Providing Aid For Darfur Isn't Easy

Allen Pizzey has been a CBS News correspondent based in Rome since l989. Before that, he worked out of the CBS News bureaus in Athens (1982-89) and Johannesburg (1980-82).

Flying into this rundown town in the middle of Darfur in a clattering Russian MI-8 helicopter with only half its gauges functioning gives one a fine perspective of just how vast the problems are here — and how hard it is for even the most dedicated of aid workers to make a difference.

This isn't exactly the middle of nowhere. But if the dust wasn't so thick and the haze created by 112 degrees of sunlight beating off the anvil of the earth so eye-squinting, there is a good chance you could see it from here.

Just outside the town, some 21,000 people, mostly women and children, have settled down for the long haul in a sprawling camp of grass and stick huts.

Driven from their homes in the hinterland by marauding bands of militias, they are officially called IDPs — Internally Displaced Persons. It's another way of saying that they are totally dependent on the kindness of strangers, because without food aid, they would die. About 2.5 million people have been displaced by the war here.

It's not that any of them want to be in camps, but it is the only way they have access to food and a modicum of safety.

About 80 percent of the aid distributed in the camp by the World Food Programme (WFP) is given to women, like those shown on the left. Since the women do the cooking, this ensures that the food goes to those who need it. Men might sell the aid, or, if they have more than one wife, favor one of their families over the others.

Hadja Idris Adam, tall, slim and strikingly beautiful in a bright green dress of the flowing style favored by women and girls in this part of the world, was collecting her ration of grain, sorghum, salt, cooking oil and sugar.

"We are safe here," Hadja Idris said though an interpreter. "If we go out of the camp, the Janjaweed may rape us."

The Janjaweed are an ethnic Arab militia that has preyed on black African tribes. The camel- and horseback-mounted raiders, backed by — and some say a creation of — the Sudanese government, are generally seen as the main problem. But in fact, the militia has splintered, as have others that were formed by warlords, political figures and tribal groups simply trying protect themselves, to the point where there are at least a dozen armed groups causing havoc across Darfur. An estimated 1,500 villages have been burned.

Roughly the size of Texas, Darfur is described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Virtually all of the food aid distributed here is provided by the World Food Programme. The WFP, the world's largest aid agency, feeds some 90 million people in 80 of the world's poorest countries.

Sudan, and the Darfur region in particular, provides a unique challenge, not merely because of the size of the region and the scale of the crisis but also because of the security.

Militias are very fond of the four-wheel-drive vehicles that are the only way to take the aid on what passes for roads here, so they tend to hijack them on a regular basis. The WFP lost at least 120 vehicles last year — and when we visited last week, the count for this year was up to 49. Some are retrieved, usually after they have been crashed by looters with little if any idea how to drive. Others end up in the used car markets of neighboring Chad.

Increasingly, the militias have been kidnapping aid agency staff, mainly local Sudanese. While so far almost all of them have been released unharmed, the situation grows worse by the day.

Chris Czerwinski (left), an amiable Canadian who runs the north Darfur sector of the WFP operation, describes the situation as "nightmarish." Given that he's a veteran of relief efforts in Chechnya and several other similar garden spots, that's a serious indictment. And he says, it's getting worse.

"Initially we were able to communicate with the various rebel factions and inform them that we were coming," he said. "Generally, they were very cooperative and let us enter the areas with very little threat back in the early summer last year. But with the splintering of the different factions that are involved, communication has become very difficult and sometimes commanders are not aware that we are there or there are junior commanders that are taking advantage of the situation."

Technically, the 7,000 soldiers of the African Union force here, known as AMIS (African Mission in Sudan) are supposed to be on hand to help keep aid workers safe. But as several put it, with some sympathy, it has to be said, "They can barely protect themselves."