Background Briefing

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Humanitarian Access in the Context of Increasing Fighting and Insecurity

The massive relief operation underway in Darfur—amidst ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity—far surpasses the humanitarian effort launched during the 1980s drought30 and is the largest operation for several of the leading international humanitarian agencies.31 There are now thirteen United Nations agencies and eighty-four nongovernmental organizations in Darfur, in total deploying 14,000 relief workers, most of them Sudanese nationals. The humanitarian operation succeeded in preventing massive deaths in 2005, and in bringing about a dramatic improvement in acute malnutrition rates among children in Darfur.32

Village by village, district by district, however, civilians in Darfur have been isolated by the persistent increase in fighting and criminal violence since late 2005. A significant portion of Darfur’s population lives in scattered no-man’s lands, run by the rule of the gun. 

The case of Golo/Rokero described below is one of many areas in dire need as humanitarian agencies have been unable to obtain sustained access because of security concerns. There are many others: another example is in Aro Sharow, where Arab militias attacked a displaced persons camp and the villages of Gosmino and Ardja in the Kulbus area of West Darfur (northwest of Jebel Marra) on September 28, 2005, reportedly leaving thirty-four civilians dead and ten wounded, and forcing more than 4,000 villagers to flee.33 At this writing, approximately eight months on, the displaced in that area have received no food distribution since the attack, and water supplies are limited. The government made only a feeble gesture at investigating the attack—one visit in eight months.34

North-eastern Jebel Marra, particularly the rural council districts of Golo and Rokero in West Darfur, witnessed heavy fighting in December 2005 and January 2006, and then throughout March. Security conditions are now so poor that no humanitarian organization has been able to establish a regular presence in those two areas since mid-January.35 According to a humanitarian worker, food aid has not reached approximately 63,000 displaced persons in the Golo area since the January fighting.36 

Since December 2005 there have been serious clashes in eastern Jebel Marra between the government forces at the Rokero base in this district together with their Janjaweed allies, and the SLA rebels who claim to control the area. The fighting has ranged over an extended area and many villages have been burned; thousands have been freshly displaced. On December 24, 2006, an SLA ambush of a government convoy near Rokero left at least fifteen people dead, including eight government soldiers and some civilians.  In retaliation, government-backed militia apparently attacked several villages in the area over the next few days and burned the market in Rokero, displacing thousands of civilians.37  On January 23, 2006, a force of 160 SLA rebels attacked government positions in Golo, killing twenty police officers and wounding sixteen others.38  The Sudanese government responded to the attack by sending in reinforcements, including Janjaweed militia from Kebkabiya and Guildo. The fighting continued for several days.

A U.N. helicopter evacuating sixteen humanitarian staff from three organizations working in Golo under the protection of AMIS came under fire on January 25.39 The helicopter crashed in the nearby town of Daya, possibly due to mechanical failure, killing one passenger, a Sudanese national working as a nutritionist.40

The violence escalated again in March and has spread to dozens of villages in eastern Jebel Marra, displacing tens of thousands of people, many of them already previously displaced. According to an eyewitness, hundreds of government soldiers and allied Arab militias raided and attacked a total of seventy villages in eastern Jebel Marra in mid-March 2006, hitting Tibon and nearby Daya in the heart of SLA territory on March 16.41

As a result of the continuing attacks, no humanitarian organization has been able to maintain a regular presence in Jebel Marra.42 While at least three organizations have visited either Golo town or rural areas in eastern Jebel Marra since January, the visits were only to conduct assessments, and little or no aid was dispensed to civilians.  According to one account, both Golo and Rokero are effectively surrounded by SLA positions and checkpoints, and roadblocks have effectively closed off vehicle access to the area; the same report confirmed the presence of large numbers of displaced persons in need of assistance.43 

In April, the ICRC managed to assess parts of the Jebel Marra region, but noted that most of the north and central region remained inaccessible and that people living in the southwest had not received any assistance for months.44  The onset of the rains will likely make it even more difficult for aid agencies to locate and assist communities who have fled even further into the mountains.

