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Ration cuts add to misery of Darfur’s poorest

Khamisa Tafaela is frantic about her 10-month-old son Nabil Abdulkarim, crying miserably in her lap. She has already lost one child to the same vomiting and diarrhoea in the same Darfur camp.

Painstakingly, she squeezes gooey paste into his reluctant mouth from the energy-meal sachets provided after a doctor’s visit, but Nabil writhes and twists his head away, uninterested, his tiny thin legs dangling off her lap.

”Last night he got worse. He cried all night. I had one child with the same problems and the child died three years ago,” says Khamisa, bouncing a wailing Nabil up and down before strapping him to her back.

She doesn’t know why he fell ill, but Ardamata, a sprawling expanse of huts providing little reprieve from the burning sun or torrential seasonal rains, is a difficult place to live for about 27 000 Darfuris made homeless by war.

In the four to five years that she, her bricklayer husband and five children have lived in the camp in West Darfur, life has been grim.

She now has to contend with a second month of halved food rations from the international community, although special nutritional programmes for the under-fives such as Nabil, who are considered most at risk, have not been affected.

Camp elders, all men, are beginning to blame what they consider the all-powerful United Nations for letting them go hungry five years into the war.

The World Food Programme (WFP) says food cuts are a forced necessity. It has plenty of food in the warehouses but massively deteriorated security, banditry, hijackings and kidnappings makes it simply too dangerous to deliver.

The UN agency expects to feed 1,2-million people in Darfur, but since May, rations of cereals, pulses and sugar have been cut by 50%, and the daily kilo calorie allowance per person slashed by 40% from 2 156 to 1 242.

Humanitarian officials consider June to October the hunger season — when food stores are running low and next year’s harvest has yet to be gathered.

Last August, the acute malnutrition rate in Darfur among under-fives was 16,1%, above the emergency threshold of 15%.

”Before, the food lasted 25 days. Now only 10 days. We do get some food from the market, but sometimes we go without, we reduce our meals and sometimes we sleep without food. We have no option,” says one of the women sitting with Khamisa.

”At one point you even cry. You see a problem and you can’t help these people,” says one African expatriate worker in a camp in southern Darfur where nutritional surveys have shown that severe malnutrition is still high.

At a food distribution point in Ardamata, a handwritten sign lists rations per person per month: 6,75kg of cereals, 0,5kg of corn soya blend, 0,9kg of vegetable oil, 0,45kg of sugar, 0,3kg of salt and 0,9kg of pulses.

”They should increase the rations to what they were before and register the new people. The UN has greater ability and power to solve this problem, to save our lives,” says Sheikh Adam Abdallah Ismail, with 14 children.

”Now things are getting worse. All our women are looking for work — brick making, domestic work and even then we are reducing our meals. Even for our children we are reducing,” he adds.

With the onset of rain, opportunities for brick-making are drying up. The men say they it is too dangerous for them to look for work outside the camp, the perimeter of which is guarded by Sudanese government security.

”It’s impossible. Even if we go 1km outside, they [Sudanese troops] will shoot us,” says Sheikh Yusif Haroun Adam.

Neither has it proved safe for the WFP. So far this year, 79 WFP trucks have been hijacked, with 53 contracted and one WFP truck still missing and 39 drivers unaccounted for. Two drivers have been killed in Darfur.

Officials say air drops are four times more expensive than ground delivery and therefore even more impractical. One ton of food costs $500 to move by air. The monthly food requirement throughout Darfur is about 40 000 tons.

The UN-led military and police peacekeeping force provides assistance, but is so severely under-equipped and under-manned it is already over-stretched.

”If they are not getting the food, it’s going to be very tough. And we are getting ready for that … We need to compensate lack of food with more protection,” says Balla Keita, the West Darfur peacekeeping commander.

But for now, the WFP is turning to the Sudanese government — which has a role in providing security for convoys despite also being a party to the conflict in Darfur — that the UN agency says is helping.

”We have 800 trucks on a 2 000km route at any one time. To provide constant convoys is more than their [the UN-led force’s] capacity at the moment,” says Sally Haydock, head of the WFP area office in west Darfur.

”GOS [the government of Sudan] is providing convoy escorts, several times a week and has pledged to increase the frequency to every 48 hours,” she added.

Azeb Asrat, her counterpart in South Darfur — the most populous state in the region — says government escorts have improved food deliveries by 35%. — Sapa-AFP

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Jennie Matthew
Matthews is an AFP New York correspondent. Previously in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Sudan and Middle East

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