As the conflict in the Sudan intensifies and the number now facing starvation climbs beyond 500,000, the dilemmas confronting front line medical and refugee aid organisations become more and more difficult. Sudan is a case in point for a wider reexamination of the impartial nature of humanitarian aid.
A barely visible dirty grey in the afternoon haze, a lone Antanov cargo plane turned bomber makes a lazy, unchallenged turn out over Ugandan airspace and slides back towards the refugee camps outside Koboko, close to the Ugandan Sudanese border. Twice in the last week, the Sudan Government’s aircraft had failed to find its targets and jettisoned its bombs over the camps – a sprawling scar of felled trees and wood and grass shelters easily located from the air. Then, Koboko had been almost empty, a backwater of Sudan’s forty year old civil war. The bombs had fallen harmlessly, only disrupting the Doctors without Borders – Medecins Sans Frontiere’s (M.S.F.) – team as they scaled down their emergency relief operation in preparation to move on to another of Sudan’s ‘hot conflicts’.
Now under the Antanov once more Luke, Jane, Nicoliene and Renske (the MSF team) watch from a sea of upturned faces. In twenty-four hours 10,000 refugees had appeared unannounced and in need – fleeing fresh fighting on the Sudanese border to the north. Sudanese and Ugandans alike, they arrive on foot as a bedraggled stream or as the crammed cargo of battered Bedford trucks. Many are empty handed; others cling to a small bundle of worldly possessions. Still others haul their elders in makeshift carts, tired and bewildered they sit without expression amongst the makings of shelters from the last ‘safe haven’. As one they watch the plane first bank to the west, this time with its cargo ramp closed, and then drone away towards old Zaire.