Khartoum, Sudan – UN aid agencies are once again launching an emergency operation to help tens of thousands of displaced people in Sudan’s Darfur region, after an outbreak of fighting over gold mines.
Last weekend, 100 tonnes of food and emergency aid was sent from el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, to people fleeing fighting in a remote desert area in the province’s northwest. As many as 100,000 people have already left their homes.
The conflict began when two Arab tribes, the Beni Hussein and the Northern Rezigat, fought over rights to gold mines and levies on miners in the area.
Gold mining has become an increasingly attractive option here. In recent years, rebel groups have lost their political backers in neighbouring Chad and Libya, spurring them to find new sources of income. Meanwhile, the Sudanese government no longer has vast amounts of oil revenue to rely on, since oil-rich South Sudan seceded in 2011. Local tribes who once relied on government support now find payments drying up.
Despite a government-brokered truce between the two tribes nearly three weeks ago, there are reports of continued attacks, Amnesty International said.
“We haven’t seen sudden displacement on this scale for a few years. More people were displaced in a matter of days than were displaced during the twelve months of 2012,” said Damian Rance, spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Khartoum.
A decade ago, more than two million people were displaced and tens of thousands died in a complex conflict between armed rebel groups and government-backed militia in Darfur. Today, about one million people remain in camps in this vast region roughly the size of Spain.
“There were clashes between the Beni Hussein and the Rezigat, but we were not involved.”
– Colonel Khalid Swarmi, Sudanese Armed Forces spokesman
So far, more than 100 villages have been burned, causing people to run from their homes with their livestock, according to UN reports. The government estimates at least 100 people have been killed in the fighting so far.
Thousands of migrant gold miners who had flocked to the area, many from neighbouring Chad, were caught up in the fighting and have since fled Darfur.
Gold mining in the area only started in March 2012. Since then the Beni Hussein, who mostly rely on cattle herding, have controlled the awarding of artisanal mining licences, according to a report released by Amnesty International.
The Beni Hussein community say government border guards from the Northern Rezigat tribe were behind several attacks seeking to lay claim to the gold-mining area, according to the Amnesty report.
Colonel Khalid Swarmi, the Sudanese Armed Forces spokesman, denied allegations of government involvement. “There were clashes between the Beni Hussein and the Rezigat, but we were not involved,” he told Al Jazeera.
Most have fled to the remote desert town of El Sireaf, which is already hosting 2,500 people displaced from the previous conflict. This sudden inundation of 60,000 more people has caused the local authorities to close all their schools as they desperately tried to find somewhere to house the displaced. Many remain outdoors in what the UN describes as “appalling conditions”.
“Thousands are sleeping in the open in the cold winter desert nights, and so we are bringing in shelter materials – tents and plastic sheeting and blankets,” explained Cesar Arroyo, head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in Darfur.
El Sireaf is so remote that the UN had to use helicopters in the first three days of the crisis to bring in emergency shelter supplies, Arroyo added.
But much-needed food items such as sorghum, oil, wheat beans, and salt lentils are coming in by truck. So far, the UN, along with Sudanese aid agencies, including the Sudanese Red Crescent, have delivered 600 tonnes of aid.
The journey is only about 350 kilometres but takes five days because of the poor road quality and the threat of armed groups and bandits. Even though the humanitarian convoy has an armed UN or police escort, it nevertheless has to take a circuitous route.
“For this operation we are using WFP’s own trucks. They are equipped with tracking devices, which means we can monitor their location at any point – which is important in a volatile and fluid situation,” Arroyo said.
Sheep, goats and cattle mingle among the thousands of people sleeping outdoors in the chilly desert night. The latest aid convoys are carrying vaccinations for these animals because of the risk of disease they pose.
“When you have huge concentrations of animals in one place, and disease starts spreading, you can lose the whole herd quickly – especially where there is not enough pasture or water, and the animals are already weak,” explained Rance.
Sudanese aid agencies have reported to the UN that animals are dying because of lack of pasture and water, and have launched a “clean-up” campaign to remove the animal carcasses.
The UN has already spent more than $2m on this operation, and is asking donors for $1bn for emergency aid in Sudan for the coming year.
Follow Harriet Martin on Twitter: @harrietinwords