Monday, August 31, 2009

Aid workers now sixty days as hostages in Darfur

It is now some sixty days since Dubliner Sharon Commins and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kuwuki were seized by gunmen from their base in the town of Kutum, North Darfur, Sudan. Kidnapping of aid workers is an upward trend in Darfur and the case of Sharon and Hilda is the longest saga to date. HDEO hopes for the best.

North Darfur is a place I know well. A beautiful landscape, washed by the Sahara's sands and laced with the dry riverbeds of its numerous wadis. Its capital is called Al Fashir, my favourite town in Darfur, and it is home to wonderful settlements like Kabkibiye and Kutum.

During my time in Sudan one of the relief actions we carried out from Kutum - which lies smack in the middle of a major north-south migration route - was the mildly ambitious program to vaccinate (and provide assorted veterinary services) to about one million camels belonging to the region's nomadic Arabs - a group which has been largely neglected by the myriad aid groups corralled in the urban areas of Darfur.

Darfur is an immense region with forbidding terrain and no real road network. It is about the size of Spain and north Darfur itself is about the size of Italy. And this is where, in Kutum almost sixty days ago, Irish aid worker Sharon Commins (pictured above) and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kuwuki, were seized and taken hostage without warning. Both are working with Goal, a well-respected Irish humanitarian organization.

Hostage taking in Darfur is a more or less recent development. During my time (from 2004 to 2006) it started with the odd attack on aid convoys (interestingly, they were normally the ones who had chosen to use armed escorts - go figure), progressed onto the car jacking of the ubiquitous land cruisers, and from time to time involved planned or opportunistic robbery of aid workers driving off-road or resting at home.

Today, while the intensity of violence has somewhat dissipated (though bubbling upward in the oil rich central province of Kordufan and re-appearing in the politically complex South Sudan) disenchanted factions appear to have elevated their activities to the more lucrative business of hostage taking.

There were already two such events in recent months involving foreign aid workers (both resolved quiet quickly with money reportedly changing hands) and only yesterday two staff from the UN and African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) were abducted in the early hours of the morning as they slept in their compound in Zalengei town.

While we are being told by the Sudanese authorities that money is the soul motivation for the rise in hostage taking we can assume there are also political agendas or related disgruntlements attached. The UNAMID kidnappings for instance are seemingly related to a statement delivered by the force commander at his farewell ceremony where he all but declared the war over and Darfur at peace. For rebels with a cause this is not very clever and what better way to prove the commander wrong than by kidnapping some of his staff.

The abduction of Sharon and Hilda also indicates a 'progression' of sorts in that theirs is the longest period that hostages have been kept, more or less incommunicado, in Darfur. This in itself is worrying. Under normal circumstances sixty days is a long time to spend in Kutum but it is a lifetime to spend in captivity there, where we can assume conditions of detention are basic at best.

It is reported in Sudanese media that tribal leaders are now actively involved to negotiate the girls' release - this is a welcome signal and lets hope that their safe return is imminent in the holy month of Ramadan.

However, if the Sudanese officials are genuinely using this case to demonstrate their unwillingness to pay ransoms then it could drag out for a long time with all the risk and unpredictability that such a scenario brings. It may also harden the resolve of Sharon and Hilda's captors who will be keen to demonstrate that Khartoum holds no sway in North Darfur.

In the meantime, wherever Sharon and Hilda are in Darfur tonight, we hope they have the strength and courage to see this ordeal through to the end. We also hope that the renowned Sudanese hospitality is being extended to them. And, knowing a bit the wonderful people of Sudan, I am sure they will concur with these sentiments.


Some more photos from Sudan here.

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