The people of Darfur have the right to ask why

Visits by Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and Jan Pronk, the Secretary General's Special Representative for Sudan have finally brought the plight of people in Darfur to the world's attention. The Darfurians listening to the promises of Powell and Annan have little reason to believe they will make much difference.

The displaced people Annan and Powell spoke with were likely burned out of their villages eight or nine months ago, yet only recently has the world started paying attention. During these months of deliberate neglect, the people of Darfur have faced a wave of massacres, extensive rape and the destruction of their villages, communities and livelihoods. Huddled into overcrowded makeshift camps and homes, they have received little in the way of assistance and nothing in the way of protection from violence for all this time. They have the right to ask why.

The fighting in Darfur's current conflict began with clashes between rebels and the government of Sudan (GoS) back in February 2003. During most of 2003 there were widespread attacks on civilians by government-backed Janjaweed militias, often in areas far from rebel activity. Typically villages, homes and crops were looted and then burned. Grain stores and wells were destroyed. The women faced widespread rape. Men and boys were killed.

Although the United Nations and many governments knew about the ongoing tragedy, they chose not to act. The war in Darfur was actively hidden and ignored so as not to endanger the peace process between GOS and the rebel movement of the Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM), which have been fighting a war for decades in the south of the country.

It might be a tremendous success to end one of the world's most destructive conflicts. But is it just to sacrifice the people of Darfur as the cost of this success?

It is hard to reconcile the slowness and lack of response given the depth and breadth of the crisis in Darfur, where satellite photos tell the story of hundreds of villages sacked, burned and looted. MSF nutritional surveys show that the displacement and destruction have forced a large part of the population into malnutrition, homelessness and misery.

Over a quarter of the children in Mornay camp in West Darfur with a population of 80,000 displaced people were malnourished. From January until May, the people in Mornay were receiving only 1000 Kcals per day, not even half of the 2500 Kcal daily ration needed to survive. Starving people in search of food are often "taxed" by the Janjaweed for the privilege of leaving the camps in search of food. With not enough to sustain themselves and no other means of finding food, they are prisoners condemned to a slow and humiliating death.

And these are the ones that survived the violence. Medical data also shows that the causes of death in the first 4 months of the year were even more shocking. Over 60% of the deaths in the adult population were due to violence. In Mornay, almost 50% of the children's deaths (below 16 years old) were due to direct violence - gunshots, machetes or bombs from GoS planes.

So an aid response - too little and too late - is just starting to be ramped up amid the passionate cries of world officials that the government must stop the "world's greatest humanitarian crisis". The response must be more than aid - food and bandages cannot stop mass attacks, rape and killings. In order to patrol the cease-fire, nearly 40 African Union monitors have been deployed to the region.

It is hard to imagine that even the planned 120 monitors spread out in a territory the size of France will have a meaningful impact. They reported to Colin Powell last week that no violations of the cease-fire had been seen - on the same day that military helicopters were flying over MSF feeding centers and dropping bombs on nearby villages.

The terror has not stopped. The displaced in makeshift camps throughout Darfur are still facing intimidation, widespread rape and other forms of violence. The terror and the lack of assistance have driven them into hideous forms of survival. People living in an environment of terror and violence without aid are forced into inhuman choices. For many displaced people in Darfur, their only means of surviving has become to walk out of the meager safety of the camps in search of firewood which they exchange in the market for food.

In the climate of brutality it has become a dangerous way to survive.

Women who go into the fields in search of firewood expose themselves to the danger of rape. Men face the threat of execution and torture. Some families have resorted to sending out small children to search for firewood in the hours before dawn in the hope that they are more likely to escape the violence than their parents.

The violence and the lack of assistance have forced people to choose between sustenance and safety. This is exactly the predicament from which humanitarian aid is supposed to save people. To date humanitarian aid has failed the people.

The lack of protection and assistance in the face of massive needs is a betrayal of the humanitarian values which the Netherlands and other European government pledge to uphold. We are arriving very late to those in need in Darfur. It is positive that Kofi Annan and Colin Powell have brought the world's cameras to focus on the plight of people in Darfur.

But with information comes the duty to act. As the Dutch government assumes the presidency of the European Union, we have to ask them why Europe has no stand against such an obvious crisis with such a desperate need for action. The European Union must do more in a unified way to ensure that this aid is provided along with safety and an end to the violence against people in Darfur.

By Austen Davis, MSF Director General (Holland)