ZAM ZAM CAMP, Sudan (Reuters) - Markets stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. Shiny new gas stations. Freshly built houses. Smooth paved roads. A pizzeria.
These are not images one would normally associate with Sudan’s western Darfur region, where hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died in five years of conflict. But they are all found in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state.
El Fasher is home to thousands of civilian and military personnel working for the United Nations-African Union joint peacekeeping mission (UNAMID), and while food here is plentiful, prices are inflated after poor harvests.
The United Nations says a “perfect storm” of growing violence, overcrowding in refugee camps and bad harvests could cause a food crisis in Darfur, home to the world’s largest humanitarian operation.
Just 10 km (6 miles) from El Fasher’s colorful market stalls, thousands of displaced Darfuris struggle to survive in the Zam Zam camp, battling disease, bandits and growing hunger.
These people used to get over 2,000 calories a day. Now they survive on 1,400 calories as aid agencies cut rations because of attacks on food convoys. Some of the children have bloated bellies, a possible sign of malnutrition.
Eric Reeves, a Darfur activist and professor of literature at Smith College in Massachusetts who has studied Sudan for nearly a decade, warns that ration cuts may cause “significant human starvation in the coming months.”
International experts say at least 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003 when mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Khartoum. Another 2.5 million have been left homeless.
Khartoum puts the number of victims at 10,000.
There is little hope of a political breakthrough to allow the people at Zam Zam, some of whom have been in the camp for years, to return home.
Stalled peace talks were dealt another blow last month when the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked a suburb of Khartoum. Top U.N. and AU envoys have said an international summit should be called to put pressure on the parties to come back to the negotiating table.
Darfur can seem a land of contrasts and contradictions.
In places, it is barren, a lunar-like terrain with just the occasional tree or bush. But suddenly green trees and wide swathes of fertile soil appear.
This is a land where U.S. officials say “genocide in slow motion” is taking place, a charge Sudan denies. It is also a land where foreign peacekeepers complain of being bored.
When a U.N. delegation visited Zam Zam in June, it came face-to-face with misery: a child holding up his hands for food; a 35-year-old widow talking of how she struggles to feed her eight children; a woman speaking haltingly about a gang rape.
But Sudan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, says Zam Zam is “a five-star camp.”
Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Program in Khartoum, says 62,000 live here in rudimentary shelters made of mud, thatch and sheets of plastic. They fled their homes to escape Sudanese Armed Forces and pro-government mostly Arab militia known as Janjaweed.
A senior U.N. police officer from Nigeria, whose job it is to patrol the camp and protect the people from bandits and rebel recruiters, estimates there are 52,000 in the camp.
What is not in doubt is the fact that these lives lived in limbo are becoming more precarious.
Attacks on WFP convoys and frequent clashes between Sudanese and Chadian forces along Sudan’s western border have forced the U.N. agency to cut rations in half for Darfur, an area the size of France where it fed some 2.7 million people in April alone, out of a total population of 6 million.
Sudanese government promises of escorts for aid trucks have often not materialized, and diplomats in New York, speaking on condition of anonymity, fear Khartoum does not care.
This has made life harder for Fatimah, the 35-year-old mother of eight who has been in Zam Zam camp for four years.
She tells reporters that even before rations were cut, she did not get enough to feed her children.
When the U.N. delegation arrived, the former vegetable farmer held up a sign with a drawing of helicopters gunning people down and the words “No for war, yes for peaces.”
WFP’s Casella said rations would be cut again in July as the agency had been unable to improve distribution. At any one time, she said, there are 800 to 1,000 trucks on the roads of Darfur, carrying food relief.
“We need to deliver 1,800 metric tonnes of food into our various Darfur warehouses each day. But, we’re only managing 900 metric tons or less, lately,” she said.
“The issue is that the banditry has slowed the truck turnaround time. Many drivers are wary of traveling on the roads unescorted. They have to wait for police escorts (mandated by the authorities) and in some areas these police escorts are only moving once a week,” she said by e-mail from Khartoum.
Further hampering aid agencies, funding shortfalls have led the WFP to cut back its helicopter and plane flights around the region, where seasonal rains make many roads impassable.
UNAMID peacekeepers sometimes escort convoys but a lack of troops and helicopters make it impossible to protect them all.
Only 9,000 troops out of a planned 26,000-strong UNAMID force are on the ground in Darfur.
Full deployment is a long way off, due to Khartoum’s insistence that most troops come from African countries and U.N. bureaucratic requirements.
The United Nations hopes UNAMID will be at 80 percent of full strength by the end of the year, but diplomats in New York say this will be very difficult to achieve.
At UNAMID headquarters in El Fasher, there is a sense of frustration.
“We don’t do very much,” one peacekeeper told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “I‘m not sure what we’re doing here.”
Would they be willing to do more to protect food convoys to make sure the people in nearby Zam Zam get fed? Yes, they say.
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile