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Darfur: World must act, millions of lives at stake

World must act now on Darfur, with millions of lives at stake – UN relief chief

18 February 2005 – The situation in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region is deteriorating rapidly, more than 4 million people could be in desperate need of life-saving aid by mid-year, and the Security Council and world at-large must act now to put a robust force on the ground and pressure on all sides, the top United Nations relief official warned today.

Humanitarian aid cannot be a substitute for necessary political and security action, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told a news briefing on the conflict, which began in early 2003 when rebels took up arms against Government forces but has since been compounded by attacks by Janjaweed and other militias against villages and civilians.

The basic lesson of earlier crises like Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda is "that too often the world sends us, the band aid, and the world believes that we keep people alive and then they don't have to take a political and security action. This is wrong and that's why we are really tired of being that kind of a substitute for political and security action," he said, calling for sanctions, though without specifying against which side.

"It's now one year since the world woke up to what we in the UN had already described for two to three months as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world," he added. Since then the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has doubled to between 1.8 million and 1.9 million "and it's growing by the day."

Painting an overall grim picture, he noted on the positive side that the humanitarian community – UN, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Red Cross and Red Crescent family – "have done our bit," with 9,000 aid workers on the ground, close to 1,000 of them international.

"We did prevent the massive famine that many predicted, but I think now it's time to say we may perhaps not be able to do so in the coming months if the situation keeps on deteriorating as it has," he said, calling for a tsunami-style increase in relief, a reference to the vast outpouring of international aid in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean disaster in December.

The number of IDPs and the many hundreds of thousands of others now outside of the camps who are in desperate need of assistance is bound to increase, he warned, adding: "Some are predicting 3 million, some are predicting 4 million, some are predicting more than that of people in desperate need of life-saving assistance as we approach the hunger gap in mid-year…whose lives will be at stake."

But again, relief aid is not enough. "The Security Council has to act. The safe zone of Bosnia and many other historic examples show us that humanitarians are good at putting plaster on a wound but if you don't heal the wound, many, many more people will die because there is a war on," he warned, noting that the insecurity was also preventing humanitarian groups from reaching hundreds of thousands of those in need.

"We are very afraid of the security of our workers in the field," he said, noting that "armed men in the militias are getting away with murder of women and children and it is still happening and those who direct these militias are also getting away with murder," due to massive impunity for what an inquiry commission has called massive war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Eight workers have been killed, our helicopters have been shot at, our trucks are being looted there, we are paralyzed," Mr. Egeland added. "We could have provided daily bread for more than 2 million people. We are at best giving to 1.5 million people. This cannot continue as now."

He called for a four- or five-fold increase in the African Union (AU) monitoring force in Darfur, now numbering between 1,800 to 1,900; more pressure on the Government, the rebels, ethnic and local leaders "who take those positions that lead to massive killing of women and children;" and robust mediation.

"It is an area bigger than France and it's filled with only one thing, there is only thing that there is abundance of in Darfur and that's sort of angry young men with Kalashnikovs and other automatic arms," Mr. Egeland said.

"Our staff on the ground is really working around the clock and are burning themselves out faster than anywhere else that I've seen in recent memory," he added. "I wish we had a fraction of [the Indian Ocean tsunami aid mobilization] for the Darfur tsunami which has displaced many more and which is potentially taking also more lives altogether unless action is taken."

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