THE lives of millions of people displaced by the conflict in Darfur are "hanging in the balance", aid workers warned yesterday [Friday], with the situation in the war-torn region of western Sudan little improved from a year ago.
Despite increasing efforts to bring peace and aid to the region, violence continues and relief is still precarious in many areas with repeated reports of systematic rape, forced relocation, violence against civilians and the burning of villages.
"The humanitarian situation in Darfur today has recently been described as at an 'equilibrium' point, but if you ask the people living in one of the crowded, unsanitary and unsafe displaced camps in Darfur whether they feel they are experiencing an equilibrium, I have no doubt they will more likely tell you that their lives are dangling by the thin thread that is humanitarian aid," said Nathalie Civet, head of mission in Darfur for the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres.
In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council, Dr Civet warned that the situation in Darfur remained far from secure. "The situation is not stabilising in Darfur and the need for humanitarian assistance grows as the conflict continues," she said.
Latest figures suggest two million people now have been displaced by the conflict, with another two million affected by the war.
The number of refugees fleeing across the border into neighbouring Chad has doubled in the last 12 months, while 125,000 are now living in the Kalma refugee camp in South Darfur - up from 25,000 a year ago, MSF said.
"The scorched-earth campaign of 2003-04 has now been replaced by less overt and large-scale, but equally devastating, forms of violence and intimidation of civilians, including the effects of sporadic fighting direct attacks and sexual violence," said Dr Civet.
"In all locations where it provides medical care, MSF continues to receive and treat a significant number of victims of direct violence."
MSF said aid efforts, although late to arrive, have increased significantly over the last 12 months with the number of international non-governmental organisations rising from a handful to approximately 80.
But the humanitarian agency warned that several factors hindered further improvements in the region.
Even in the most easily accessible parts of Darfur the aid effort remains inadequate and precarious, with many people still living in makeshift shelters with insufficient water, food and medical supplies.
Relief levels seen in the larger camps are not apparent in the more remote areas, especially in refugee camps in rebel-controlled areas which aid workers still struggle to reach. Furthermore, MSF said, the continued lack of security was disrupting aid delivery.
"In terms of crude assistance to Darfur, the situation has improved compared with a year ago," said Dr Civet. "But the underlying causes of this crisis remain, and with them, widespread insecurity. In many areas, the situation is deteriorating, both in terms of humanitarian and security conditions.
"Violence resurges in places that have been reported stabilised, while some areas are still beyond sufficient reach. In Darfur today, while the nature of the conflict has changed, the fighting continues.
"People are stuck in camps or in remote areas, subject to violence and to recurring displacement. They are still waiting. Their lives are hanging in the balance, not at equilibrium."
The United Nations yesterday also accused the Khartoum government of doing nothing to tackle sexual violence in Darfur. Although the Sudanese government reacts angrily to accusations that rape is widespread, sexual attacks continue with some involving members of the security forces, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report.
"The government of Sudan needs to acknowledge the scope of the problem and to take action to end the climate of impunity in Darfur," the report said.
The report evaluated a year-old agreement with the UN in which the Sudanese government pledged to investigate abuses in Darfur immediately and "to ensure that all individuals and groups accused of human rights violations are brought to justice without delay".
While the authorities had taken some steps to tackle sexual violence, charges were still not investigated thoroughly. As a result, every week, more new cases of rape of women and girls are reported," said the report.
Rape victims themselves can face criminal charges when courts decide they cannot prove their case, which discourages women from making accusations. "Arrest, harassment and intimidation of victims of sexual violence and their supporters must end," the report said.
Speaking in New York ahead of the report's release, High Commissioner Louise Arbour said complaints against military and other law enforcement personnel were delayed indefinitely or dismissed outright.
"The government appears either unable or unwilling to hold them consistently accountable," she said.
The Sudanese government in May formed a committee on gender-based violence in South Darfur to assist law enforcement agencies in investigations. Khartoum also has established a special criminal court for Darfur but the report said it was too early to judge its impact.
"To date, most perpetrators have not been brought to justice," the report said.