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Darfur Crime Wave Hinders Aid Efforts

MIKE PESCA, host:

Thank you, Mark. A different kind of crime wave has taken hold of the Darfur region in Sudan. There are carjackings, armed robberies and the occasional murder, all largely targeted at aid workers. Workers in the region say that they long for an easier time when their biggest worry was war between Darfur's rebels and nomads and the Sudanese government. The roads were actually safer then. In humanitarian circles, if war is hard, crime is almost impossible. Here's NPR's Gwen Thompkins with a report from El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered, June 11, 2008)

GWEN THOMPKINS: Here's some of last week's crime stats from North Darfur. On Monday, it happened to UNICEF. On Tuesday, it happened to Doctors without Borders. And on Wednesday, on the road outside El Fasher, it happened to a truck driver called Adam Ahmad Osman.

Mr. ADAM AHMAD OSMAN (Truck Driver, U.N. World Food Programme): (Through translator) The people, they appeared in front of us and their heavy types of guns used by the bandits. And they asked me to open the door. I open the door. They just pointed the gun towards me and they asked about the mobile phones.

THOMPKINS: And that's how nine armed bandits hijacked a World Food Programme truck. It was one of the big mamas, those white Mercedes flatbeds that take up so much of the road when they pass by. They carry hundreds of tons of food to more than two million displaced people living in camps. This is the fourth time that it's happened to Osman in just over a year. And sitting here, amid a fleet of other spanking white trucks and Land Cruisers, he has every reason to believe that it will happen again.

Mr. OSMAN: (Through Translator) When they stopping me, I have to talk nicely to them and they take what they want. And at the end, they leaving me to go.

THOMPKINS: Banditry, the scourge of any war-torn frontier, is flourishing in Darfur. Nearly every aid organization has been hit. Even Sudanese government ministries have been carjacked. This year, the World Food Programme has had 76 trucks snatched and 35 contracted drivers are still missing. And yet, when people commit crimes like this, they end up robbing themselves. Food plus truck means that the hungry eat. Food minus truck means that the hungry stay that way. And who can reason on an empty stomach?

(Soundbite of food being distributed)

THOMPKINS: That's the sound of about half the grocery ration that Rokaya Mohamed Abdullah is used to getting. She 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 Programme has cut rations due to insecurity. In Abu Shouk, she says, people suspect that the Sudanese government may be trying to starve them out.

Ms. ROKAYA MOHAMED ABDULLAH (Resident, Abu Shouk Camp, Darfur): (Through Translator) Some of us are saying that the government is behind that reduction of food. 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.

THOMPKINS: Mohamed Ahmed Abdullah Yagoub also lives in 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'd get his regular portion of sorghum and fixins' this month, but he didn't. Now Yagoub's children are asking for milk, and his other relatives want their food back.

Mr. MOHAMED AHMED ABDULLAH YAGOUB (Resident, Abu Shouk Camp, Darfur): (Through Translator) So there's stress from two side, from my family and from my relatives because I have borrowed from them.

THOMPKINS: Sooner or later, aid workers say they'll have to decide whether they can continue working in Darfur.

Mr. ALUN MCDONALD (Sudan Communications Officer, Oxfam): There has to, at some point, be a line. And I mean, at the moment we're not at that line but we're pretty close.

THOMPKINS: Alun McDonald works for Oxfam, a British aid organization that has been providing clean water in Darfur since a famine here 20 years ago. Nowadays, they're trying to draw less attention to themselves. McDonald says Oxfam is not above renting old jalopies to get water equipment into rural areas, and they're not above hiring donkeys to move stuff, either. An Oxfam driver was murdered in a carjacking two years ago, and McDonald has already survived an armed assault where he lives. He says crime is eating away at what Oxfam can accomplish here.

Mr. MCDONALD: Most of these attacks that're happening go unpunished, which, of course, is a perfect incentive for others to do it. You know, they see how easy it is, basically, to hijack an NGO vehicle. And you know, these hijackings, they're not happening late at night. Lots of them are happening in the center of towns, right in the center of camps, in broad daylight, you know, the middle of the day.

THOMPKINS: So who are these bandits? No one, not the humanitarian groups, nor the area residents, nor the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force, will say for sure. But most agree that the situation got bad when the rebels started subdividing, like spinoffs from a hit television show. What began as the Sudanese Liberation Army, or SLA, is now SLA-Minni, SLA-Wahid, SLA Free Will and SLA Unity. And there are more, maybe 20 in all, operating in North Darfur. Government soldiers and Arab militia are also reportedly moonlighting as robbers. Knowing that something bad can happen at any time makes the long nights in Darfur even longer.

(Soundbite of airplane liftoff)

General MARTIN LUTHER AGWAI (Force Commander, United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur): At one point, I wanted to throw in the towel myself.

THOMPKINS: That's General Martin Luther Agwai at the El Fasher Airport. He heads the United Nations African Union joint peacekeeping force, called UNAMID. Even they have carjacked while on patrol. The force is undermanned and underequipped.

And at what point did you want to throw in the towel?

Gen. AGWAI: Yes, until I read that book on "Stop Worrying and Start Living." When I read that book it tell me that I must stay and see it through.

THOMPKINS: Do you think that could be a bestseller in Darfur?

Gen. AGWAI: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: But last week, Agwai got some encouraging news. The U.N. Security Council said it would better look after UNAMID so that UNAMID can better look after Darfur.

Gen. AGWAI: I am positive now that the whole world is around to support us and make sure we achieve the mandate.

(Soundbite of food distribution warehouse)

THOMPKINS: Mahmoud Gibril Shogar has also chosen living over worrying, and so far, so good. In 17 years on the road and four of them driving for the World Food Programme, he's never lost a truck. Here at the warehouse, porters are loading his flatbed with sacks of U.S.-grown sorghum for transport more than 150 miles north of El Fasher.

Mr. MAHMOUD GIBRIL SHOGAR (Truck Driver, World Food Programme): (Through Translator) Really, I'm very cautious. I'm sure one day it will happen, but this is depends on God.

(Soundbite of jump)

THOMPKINS: And with a limber leap into the cab of his truck, Shogar is ready to go.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

THOMPKINS: He may just make it, or maybe not.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Spinoffs like from a TV sitcom, I love it. Darfur criminal gangs like the "Joanie Loves Chachi" or "Mork & Mindy" of geopolitical discord. Fantastic imagery from NPR's Gwen Thompkins reporting from El Fah-shar (ph) - or El Fasher, Darfur, in Sudan.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Next up on the show, the issue is Internet addiction. Is it a real illness, or isn't it? Well, one psychiatrist says he treats so many patients who are obsessed with the "World of Warcraft" and "Everquest" that it must be a bona fide mental disorder. To that end, he has asked for it to be admitted into the bible of psychiatry, the DSM V. It's one of those conversations where you just might go from, Internet addiction, really? to Internet addiction, really. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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