Collecting water, Kalma camp, Sudan, 2004. Credit: Adrian McIntyre/Oxfam
The Darfur crisis is still as real as ever

Northern Sudan: 12 months since Oxfam GB's expulsion

“Having to increase emergency aid, remaining agencies have therefore had to de-prioritize important longer-term development projects such as supporting education and livelihoods.”

On 4 March 2009, Oxfam Great Britain (GB) was one of 16 international and Sudanese organizations whose licences to work in northern Sudan were revoked. Alun McDonald looks at what has happened since.

It’s one year today since the expulsions brought an abrupt end to 25 years of Oxfam GB programs in northern Sudan. These projects were working with around 500,000 people in some of the poorest communities in the region, and were forced to shut down almost overnight.

So what has happened in the following 12 months?

Darfur crisis still as real as ever

In some areas we don’t really know. With fewer agencies on the ground, information has partly dried up. The crisis in Darfur has gradually faded from the international media spotlight and become yet another forgotten, complicated African conflict. But for many communities it is still as real as ever. This week there have been reports of some of the heaviest fighting in Darfur in many months, with thousands of people displaced and up to 400 people killed in the mountainous Jebel Marra region. Civilians in the camps and villages still lack the protection they have been promised for years.

In recent months there has been a lot of talk that the war in Darfur is over, or at least in its last throes. While it’s gladly true that a lot of the large-scale attacks on civilians that marked the early years of the crisis have reduced, and the dynamics of the conflict have changed, the violence is certainly not over. Areas where Oxfam GB used to work have been affected. In Shangil Tobai, a small town near the border of North and South Darfur where Oxfam GB was providing water and sanitation, around 8,000 mainly women and children have arrived in the past few months, fleeing new fighting and attacks on villages. The UN warned that many of them faced “desperate shortages” of water, food and other basic services – aid that would previously have been provided quickly by the expelled agencies.

However, in most parts of Darfur the remaining international and Sudanese organizations – including our sister agency Oxfam America and some of our community partners – have stepped up their emergency responses, filling some of the most urgent gaps. A major humanitarian emergency has largely been averted – at least in the sense that what is still one of the biggest crises in the world has not got substantially worse.

Longer term development has suffered

But the biggest impact of the expulsions has been felt in other ways. Having to increase emergency aid, remaining agencies have therefore had to de-prioritize important longer-term development projects such as supporting education and livelihoods. After seven years of war, and major demographic changes with rapid urbanisation and millions stuck in camps, these are the kind of programs that Darfur communities need if they are to rebuild their lives and their region, and if peace is to be truly sustainable.

Support for victims of violence, particularly rape and sexual assault, has also suffered. 14 of the 16 expelled agencies had projects working to support victims of sexual violence and many of the trauma counselling projects, women’s health centers and support networks that were shut down have not been adequately replaced. Meanwhile women in and out of camps continue to live in fear of rape.

Oxfam supported schools in some of Port Sudan's poorest neighborhoods. People from all over Sudan arrived in the city after fleeing war and drought. The schools gave hundreds of children the chance at an education. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam

Abductions commonplace

For the aid agencies that remain, the security environment is as bad as ever, and in some ways even worse. Kidnappings of foreign aid workers have become commonplace – fortunately most have eventually been released unharmed, although one French aid worker is still being held after more than four months in captivity. These abductions have forced many agencies to scale back their presence outside the biggest towns. Unfortunately these areas – including the most remote and rural areas – are arguably where assistance is most needed.

Most of the attention after the expulsions focused on the impact in Darfur. But Oxfam GB’s programs also covered some of the other neglected parts of northern Sudan. We were one of the few agencies working in the eastern Red Sea State – one of the poorest and least developed parts of the whole country.

These communities have been left far more vulnerable than before.

I’m still in touch with many of our local Sudanese staff who lost their jobs after the expulsion – some of whom were working for Oxfam for many years. Some have found other employment, but many have not. Some still meet up in the cafes and parks of Khartoum and Darfur to reminisce about their old work and colleagues. Emails I get are full of pride for what was achieved, and sadness that projects that were making a real difference to people’s lives were ended. 

Next 12 months crucial

So what does the future hold for Oxfam GB in Sudan? We continue to work in the south of the country, which has recently witnessed a major upsurge in violence and displacement. The next 12 months will be crucial for Sudan, with the first national multi-party elections in 24 years scheduled for April and a referendum – where southerners will decide whether to remain part of a united Sudan or secede and become the world’s newest country – to take place next January.

International attention has rightly begun to focus more on the whole country and the fragile Sudan-wide Comprehensive Peace Agreement, rather than just on Darfur. But the needs in the north remain enormous, and I hope that Darfur and eastern Sudan will not now be forgotten. We hope one day that we can return to the north and resume work there.

Following Oxfam GB’s expulsion, Oxfam America continues to work in Darfur, providing clean water, sanitation and long-term development, and still needs your support.

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