Open Season on Aid Workers?

To the extent that anyone who is shot in the face can be considered fortunate, Marian Spivey-Estrada can count her lucky stars. On March 21, the 26-year-old United States Agency for International Development (USAID) worker from Henderson, Kentucky, was traveling in a humanitarian convoy en route to a refugee camp in the south Darfur region of Sudan when her vehicle came under attack.

Details of the ambush are still murky. But in the volley of gunfire that ensued, Spivey-Estrada was the only member of her Disaster Assistance Relief Team to get hit. Miraculously, the bullet missed her central nervous system. Medical workers in her convoy treated her on the scene, and African Union (AU) monitors evacuated her to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, where her condition is holding stable. On Sunday, she was flown back to the United States and will undergo reconstructive surgery.

Though a senior USAID official was killed outside his home in Amman, Jordan, in 2002, Spivey-Estrada is the first American USAID worker to be shot in the line of duty in the aid organization's 44-year history. Immediately following the attack, Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs Ibrahim Mahmud Hamid blamed Spivey-Estrada's injury on a stray bullet. He later adjusted that claim to declare that, beyond a doubt, the rebels were responsible for the attack. A USAID spokeswoman said that, as of March 23, it was unclear whether Spivey-Estrada was the victim of a random attack, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the AU monitors in Darfur to investigate the incident.

While it's doubtful that the attackers intended to single out the USAID team from the other trucks in the convoy, the hit on clearly marked humanitarian vehicles may have been ordered by the highest rungs of the Khartoum central government.

According to Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has written extensively on the conflict in Sudan for The Washington Post and other publications and testified before Congress, the central government in Khartoum has devised a policy of targeting foreign humanitarian workers in Darfur. “Khartoum has ambitious plans for accelerating the obstruction of humanitarian access by means of orchestrated violence and insecurity,” explains Reeves, “including the use of targeted violence against humanitarian aid workers.” To back up his claim, Reeves cites well-placed intelligence sources and relays outrageous accusations by government officials that aid organizations are running guns for the rebels.

Reeves' contention is also supported by news accounts of a surge in armed attacks against foreign humanitarian workers in Darfur since the second week in March. On March 15, that new front apparently opened when Janjaweed militiamen carjacked a convoy of United Nations trucks driven by Sudanese UN contractors delivering aid to a refugee camp in west Darfur. They let the drivers live, but instructed them to tell their employers that it was now open season on foreigners in the province. Two days later, the UN envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, ordered his foreign staff in west Darfur to relocate to the relatively secure confines of the region's capital city.

To be sure, the central government tries to portray the Janjaweed as bandits beyond Khartoum's control. But collusion between the Janjaweed and the government of Sudan has been a hallmark of a two-and-a-half-year genocidal campaign that has made refugees of 2 million Darfurians and claimed the lives of some 300,000 people. In January 2005, Antonio Cassese, a past president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, led a UN fact-finding team in Darfur that found evidence of a criminal back channel between Janjaweed commanders and the Sudanese government. The report further alleges that Khartoum entered into a joint criminal conspiracy with the Janjaweed to purge the non-Arab population of Darfur.

To that end, it appears that Khartoum's new policy of targeting humanitarian workers was plotted in anticipation of a Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of 10,000 peacekeepers to enforce an accord in southern Sudan. On March 24, the resolution finally passed and ,to the displeasure of Khartoum officials, it contained a vaguely worded provision allowing the UN peacekeeping force to liaise with the 3,000-strong AU monitoring mission in Darfur.

Aid organizations that operate in Darfur offer a steady conduit by which tales of civilian suffering at the hands of government forces leak to the outside world. Meanwhile, the minister of humanitarian affairs tried to silence western aid organizations by charging that certain groups were determined to “mislead the media with the aim of disrupting Sudan's social fabric.” Thus, on the day following the Security Council's peacekeeping resolution, he announced an investigation of Oxfam, MSF Holland, the International Rescue Committee, and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Should Khartoum succeed in its campaign against aid organizations and force them to evacuate Darfur, the genocide will rapidly hasten. Currently, an estimated 10,000 people die each month in Darfur. The UN's top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, warned that that rate could increase as much as tenfold should aid organizations be forced to evacuate. “We're ending the year more or less how we started, with huge areas inaccessible to humanitarian workers," Egeland told the Financial Times in mid-December. "Attacks by any armed groups will only serve to paralyze the operation."

The paltry number of AU monitors in Darfur is nowhere near sufficient to protect humanitarian workers and keep roads clear for humanitarian convoys. Further, their mandate does not grant any specific authority to protect civilian populations. Unless the AU's role in Darfur rapidly expands by both numbers and purpose, Khartoum's new campaign against humanitarian workers may yet succeed.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow. This article originally misidentified Eric Reeves' place of employment as Bard College.

You may also like