Insecurity on major roads has been a chronic problem in Darfur, but since September 2005 banditry on the roads has made humanitarian work exponentially more difficult, with armed hijackings of commercial and humanitarian trucks rendering the movement of supplies increasingly erratic and sometimes impossible.45 Standard procedure for vehicle travel in conflict zones involves arranging security guarantees with armed groups in contested areas—these, in theory, ensure safe passage for non-combatants—but in the words of one relief worker in West Darfur, “You can get a green light from the parties, but there are no interlocutors with the bandits.”46

Banditry and hijackings along the main roads leading from Geneina to the rest of West Darfur reached such dire levels in September47 that all roads leading south, west and east of the town were declared off-limits to U.N. staff.48  The next month, all roads leading out of Geneina were declared open to U.N. staff, but only with an armed escort.49  The consequent limited freedom of movement for this staff affected the delivery of assistance, and U.N. helicopters were brought to Geneina to transport personnel and deliver humanitarian assistance.

Although the ICRC is usually able to arrange security guarantees from all relevant parties, one of its field teams was attacked and robbed of cash and valuables by bandits south of Geneina in October.50  On November 1, an ICRC field-assessment team in two vehicles on its way to provide (among other things) post-operative care to war-wounded civilians was ambushed while traveling to the north of Seleah in West Darfur. Its vehicles were stolen and its staffers were robbed and left stranded on the roadside.51  The ICRC temporarily suspended its activities in Seleah and continues to limit its movements in certain areas.

[30] Alex de Waal, “Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan,” (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005).

[31] Sudan is ICRC’s largest program, with Darfur accounting for a considerable proportion of the organization’s budget and human resources. See “Overview of the ICRC’s operations in 2006,” ICRC, December 9, 2005, at$File/icrc_overview_appeal_2006.pdf  Sudan was also the largest country operation for Médecins sans Frontières in 2005. See the MSF activity report [online]

[32] World Food Programme, “Special Report: FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Sudan,” February 15, 2006, [online]

[33] See “Sudan: U.N. expresses concern over attack on Darfur IDP camp, IRIN, September 30, 2005, [online]

[34] Confidential communication, Human Rights Watch, March 24, 2006.

[35] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with international humanitarian aid official, March 23, 2006.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Confidential communications to Human Rights Watch, January 6 and January 30,2006.

[38] The same day SLA fighters also ambushed a convoy of eighty commercial trucks escorted by police from Fashir to Kebkabiya, North Darfur, located northwest of Golo. United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” March 9, 2006, [online]

[39] For one relief agency, it was the third time it had been evacuated in eighteen months of working in Golo.  Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 23, 2006.

[40] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” March 9, 2006, [online]

[41] Confidential communication, Human Rights Watch, March 20, 2006.

[42] UNHCR, “Sudan Operations: Sudan/Chad Situation Update 52,” March 23, 2006, [online]

[43] UNHCR, “Sudan Operations: Sudan/Chad Situation Update 50,” March 9, 2006, [online]

[44] “Clashes displace tens of thousands in Darfur’s Jebel Marra,” IRIN, April 19, 2006, [online]

[45] Human Rights Watch telephone interview from New York with international humanitarian aid official, March 29, 2006.

[46] Human Rights Watch telephone interview from New York with international humanitarian aid official, March 23, 2006.

[47] On September 1, 2005, seven international humanitarian vehicles traveling in a convoy from Beida to Geneina via Kango Haraza and Masteri in West Darfur were attacked by some twenty men in uniform who were described as “bandits” and “suspected of being affiliated with unidentified warring parties.” The attackers looted the vehicles, ordered the humanitarian staff to lie down on the ground, beat them with sticks and rifle butts and threatened that they would be killed if they were to travel that road again. Seventeen people were injured in the incident. Refugees International, “No Power to Protect: The African Union Mission in Sudan,” November 9, 2005, [online]  HYPERLINK "

[47] United Nations Security Council, \“Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,\” Jan"


 United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” January 30, 2006, [online]

[49] OCHA, “UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs update,” October 12, 2005.

[50] ICRC News, “Sudan Bulletin No. 35,” October 27, 2005, [online]

[51] ICRC News, “Sudan Bulletin No. 36,” November 16, 2005, [online]

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