Aid workers in Sudan say fierce fighting, rampant looting and reams of red tape are hampering efforts to deliver vital humanitarian supplies to the millions of people who now rely on a relief effort since a conflict erupted in mid-April.
The United Nations estimates 25 million people, or more than half the population, now need help, up from 16 million before the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) began fighting.
“Often we cannot move because the warehouse is being looted or because it’s unsafe for our staff to move, or because for the transporter it’s unsafe to go,” said Jean-Nicolas Armstrong Dangelser, emergency coordinator for medical aid group MSF.
Truck drivers have sometimes been detained and supplies seized, he said.
The most intense fighting has been in the Khartoum area, one of Africa’s biggest urban sprawls with 5 million or more people, but it has spread beyond that, including to Darfur, a region in the far west already racked by years of conflict.
At least eight aid workers are among the hundreds of people killed in nearly seven weeks of fighting. Several ceasefires have been agreed, but they have been routinely violated and talks in Saudi Arabia between the combatants have collapsed.
At least 1.2 million people have been displaced inside Sudan and another 400,000 have fled to neighboring states.
“It’s not just the fighting ... it’s also the lootings, the general state of lawlessness which makes things extremely complicated,” said Alyona Synenko, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At least 162 vehicles have been stolen from aid organizations, while 61 offices and 57 warehouses have been looted, an official from UN humanitarian agency OCHA said.
“It’s almost impossible to get anything from outside Darfur into Darfur at the moment,” said MSF’s Dangelser.
Aid workers say communications have broken down, hindering both the coordination of aid and payments to staff, which rely on mobile apps after the regular banking system largely ceased to function.
Port Sudan, the army-controlled port on the Red Sea in the east, has become a hub for aid deliveries, as well as a center for government officials and diplomats fleeing the capital, 820 kms (510 miles) away by road.
But OCHA said only 129 of the 168 truck deliveries that were ready to deliver aid since May 24 had reached their destinations around Sudan.
Aid teams in limbo
Aid agencies also say they have struggled to secure visas to Sudan or travel permits to deliver relief inside the country.
“On a national level, it seems from a bureaucratic perspective, the situation is getting worse and increasingly securitized,” said one senior representative of a non-governmental organization, asking not to be named to avoid jeopardizing sensitive negotiations about access.
The OCHA official said that, as of May 27, at least 40 visa applications were pending at Sudanese embassies, and some people had not applied because the process was unclear.
MSF said it had teams stranded for more than two weeks in Port Sudan without being allowed to move to other states.
General Mohamed Othman Mohamed, the military head of Red Sea State, said there had only been small delays for dealing with security procedures. “There are no obstacles to the distribution of this aid,” he told Reuters.
An army official said the foreign ministry was handling visas for aid workers and a national committee was coordinating aid distribution with Red Cross/Red Crescent officials.
The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The United Nations, which says it needs $2.6 billion to meet Sudan’s aid needs this year, said the number of people going hungry would exceed 19 million in coming months.
“We’re looking at about 40 percent of the population that will not know where their next meal would come from,” said Leni Kinzli from the UN World Food Program, which suspended work for two weeks after several staff were killed early in the conflict.
The WFP said on Thursday food for 4.4 million people was now at risk due to an attack on its warehouses in El Obeid, a city southwest of Khartoum and home to one of the WFP’s largest logistics bases in Africa.
The UN agency said it had already lost supplies in Sudan worth $60 million during the conflict.
“As much as we can respond we are responding and we are providing support, but it’s extremely challenging to meet all the needs and reach everyone,” said Kinzli.