A crime wave has taken hold of Darfur. Carjackings, armed robberies and the occasional murder largely have targeted aid workers, who now say they long for an easier time in the region — when all they had to worry about was war between Darfur's rebels and nomads and the Sudanese government. The roads were safer then. In humanitarian circles, war is easy. Crime is hard.
On Monday last week, it happened to UNICEF. On Tuesday, it happened to Doctors Without Borders. And on Wednesday, on the road outside El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, it happened to a truck driver called Adam Ahmad Osman.
Nine armed bandits hijacked the World Food Program truck that Osman was driving. He was on his way back from delivering hundreds of tons of food to displaced people living in camps, so the truck was empty. It's the fourth time he has been robbed in a little more than a year. And he has every reason to believe it will happen again.
Banditry, the scourge of any war-torn frontier, is flourishing in Darfur. Nearly every aid organization has been hit, and even Sudanese government ministries have been carjacked. This year, bandits have snatched 76 World Food Program trucks; 35 drivers are still missing. And yet, when people commit such crimes, they end up robbing themselves.
Displaced Persons Suffer Most
Rokaya Mohamed Abdullah lives in the Abu Shouk camp for displaced people in El Fasher. She and her eight children depend on food aid, but the World Food Program has cut its ration because of the lack of security. In Abu Shouk, she says, people suspect that the Sudanese government may be trying to starve them out.
"Some of us are saying that the government is behind that reduction of food," Abdullah says. "They said before, they want to take us back to the villages, and we are not accepting that. So this is why they want to reduce the food to us."
Mohamed Ahmed Abdullah Yagoub also lives at Abu Shouk. He doesn't truck in rumors; the facts are compelling enough. Yagoub has six children, two wives and debts. He borrowed food from relatives to feed his family last month. And he thought he would receive his regular portion of sorghum and other foodstuffs this month. But he didn't. Now he is feeling stress from both sides: His kids are asking for milk, and his other relatives want their food back.
Crime May Limit Aid Groups' Efforts
Sooner or later, aid workers say, they are going to have to decide whether they can continue working in Darfur.
Alun McDonald works with Oxfam, a British aid organization. "There has to — at some point — be a line. And at the moment, we're not at that line. But we're pretty close," he says.
Oxfam has been providing clean water in Darfur since a famine here 20 years ago. Nowadays, the group is trying to draw less attention to itself. McDonald says Oxfam is not above renting old jalopies to get water equipment into rural areas; it's not above hiring donkeys to move stuff, either. An Oxfam driver was murdered in a carjacking two years ago. And McDonald already has survived an armed assault where he lives. He says crime is eating away at what the organization can accomplish here.
"Most of these attacks ... go unpunished — which is, of course, a perfect incentive for others to do it," McDonald says. "They see how easy it is to hijack an NGO vehicle.
"And these jackings are not happening in the middle of the night. A lot of them are happening in the middle of towns, in the camps in broad daylight, in the middle of the day," he adds.
Who are these bandits? No one — not the humanitarian groups, nor area residents, nor the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force — will say for sure.
But most agree that the situation got bad when rebels groups started to splinter. The Sudanese Liberation Army, for example, is one group that has split many times. What began as the SLA is now SLA-Minni, SLA-Wahid, SLA Free Will and SLA Unity. And there are more, perhaps 20 in all, operating in North Darfur. Government soldiers and Arab militia also are reportedly moonlighting as robbers. Knowing that something bad can happen at any time makes the long nights in Darfur even longer.
Peacekeepers, Drivers Continue Work amid Attacks
Gen. Martin Luther Agwai heads the U.N.-African Union joint peacekeeping force, called UNAMID.
"At one point, I wanted to throw in the towel myself," he says.
Even UNAMID has been carjacked while on patrol. The force is undermanned and underequipped.
But last week, Agwai got some good news. The U.N. Security Council said it would better look after UNAMID so that UNAMID can better look after Darfur.
"I'm positive now that the whole world is around to make sure we achieve the mandate," Agwai says.
Mahmoud Gibril Shogar also tries to take a positive approach to life and not worry too much. In 17 years on the road — four of them driving for the World Food Program — he has never lost a truck. Shogar waits at a warehouse as porters load his flatbed truck with sacks of U.S.-grown sorghum for transport more than 150 miles north of El Fasher.
"Really, I am very cautious," Shogar says. "I'm sure it will happen, but when depends on God."
With a limber leap into the cab of his truck, Shogar is ready to go. He may just make it — or maybe not.