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SUDAN: Civilians Under Siege in Refugee Camps

Ben Case

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 2 2009 (IPS) - A report by the United Nations that the Sudanese Air Force bombed northeastern Chad near a refugee camp has sparked strong condemnation from the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) following military and paramilitary attacks over the past week.

Refugees in the Zam Zam camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the Darfur region. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Refugees in the Zam Zam camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the Darfur region. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Warplanes dropped bombs near the Oure Cassoni refugee camp for people who have fled violence in Darfur on the night of Thursday, May 28, killing two Chadian nationals and injuring four, as well as killing a number of cattle, according to the U.N. mission in Chad, MINURCAT.

Oure Cassoni is seven kms outside Sudan’s territory and inside Chad, which Sudan blames for supporting the Sudanese anti-government rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Chad, in turn, accuses Sudan of sponsoring rebels there.

The attacks have forced the U.N. and other organisations to suspend their humanitarian movements in and around the Oure Cassoni camp. According to a statement by SDC president Jerry Fowler, "This behaviour – following expulsion earlier this year of 13 aid groups – further demonstrates the Sudanese government's willingness to commit outrageous acts against its civilian population."

The government's counter-insurgency campaign against JEM and other groups has resulted in 300,000 dead and 2.7 million displaced, according to U.N. estimates.

In March, Sudan expelled 13 aid groups from the Darfur region, accusing them of spying, and set a one-year deadline for all aid groups to leave the country. Many analysts saw this as a response to the arrest warrant the International Criminal Court put out on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Mar. 4.

The Sudanese government has since allowed humanitarian aid operations back into the Darfur area, but the 13 groups that were explicitly named remain banned.

The SDC sees the bombing of the Chadian refugee camp as a part of a larger, unacceptable trend by the government.

"It is past time for the United States and other world leaders to coordinate their messages and present Khartoum with a choice," Fowler said. "Either readmit previously expelled aid groups and make concrete steps toward peace, or continue obstructing peace and endangering civilians."

The latter choice, the SDC says, would lead to "real and meaningful consequences from the international community, including diplomatic isolation, targeted economic sanctions and an effective and expanded arms embargo."

Implicit in this statement is the understanding that international actions to date have been toothless and largely symbolic.

"This is going to take leadership by the U.S. and joint action by other countries," Fowler told IPS. "We want to see unimpeded humanitarian access, a cession of hostilities and eventually a peace agreement."

It remains unclear what sanctions would effectively pressure Khartoum to act. Fowler told IPS that "targeted sanctions against individuals who target civilians" is a viable option

"The U.N. has already authorised these against four people, but they are pretty peripheral. You could do that with more important figures," he said.

Despite a hybrid U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force and the presence of international aid workers, civilians in Darfur remain vulnerable to government and government-sponsored militia attacks.

This lack of security is one reason hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have fled to camps in Chad, such as Oure Cassovi.

However, cross-border bombings are only one threat to the lives of refugees in Chad. A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights details the discrimination and physical violence suffered by Sudanese women in the Farchana refugee camp in Chad.

According to the report, sexual assault is a continual threat to women living in the camp. There is insufficient food to feed everyone and 60 percent of those studied said they were hungry all the time, yet women reported being too afraid to leave the camp to gather food after many who tried have been beaten or raped.

Rape is common both in Darfur and in the refugee camps in Chad, leaving victims with multiple physical ailments such as bleeding, chronic pelvic pain and difficulty walking.

The Physicians for Human Rights report also found a significant social stigma for rape victims resulting in divorce, community rejection and even physical violence at the hands of family members.

The report noted deteriorating mental health for refugees in the 12 Chadian refugee camps. One hundred percent of women studied experienced major depressive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder along with other psychological problems.

A peace agreement in 2005 technically ended a 21-year civil war in Sudan, but violence persists and more than two million people continue to live in refugee camps in Sudan or neighbouring countries.

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