Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Sudanese children are fed at a nutrition center at a refugee camp in western Darfur in June 2004. Doctors Without Borders, which operates the center, is one of more than a dozen aid agencies that Sudan has ordered out of Darfur.
Sudanese children are fed at a nutrition center at a refugee camp in western Darfur in June 2004. Doctors Without Borders, which operates the center, is one of more than a dozen aid agencies that Sudan has ordered out of Darfur. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
The Sudanese government has shut down more than a dozen aid groups working in Darfur in the wake of the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
As a result, millions of people will go without the basic necessities of life.
The ICC issued the warrant on charges of war crimes in Darfur on Wednesday, and the Sudanese government was ready to act.
The United Nations says Khartoum has ordered 13 major aid groups working in Darfur to shut down, revoking all the groups' licenses.
The government also told the international aid groups to hand over their laptops, personal computers, staff lists, bank account numbers and to get out of northern Sudan.
"Nobody knew what to expect," says Alun McDonald, a spokesman for Oxfam UK in Nairobi. "We didn't know how the government would react. We certainly had no reason to believe that they would react as they have done."
Judges for the ICC have been considering the case against Bashir since July. And in the months leading to Wednesday's arrest warrant, aid groups in Darfur had been preparing for the humanitarian equivalent of a hurricane. They began retrenching their foreign staff, gathering their possessions close and looking for signs of what was to come.
Kurt Tjossem, the regional director of the International Rescue Committee, says that in preparation for the announcement, the group decided it would be closed on Wednesday and Thursday in case there were demonstrations and reopen on Sunday. The organization has relief operations in Darfur and across Sudan.
"We were able to, at the very least, prepare for a security event. But certainly not for something like this," he says.
Anyone who has weathered a hurricane knows that you're never quite sure you'll get a direct hit until the storm makes landfall. And for many Sudanese, Wednesday may have been that landfall.
The aid groups targeted by the government supply millions of people in Darfur and other parts of the country with clean water, sanitation, food and medical care. Some of these groups have been in Sudan for almost 30 years. They now have less than a month to appeal to the government to continue their work.
But the Sudanese government has implied that aid groups conspired with the ICC against Bashir. Meini Nicolai, who directs operations for Doctors Without Borders, Belgium, told reporters in Johannesburg that her organization has not given out any information.
"We think it is a non-respect of an independent humanitarian organization to be linked to political issues," she said, adding that her organization is outraged by the government's actions.
But outrage may not go far enough to restore what has been lost to the Sudanese people this week. If the Sudanese government would or could feed its poor, shelter them and give them the schooling and medical care they need, humanitarian aid groups would be redundant. But these groups have thousands of foreign and domestic staff all over northern Sudan — for about 30 more days.