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Agencies Say Delivery of Food Aid Dangerous, Difficult in Eastern Africa


Aid workers delivering emergency food aid to locations in the Darfur region of Sudan as well as Somalia and Kenya are faced with many security challenges, from warfare and negotiating with militia forces to conflicts between refugees receiving food aid and hungry local populations.

The U.N. World Food Program estimates 140,000 people in the volatile western Sudan region of Darfur need food aid, but have gone without assistance for four months because the roads have been too dangerous for trucks to use.

Last month the agency managed to get food rations to three million people in Darfur, an area the United States says is experiencing genocide.

Aid workers attempting to deliver food and other assistance to those who need it in Darfur are faced with the prospect of being kidnapped, robbed at gunpoint, and even killed by those involved in the fighting and bandits.

Paul Barker, the north Sudan country director for Care, one of several aid agencies that deals with food aid in Darfur, tells VOA he knows of 12 aid workers who have been killed in Darfur during the past three months.

Those who distribute food and water in camps for internally-displaced people sometimes face additional risks, he says.

"Occasionally we will get situations where people who are not on the list will come with weapons and demand to receive food," he explained. "What we do in a case like that is we close down the distribution and usually report it to the police, to the authorities and then resume the next day."

Barker says those who threaten food aid workers in such a way are usually members of the janjaweed, an Arab militia believed to be supported by the Sudanese government.

Recipients can also contribute to the insecurity. Barker recalls that four Sudanese water officials were killed several months ago, following rumors that the officials were poisoning the camp's water supply.

Aid workers in Somalia have similar security concerns as their counterparts in Darfur, with the added pressure of having to convince those in power at a particular place to allow food shipments.

World Food Program spokesman Peter Smerdon explains that his agency and others are in the process of negotiating with the Islamic Courts Union, which Smerdon says is relatively easy to cope with as compared to Somali warlords and their militias.

"It has made it easier for us to move food around, in as much as we only have to deal with a single authority, the ICU, rather than dealing with a network of small militia groups, each of which want a cut, wants some money from the transporter to let the food aid through, even though it is humanitarian cargo and it is destined for the poorest of the poor," he said.

Smerdon says the Islamic Courts Union dismantled the previous checkpoints in the areas it controls, making it easier for World Food Program trucks to pass through without having to pay money or even risk attacks.

But, says Smerdon, the stand-off between the courts and Somalia's transitional federal government may lead to a potential food crisis in neighboring Kenya.

Since January, about 30,000 Somalis have fled into the Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenya-Somali border, prompting officials of the U.N. refugee agency to consider asking the Kenyan government for permission to build another camp.

Smerdon says the World Food Program is asking for $7 million to cope with the camp's increased food needs in an area where even the local population is going hungry.

And that is another source of insecurity for food aid workers and recipients. Camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma in northwestern Kenya are located in areas hard hit by drought and other conditions that greatly reduce food supply in the areas.

"I witnessed on 26th of July 2001 when the locals came in and they tried to raid the food which had been distributed in Kakuma Distribution Center 2.," said Marial Awuok Til, a student in Kenya who used to live at Kakuma refugee camp after fleeing the war in Sudan. "That one caused a row, a very big problem between the local people and refugees. It caused those locals to go back, then they armed themselves and they came at night. They killed about three people and they wounded another three."

The World Food Program's Smerdon says his agency has set up food and agriculture programs for local communities to try to cut down on this conflict.