x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

More than aid is needed to heal Darfur's wounds

Qatar may be collecting aid for Darfur, but the key to helping that troubled region lies first and foremost with Omar Al Bashir putting an end to fighting between his proxy groups and rebels.

At a Doha hotel this week, hundreds of diplomats and aid officials assembled to talk about helping the people of Sudan's Darfur region. Since 2003, civil war, burnt villages, forced migration and an assortment of other miseries have visited the region. Hundreds of thousands of people have died - a reliable tally may never be possible to establish- and the conflict has left 1.4 million living in refugee camps.

The pledging conference in Qatar has been 21 months in the making: a July 2011 peace accord between the Sudanese government and one big rebel faction, signed in Doha, laid the groundwork for what is transpiring this week. One reason this meeting has taken so long to assemble is that numerous rebel factions have rejected any ceasefire. Indeed, while delegates were debating in Doha, thousands more civilians were fleeing new fighting around the towns of Muhajiriya and Labado, after several of the numerous splinter rebel groups attacked Sudanese army units.

The Sudanese president, Omar Al Bashir, offered some sops in preparation for this donor meeting by freeing some political prisoners, and by signing a pact with South Sudan.

But given the history of the conflict, Darfuris remain understandably suspicious of dealing with the government and its allies. Yet the status quo is not palatable either.

Qatar, long a leader in diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Darfur, has done more than play host to the conference: it committed the first US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) towards a planned $7.2 billion fund for a six-year reconstruction plan for Darfur, a region that is six times bigger than the entire UAE and which had 6 million people before the killing started. The plan now is to begin to switch from humanitarian aid to rebuilding projects.

Still, many governments will have reservations about stumping up the cash. Conditions on the ground remain abysmal with little visible upside, Darfur's regional autonomy remains purely theoretical and many observers - in Darfur's villages and in foreign capitals alike - fear that much of the aid on offer may not actually reach the Darfuris. As such, Qatar may have trouble coaxing other governments to join in its gambit.

Still, Darfur's long-suffering people need all the help they can get. The key may lie in Mr Al Bashir realising that it is in his interest and that of Sudan to put an end to the fighting between his proxy groups and rebels - which in turn would change the perception of the international community towards Mr Al Bashir's regime.

The problem is, hope has long been in short supply in Darfur.