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Darfur Activists See Aid Crisis As Test For Obama

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Darfur Activists See Aid Crisis As Test For Obama

World

Darfur Activists See Aid Crisis As Test For Obama

Darfur Activists See Aid Crisis As Test For Obama

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101982539/101986479" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir told a rally in Khartoum on Monday that Sudan will no longer need international NGOs in war-ravaged Darfur in a year's time. Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir told a rally in Khartoum on Monday that Sudan will no longer need international NGOs in war-ravaged Darfur in a year's time.

Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president two weeks ago, the government has been stepping up pressure on the international community.

First, Sudan kicked out more than a dozen aid groups that were helping people in the Darfur region in the west of the country. Now, President Omar al-Bashir says he wants all foreign aid groups out within a year. The situation is quickly becoming a test for the Obama administration, which came in talking tough about the genocide in Darfur.

Joel Charny of the advocacy group Refugees International says one way to look at the expulsion of aid workers is to picture the displaced camps in Darfur as large towns. Then think about what would happen if the towns' biggest hospitals were closed and the water system contaminated. That's basically what is happening in the Kalma camp in Darfur, Charny says, where there is now fear of a meningitis outbreak.

"The estimate is that 100,000 people need to be vaccinated, and that's in Kalma camp and one other camp," he says. "MSF — Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] — was responsible for health services in those camps and there's simply no agency to replace them at this point."

At the United Nations, the man in charge of emergency relief operations, John Holmes, says this is one area that he's working on now — trying to mount a vaccination campaign and fill the many gaps left by the expelled aid groups.

Holmes is also trying to get a better sense of what Bashir means by his latest threat — to get rid of all foreign aid groups and "Sudanize" relief work in the country.

"Obviously, the idea that we would simply hand over goods at the port to be distributed or monitored without our involvement is not one that would be acceptable to us," Holmes says. "We need to make sure that our aid is distributed and monitored according to our standards, so it doesn't look very realistic to us as presently expressed. But, as I say, we'll be seeking clarification and hoping that this is not a decision which will actually be implemented in the way that has been suggested."

Activists who held a teleconference about Darfur on Monday say Bashir seems to be in the mood to escalate his standoff with the West, and they see this as a test not only for the United Nations but for the Obama administration.

John Norris of the Enough Project called on President Obama to lead a concerted diplomatic effort to make it clear to Khartoum that its behavior is unacceptable. Jerry Fowler, who runs the Save Darfur Coalition, is also waiting to see the White House act.

"Why is there a disconnect between how passionately and articulately candidate Obama addressed the issue of Darfur and said that the genocide there is a stain on our souls — and what President Obama is doing and saying now with millions of lives at stake?" Fowler says. "We need presidential engagement and we need it now."

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said he expects the administration will name a special envoy for Sudan, but no decision has been made. Fowler says the situation on the ground won't wait for U.S. policy reviews.

"If the administration is not ready to appoint the envoy, then there needs to be a temporary owner — someone who is already onboard needs to drop what he or she is doing and focus on this crisis, because it's not going to wait," Fowler says.

As for the aid groups, Charny of Refugees International says they should be allowed back to Darfur because of the humanitarian needs and should not be part of any deal-making on the International Criminal Court case against Bashir.

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