In Sudan, Help Comes From Above

By Julie Flint, the co-author of “Darfur: A Short History of a Long War” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/07/07):

THE one bright light in the dismal international response to the slaughter and starvation in Sudan’s Darfur region has been a humanitarian effort that has kept more than two million displaced people alive. In the fifth year of the war, mortality levels among Darfurians reached by relief are marginally better than they were before the war and lower than in the capital, Khartoum. In South Sudan, where conflict is stilled, children have higher death rates and lower school enrollment.

This is a formidable achievement, better than in any comparable war zone in Africa. Credit the likes of Oxfam, Mercy Corps and Doctors Without Borders, and their 13,000-strong army of relief workers — 90 percent of them Sudanese.

Yet these successes will be lost if Democratic presidential candidates get their wish: a no-flight zone that is militarily enforced over Darfur. The idea, supported by Senator Hillary Clinton and others, is that this would pressure the Sudan government into allowing the immediate deployment of a joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force. “If they fly into it, we will shoot down their planes,” Mrs. Clinton said last week at a Democratic presidential debate. “It is the only way to get their attention.”

Aid agencies are quietly appalled by the prospect of a no-flight zone. They believe Khartoum would respond by grounding humanitarian aircraft and, at worst, by forcing aid agencies to leave. Even if Khartoum didn’t ground flights, the United Nations most likely would, for fear of sending its planes into a potential combat zone. Without humanitarian air access, Darfurians would soon suffer lethal health and food crises.

In the event of heightened military activity on the ground, Darfurians would be caught in the crossfire. The people of Kosovo and Bosnia had easier access to neighboring host countries. Darfur is vast and dry. Its people would not be able to flee to safety easily.

Today, as Khartoum’s janjaweed militias turn against each other, rebel movements fragment and banditry rages, millions of Darfurians who depend on humanitarian assistance can be reached only by air. United Nations and African Union traffic accounts for 9 of every 10 flights in Darfur. Some agencies deliver as much as 90 percent of their supplies using aircraft. The collapse of the humanitarian apparatus would be a death sentence for Darfurians, especially those in camps who rely on aid agencies for food, clean water and shelter.

Proposing a no-flight zone is an easy sound bite for presidential hopefuls eager to harness the grassroots support enjoyed by the Save Darfur Coalition, the advocacy movement that has kept Darfur in the spotlight but that has also, unfortunately, used its position to call for a no-flight zone. But enforcing one would be a phenomenal challenge. Darfur is bigger than Iraq and nearly 50 times larger than Kosovo. The nearest airfields in Chad are a vast distance from any NATO base.

A no-flight zone would do little or nothing to address the reality that the greatest threat to civilians in Darfur today comes on the ground — not from the air.

The number of civilians killed by air attacks this year in Darfur is in the dozens. Yes, it’s a shocking crime for a government to bombard its own citizens. But it’s simply wrong to say, as Mrs. Clinton did during a speech last week in Washington, that American action should be “focused on the air support the Sudanese provide to the janjaweed as they rape and pillage their way through villages.”

Mrs. Clinton is reading from an outdated script. During the height of the conflict in 2003-4, the worst violence in Darfur was caused by coordinated ground and air attacks against villages accused of supporting the rebels. But this year it has been caused by battles on the ground between Arab militias fighting one another over land and by attacks by rebels now aligned with the government. Not once this year has there been aerial bombing “before, during and after” these offensives, as Mrs. Clinton claimed. Today, stopping military flights wouldn’t make much of a difference to the Darfurian people.

Khartoum claims that international aid organizations are agents of hostile Western governments whose ultimate goal is regime change. Already, threats of coercive military action are giving oxygen to regime hard-liners. A military strike during enforcement of a no-flight zone would most likely hand President Omar Hassan al-Bashir the same kind of propaganda victory he scored when American cruise missiles knocked out a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998.

The United States should step back from confrontational rhetoric and empty threats. Instead, it should support efforts to mend rebel divisions and encourage new peace talks that are not tied to artificial deadlines. It should push for strengthened monitoring and public reporting of hostile flights, as envisaged under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1591, and take the lead to develop an international consensus for effective actions to change the situation where it would really make a difference — on the ground. The overstretched African Union peacekeepers need to be strengthened immediately, with a new mandate that authorizes them to protect the camps for the displaced.

The humanitarian’s first obligation is to do no harm. Talk of coercive military action must end. A no-flight zone would be recklessly dangerous and would not address the real problems in Darfur. To endanger the region’s humanitarian lifeline is not simply wrong-headed. It is inhumane.