Interview: 'Displaced in Darfur will need help for at least a year'

© Lucy Clayton/MSF
Click image for larger view

"Darfur is one of the largest aid operations ever led by MSF. All the sections are mobilized, with a total estimated budget of more than 30 million Euros."

What are the conditions the displaced population of Darfur live in today?

The displaced population numbers nearly a million people. The majority are gathered, under precarious conditions, on about 30 sites with between 5,000 to 80,000 - even 100,000 - people. They are living in haphazard shelters built with materials (branches, straw, waste...) found on the spot. Having left their homes with nothing, they do not have any food reserves and the majority depend almost entirely on food aid. From a medical point of view, there are not still enough latrines, and the supply water, both in quantity as well as quality, remains a problem.

What impact does this have on the overall health of the displaced?

On the one hand, global malnutrition remains high. In the camps at El Geneina, Zalingei, Mornay and Nyertiti, malnutrition still affects one child in five. Severe malnutrition*, fortunately, is limited to about 5%. Thanks to the general food distributions which have started to be more regular, with the blanket feeding (distribution of family rations to all families with children below a certain size) which we carry out, and our work in our therapeutic nutritional centers, the number of children in danger of dying has declined.

In addition, the poor hygeine conditions support the spread of diseases. The rainy season that began in July continues to worsen the situation. The number of children suffering from respiratory infections has increased, the diarrhoeas are frequent and, recently, we had a hepatitis E outbreak - a disease that has a high mortality rate with pregnant women. Also, in September, we feared an outbreak of malaria which could be devastating for the already weakened children.

Despite everything, overall the situation in the camps where we intervene is under control. Thanks to the installation of care structures (dispensaries, nutritional centers) by our teams, and working on prevention (vaccination, cleansing of the water points, etc), we have not been faced with large epidemics and the mortality rate in the camps has fallen below the emergency threshold of a death for 10,000 people per day.

Is the international assistance in Darfur sufficient?

The assistance was delayed and very insufficient a long time. But for about six weeks now, other NGOs have arrived and started programs. On the whole, about 30 organizations work in Darfur today.

As for food distributions, they better meet the needs now, but it is still not enough. While the situation would require a family ration distribution every 30 days, the World Food Program (WFP, an agency of UNO, note) distributes only one incomplete ration every 40 days.

© Lucy Clayton/MSF
Click image for larger view

"Assistance was delayed and very insufficient a long time. But for about six weeks now, other NGOs have arrived and started programs. On the whole, about 30 organizations work in Darfur today."

Are there still acts of violence against the refugees?

As for acts of violence, all that we can say is that the number of victims of violence who have come for care in our dispensaries has clearly fallen. As for whether that represents a real fall in violence, or simply that people do not dare to come for care, it is difficult to say.

Can one soon consider a return of the refugees to their villages?

In the long term, it is of course hoped that only the displaced will remain in the camps. But it is still too early to consider a return to the villages. On the one hand, despite the pressures of the Sudanese government, the displaced are still afraid to return. In addition, having now lost their harvests, they depend mainly on the food aid, and for a good time to relocate since they have not sown the next harvests. However as the assistance has already been poorly installed in the camps, it would be more difficult still to bring these scattered displaced to a large number of villages.

What is the extent of MSF activities in Darfur?

Darfur is one of the largest aid operations ever led by MSF. All the sections are mobilized, with a total estimated budget of more than 30 million Euros. Nearly 170 expatriates and 1,000 Sudanese work together in 26 sites where the displaced have gathered. Thanks to this mobilization and contribution, we have helped avoid a catastrophe for the moment. The mortality rate has fallen below the emergency threshold in the camps where we are present. But we also know that we cannot slacken our efforts because these people will need assistance for at least another year.

* A person suffers from moderate malnutrition when the relationship between height and weight lies between 70 and 80% of the normal ratio. They suffer from severe malnutrition when his height-weight ratio is lower than 70% of the normal ratio. Total malnutrition covers severe and moderate malnutrition.