KHARTOUM, Aug 17 – The recent wave of kidnappings of aid workers in Darfur has added yet another problem to the many already facing humanitarian agencies that operate in the war-torn province in western Sudan.
"The worst has happened, we are closing down," said Erwan Le Grand, general representative of France’s Aide Medicale Internationale (AMI), which is shutting its Sudan office in the wake of a series of incidents this year.
Two Sudanese workers for AMI were killed in Darfur in February and two foreign aid workers — Claire Dubois from France and Canadian Stephanie Jodoin — were kidnapped in April and held for three weeks before being released.
"The mission has always had operational difficulties linked to security, such as transport difficulties, access (to certain areas), travel and finding (suitable) people," said Le Grand, whose organisation has worked in Darfur for five years.
"But the kidnappings were the last straw. We said: ‘We cannot easily recover from that, we will no longer be able to provide care for the people’," he said.
In March Sudan expelled 13 international aid agencies and closed three local organisations following the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to issue an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Beshir on war crimes charges.
The United Nations estimates that about 300,000 people have died in Darfur since ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in 2003, complaining of discrimination.
Sudan says about 10,000 people have died.
No abductions of foreign humanitarian workers were reported before the ICC decided to issue the warrant for Beshir. Since March, however, three such kidnappings have taken place in Darfur, as well as one in eastern Chad near the border with Sudan.
Kidnappings are a new threat, added to existing dangers that include the hijackings of vehicles and armed attacks on aid agency offices to steal cash and equipment.
The Belgian section of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) ended its activities in the sensitive sector of Kebkabiya in north Darfur following the kidnapping of five of its workers, all of whom were later released.
Irish agency Goal also "suspended" its operations in Kutum in north Darfur after the kidnapping of two workers who are still being held by their captors.
The three Darfur abductions — AMI, MSF and Goal — all took place outdoors in remote areas of the province.
To avoid attracting potential kidnappers, several agencies now restrict international staff to the capitals of Darfur’s three provinces, sending them only on brief field trips to supervise projects implemented by Sudanese workers.
"Nobody wants to be kidnapped so it is difficult to keep people in areas where there have been kidnappings," a foreign aid official said.
"There are very few international staff based outside the state capitals and main cities of Darfur. They do day trips or short trips of two or three days" on the ground, he said.
"A lot of experienced aid workers don’t want to be in Darfur… It is a challenge to recruit qualified international staff," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The consequence is that young people are often put in charge of high-risk missions, he said.
AMI’s Le Grand said: "We are sometimes forced to send inexperienced people. In our case, the decision was to say ‘we can’t find (people), so we will stop working in those conditions’."