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ICRC to Keep Villagers in Darfur From Fleeing to Camps

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the security situation in Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur continues to worsen and getting access to people in remote villages is getting harder. An ICRC delegate, who has just completed a one-year mission in Sudan, tells VOA the Red Cross is trying to make life in the villages sustainable so people do not feel they have to flee to the camps. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from ICRC headquarters in Geneva.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only international aid agency working in the rural areas of Darfur. The main focus of its work is to get help and provide protection to people living in remote villages that are vulnerable to attack.

ICRC communications officer Jessica Barry has just completed a one-year mission in Sudan. She tells VOA that Red Cross aid workers regularly talk to all the various warring factions to try to make them understand that civilians must be protected. Unfortunately, she says, the message does not always get across.

"What is the real concern is that the more that this very difficult security situation continues and the more people are not able to return to their villages, finally, of course, they will have no choice but to migrate to the camps," she said. "Now the camps are already very full and this is a big concern."

About 2 million internally displaced people are living in UN-run camps. Barry notes the camps are well organized and peoples' basic needs for food, water, health and education are being met. But, she says camp life is a poor life compared to being able to live safely at home.

Although the Red Cross wants to focus on the rural villages exclusively, Barry says this is not always possible. She says the ICRC has been managing Gareida, one of the biggest camps in southern Sudan, since it was set up in 2004 because no other aid agencies were working there.

Over time, she says, private aid agencies arrived to provide services to the displaced people. The ICRC began to make plans to withdraw from the camp and focus more attention on the villages. But, at the end of last year, she says the camp and the aid workers came under severe attack. After that, she says, all aid agencies withdrew, leaving the ICRC as the only organization remaining.

"The ICRC immediately, when this incident happened, had contact with all the different sides and all the different parties and asked for security guarantees and ensured the security guarantees to be able to allow us to remain in the camp," she added. "And, of course, we had to assess the needs of the people against the risks to us to stay and we believed that we should stay and this was why we stayed."

But, Barry says, the Red Cross presence in the camp is not unconditional. If the security guarantees break down and something terrible was to happen, she says Red Cross workers might be forced to leave. She says she does not like to think of what would happen to the more than 100,000 displaced people in the camp if no one were there to look after them.