- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

I have just returned from a medical mission trip to Sudan’s Darfur region and I’ve found the world’s effort to stop genocide there has run into serious trouble.

In the last few months, an all-out war has begun against the 13,000 foreign aid workers in Darfur. This has dried up humanitarian assistance flows on which Darfur depends. As many as 400,000 noncombatants have already died in Darfur. These new attacks could easily bring the toll above a million. Based on what I have seen and heard on the ground, I believe it’s time for the United States and the rest of the developed world to take serious action and ensure the aid flow continues.

Even before the attacks on aid workers began, Darfur faced a grim situation. Since the conflict began four years ago this month, Sudan’s government in Khartoum and its allied Janjaweed militias have massacred Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups in Darfur. As a senator, I played a role in highlighting the genocide.

Subsequently, the State Department, our president and most nations in the developed world roundly condemned it and sent aid. Time and again (most recently in January) the Sudanese government has promised to stop the killing and Darfur-based rebel groups have sworn to lay down their arms. This has never happened.

But the very presence of international aid operations has made a truly awful disaster a tad less terrible. In every recorded genocide from the Nazi Holocaust to Rwanda, enormous numbers died due to starvation, disease, exposure and lack of sanitation. The risks in Darfur are particularly grave: Because of Darfur’s climate, even a brief disruption of water supplies alone can kill children and any who already are sick.

While overall conditions for displaced Darfurians never became comfortable, the international aid flows largely deprived the Khartoum regime of the opportunity to carry out a silent genocide. Mortality and malnutrition rates in camps for displaced people in Darfur declined steadily from the beginning of major aid operations in 2004 until the attacks on aid workers began late last year.

But now, the perpetrators of the genocide appear intent on launching a systematic campaign of violence against humanitarian aid workers. Just last month in Nyala, South Darfur, government police beat five U.N. staffers and raped one of them. Late last year, a single day saw six targeted, violent attacks on humanitarian compounds. Hundreds of aid workers had to flee and more than 130,000 Darfurians went without aid. On another day in December, 30 civilians died when fighters attacked an aid-carrying truck with rocket-propelled grenades.

The last six months have seen more attacks on aid workers than the previous two years. At least one organization has withdrawn and more may follow. Aid workers I met said they live in fear. Rebel groups fighting the government launch some of the attacks, but all have the same consequence: increased deaths for all Darfur.

New reports pour in all the time and, in the end, attacks on aid workers will only stop when both the government and all rebel forces lay down their arms. Because it provides more than all other nations combined, the United States needs to take a leadership role ending the attacks on aid workers and getting all factions to reach a peaceful, political settlement of their differences.

To move toward such a peace agreement, the United States needs to act resolutely and make Darfur a priority. To begin with, the current African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur needs more people and resources and a crystal-clear mandate to protect civilian aid workers. The Bush administration should lead efforts to provide this force what it needs through increased in-kind and monetary aid coupled with a management review. In particular, the U.S. should help the AU add Rwandan and other African troops to the peacekeeping force.

At the same time, the United States should push for deployment of the stronger, larger United Nations peacekeeping force that the Sudanese government has resisted. Such a force would integrate with that of the AU and might include additional support troops from outside Africa. Finally, the U.S. should work with its allies to establish a controlled no-fly zone over Darfur.

Quite simply, the attacks on aid workers in Darfur have made an already terrible situation even worse. If they do not stop, an already gruesome death toll will grow even higher. The United States needs to help.

Bill Frist, a Nashville surgeon, is former U.S. Senate majority leader from Tennessee. He has traveled to Africa yearly as a medical missionary.


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