USAID/OFDA advocates for humanitarian access in Darfur, Sudan

When FY 2003 came to a close in September 2003, the world was just beginning to notice Darfur. Reports of an increasingly brutal civil war and widespread human rights abuses, including deliberate bombing of civilians, looting and destruction of livelihoods, and systematic rape and murder, began emerging from Darfur in April 2003. By October, approximately 65,000 Sudanese had fled Darfur to makeshift refugee camps across the border with Chad, where they described the atrocities taking place in Darfur to relief workers.

As NGOs, U.N. agencies, human rights groups, and donor governments worked to verify these reports and coordinate a response to the needs of hundreds of thousands of conflict-affected people still inside Darfur, the Government of Sudan (GOS) denied visas to relief workers, journalists, and human rights advocates, and imposed travel restrictions on humanitarian personnel already operating in Darfur. As a result, access remained extremely limited to conflict-affected populations outside of the state capitals of Geneina, El Fasher, and Nyala. The GOS had effectively blinded the world to the scale of the destruction and the tremendous humanitarian needs of IDPs and communities ravaged by the conflict.

While international concern mounted for the plight of Darfuri civilians caught up in the conflict, USAID/OFDA personnel on the ground in Darfur began to provide regular reporting on the humanitarian situation to inform USAID's response to the crisis. Following USAID Administrator Andrew S. Natsios' trip to Darfur in October 2003, USAID/OFDA deployed a Senior Field Officer to Sudan specifically to assess and report on humanitarian needs in Darfur. After more than two weeks of waiting in Khartoum, the Senior Field Officer received a travel permit to Darfur in December 2003 and established a USAID/OFDA field presence.

Working in Darfur with NGOs and U.N. agencies from late 2003 to early 2004, the Senior Field Officer painted a grim picture of the deteriorating humanitarian situation, and USAID/OFDA's publicly released situation reports called attention to the lack of humanitarian access and the increasing number of vulnerable civilians beyond the reach of the humanitarian community. USAID/OFDA soon deployed additional staff to the region to enhance reporting capabilities.

In February 2004, USAID/OFDA facilitated a trip to the three capitals of Darfur led by Roger P. Winter, USAID Assistant Administrator for the Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. This trip, along with the reporting of USAID/OFDA's field staff, helped lay the foundation for Assistant Administrator Winter's powerful testimony on March 11, 2004 before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Africa and his press statements on March 31 at the Inter-Sudanese Conflict Meeting in N'Djamena, Chad, where he declared that:

"From the very beginning of the present U.S. administration, the United States has had three goals in its relationship with Sudan; one of those three has always been full humanitarian access for the international community to vulnerable Sudanese populations. We [USAID] thus have been directed by the White House to actively pursue full humanitarian access in Darfur and a ceasefire between all parties to allow that humanitarian access to be maximally effective."

The attention afforded the Darfur crisis at the highest levels of USAID demonstrated to the world USAID's resolve to shine a light on the suffering of civilians in Darfur and advocate for increased access of humanitarian workers to populations in need. Following USG (including USAID) and EU facilitated negotiations in N'Djamena, Chad, the two main opposition groups -- the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) -- and the GOS signed a renewable 45-day humanitarian ceasefire on April 8, 2004.

With the expectation that security and access would improve, USAID Administrator Natsios directed USAID/OFDA to deploy USAID/Disaster Assistance Response Team (USAID/DART). Although the DART Leader arrived in Sudan on April 11, the day that the ceasefire agreement was scheduled to take effect, the GOS did not grant visas to additional members of the team. As the 14-person team waited for visas, the USAID/DART Leader and USAID/OFDA field staff already in Darfur provided continuous field reporting to inform the USAID Administrator and others engaged in USAID's advocacy for increased humanitarian access.

During April and May 2004, USAID Administrator Natsios and Assistant Administrator Winter issued frequent public statements calling upon the GOS to allow humanitarian workers unrestricted access to conflict-affected populations in Darfur. When Assistant Administrator Winter testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations on May 6, he stated:

"Every day, new and credible information surfaces about continued Jingaweit attacks, including executions of men and boys in cold blood and rapes of women and girls searching for water or firewood. There are even reports surfacing about mass graves being found."

Diplomatic and public pressure against the GOS to allow relief workers into Darfur escalated as the overwhelming evidence of dire humanitarian conditions for civilians entered the public domain. The GOS granted visas to members of the USAID/DART, who immediately deployed to Sudan and began to coordinate the USG humanitarian response. On May 24, 2004 as a result of intense USG-led international pressure, the GOS lifted some of the restrictive travel regulations and announced a series of measures to facilitate humanitarian access to Darfur. Although serious obstacles remained throughout FY 2004, this represented a major breakthrough. On April 1, 2004, OCHA reported that 36 international humanitarian personnel were working in Darfur. By the time U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived in El Fasher, North Darfur, on June 30, 2004, this figure had increased more than nine fold to 322.

As a source of information that helped to drive USAID's public advocacy, USAID/OFDA provided an invaluable service to the USG, the international community, and, ultimately, to the people of Darfur. In the case of Darfur, USAID/OFDA's role in public advocacy was as much responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives as its role in funding and coordinating the humanitarian operation.