Paranoia in Darfur

KHARTOUM: Any journalist in Africa will tell you that it is best not setting plans in stone or even inking meetings into your diary. Things rarely work out quite how you expect and a plan B is usually only the first of a series of contingency measures. The story idea that seemed so promising when viewed from an office in Nairobi soon becomes a nightmare as punctures, rains or missed appointments throw everything off the rails. Nowhere is that more true than in Darfur.

Journalists can expect all the usual problems and, for good measure, a particularly obstructive government. Sometimes I have waited 10 days for a travel permit to reach Darfur, running out of money in the process; other times I have given up after a fortnight and gone home, despite daily assurances that I would be on my way “tomorrow, Insh’Allah”.

This time it was not the government that proved to be my biggest problem. The African Union and the aid community – often my allies in exposing what is happening in Sudan’s troubled western region – treated me as some sort of leprosy-riddled time bomb.

One charity did stick out its neck for me, helping me reach a usually inaccessible town and rebel village. But only after kicking me out of its guesthouse for fear that being associated with me might imperil their work. Other agencies were less helpful. One off-the-record briefing enlightened me with alternate answers of “I don’t know” and “I can’t tell you that”. Other organisations simply refused requests for information.

Irritating though this might be, I guess it’s unfair to criticise the aid groups working in the world’s biggest humanitarian operation. This week two organisations – Oxfam and World Vision – have expressed concern about rising numbers of attacks on staff. World Vision has cut back its operation after two workers were shot in the head in South Darfur. Sticking their head above the parapet by helping journalists is increasingly a risky prospect.

Even more problematic for the agencies is maintaining a relationship with Khartoum. Last month the head of Care International in Sudan was kicked out. (I hear on the grapevine that he was expelled after a sacking a national member of staff who was passing internal emails to Khartoum’s intelligence network.) Aid agencies that engage in advocacy work, publish reports critical of the government or talk to journalists face a huge amount of scrutiny and the risk that they could be expelled for engaging in “political activity”, leaving thousands of people without support.

This has always been a factor during my previous visits to Darfur. But this time it was more intense that ever. It seems that a reasonable level of discretion is turning into utter paranoia, and once again Khartoum has succeeded in limiting the flow of information from Darfur.


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