut-off rural areas and nomadic communities who need protection for themselves and their livestock.

A few weeks ago, the ICRC asked for an enhancement of its Darfur budget from over $70 million to close to $90 million. More money might still be needed depending on political developments and their impact on military confrontations on the ground. In Darfur, Schaff stressed, there is basically very little infrastructure to count on in terms of clean water, health services -- especially vaccinations -- and electricity. A significant issue, indeed, is simple food and shelter for residents of razed villages.

Turmoil in Darfur is compounded by the influx of refugees from neighbouring Chad. UNHCR estimates that there are about 45,000 Chadian refugees in Darfur. Last Friday, UNHCR Spokeswoman Helen Causc said that the Sudanese government asked UNHCR to provide assistance to Chadian refugees. A UNHCR assessment mission is expected this week to arrive in Darfur for this purpose.

And in the words of Mohamed Dyri, UNHCR head of desk for Chad and Darfur, the two-way influx of refugees across the borders of Sudan's Western zone of Darfur and Chad is "a crisis that is hard to overstate". Dyri says that UNHCR also has to worry about refugees fleeing political turmoil from the Central Africa Republic to southern Darfur.

Many humanitarian workers say that any figure that is offered for the number of refugees passing from and to Darfur is only an assessment; that reality is impossible to verify. The only thing that can be easily verified is the unmistakable misery of the sick and needy who cannot access the hospitals or basic assistance established by humanitarian aid organisations due to the ongoing fighting or the closure of roads through bombardment. The general assessment is that close to a quarter of a million people have died since the Darfur crisis peaked over four years ago, with close to 2.5 million displaced in and out of Darfur, excluding refugees from Chad and the Central Africa Republic.

Humanitarian workers say that a prompt agreement between the Sudanese government and the international community on a peace-keeping mission would make their task much less difficult. "Much easier" is a far-fetched dream in such a precarious situation. "Currently there are areas that are really very hard to reach due to the intense fighting in which so many local and regional parties participate aggressively," one humanitarian worker said.

Late last month, Guterres said that, "without peace [in Darfur], there is no miracle. No security force will be able to provide security in the whole of Darfur... even if you have 100,000 policemen." Even then, some argue, the process of returning Darfur to stability could take many years. "The conflict in Darfur has been particularly characterised by many gender-based and sexual violations. This type of massive assault against women continues and it is this type of assault in a tribal and Muslim community like that of Darfur that would make the healing process very long and very difficult," said one humanitarian worker who asked for his name to be withheld.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers gave the green light for a 40 million euros aid package to the African Union (AU) peace-keeping force already in Darfur. Some humanitarian workers who served in Darfur argue that the impact of an upgraded AU mission will be minimal in the absence of a political deal between combatant parties. This week, Britain, France and the United States said they were calling for faster progress in bolstering the AU peace-keeping force in Darfur and promoting a political settlement of the four-year conflict. Ambassadors from the three countries asked to see UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon Friday to discuss "where we are on Sudan" because there is "a lot of concern about [what] progress [has been made]," Britain's Emyr Jones Parry told the press.

The request for a meeting comes after Moon urged the US and Britain late last month to hold off on their call for sanctions against Sudan if the country doesn't agree to a UN peace-keeping force for Darfur.

In Somalia, too, humanitarian workers are complaining about difficulties encountered in reaching out to targeted and unprotected civilians. Aid workers are only reaching about a third of the thousands afflicted by Mogadishu's worst fighting in years, the UN assistant high commissioner for operations said Monday after visiting the Somali capital. John Holmes is the most senior UN official to visit the city in 10 years. His trip was overshadowed by continued violence in the capital.

The UN estimates that recent battles between rebels and allied Somali-Ethiopian forces have killed some 1,300 civilians and triggered one of the fastest and steepest displacement crises in the world, however, UNHCR said this week that, "people are [slowly] trickling back to areas of the Somali capital that were unaffected by the clashes." The UN, for its part, estimates that more than 300,000 people fled the shell-scarred city in recent weeks alone.

"In terms of numbers and access to them, Somalia is a worse displacement crisis than Darfur or Chad, or anywhere else this year," Holmes said this week. "We estimate we are only reaching 35-40 per cent of those in need... many are already suffering from a cholera outbreak."

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