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Sudan President Bashir (right) (AP/Photo by Nasser Nasser)

Inhumanity to humanitarian workers

International | By forcing foreign aid workers out, leaders in Sudan and Afghanistan put their quest for power over the needs of their own people

From different parts of the Islamic world today comes the same message: Foreign aid workers are disposable pawns.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Monday said he wants all international aid groups out of the country within a year. "We directed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to Sudanize voluntary work," he told a rally of security forces in the capital of Khartoum as thousands shouted their support for the president and waved their guns in the air.

"Within a year, we don't want to see any foreign aid group dealing with a Sudanese citizen," Bashir said. "If they want to bring relief, let them drop it at airports or seaports. Let the national organizations deal with our citizens."

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Such action would be a disaster for the country, where little infrastructure exists outside the capital apart from what's been rebuilt by relief and development agencies, and where few Sudanese-not only in Darfur but also in many parts of the south and in the large refugee camps of the north-could survive without almost daily rations from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Almost immediately, Sudanese State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun downplayed the president's statements. He told the Associated Press and other news services that ministers would draw a plan to work out a transition, which "under no circumstance includes the UN agencies." He also described the president's directive as "a process."

Aid groups I spoke to also say they believe the president's declaration may be rhetoric and that their field representatives have not been notified that they will be asked to leave the country. If such an order were to come through, it would affect some of the largest Christian-based organizations with many years invested in Sudan: World Vision, World Relief, and Samaritan's Purse, among many others.

Already Bashir, who is under indictment for war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, has ordered out of the country 13 aid groups, including the French branch of Doctors Without Borders and Seattle-based Mercy Corps. His action appeared to be in retaliation for the ICC arrest warrant issued against him two weeks ago, with Bashir accusing those groups of spying on his government on behalf of the court.

Foreign aid workers are also being threatened in Afghanistan, where the Taliban says that under the militant Islamic group's new "constitution" it can execute them as spies or hold them in exchange for the release of Taliban fighters.

In an interview March 13 with CNN, Mohammed Ibrahim Hanafi said the Taliban intelligence wing was actively gathering information on foreign aid workers. "If we get someone, that is how we will deal with it under our new constitution," he said.

He also told "Afghan brothers" not to work with NGOs. In Afghanistan, more than 150 registered NGOs are working alongside the fledgling government, funding and performing most of the relief and development work essential to rebuilding the war-torn country. More than half of those groups are private non-profit groups, and some are faith-based.

Dozens of people involved in relief work were kidnapped and/or killed in 2008, and according to the UN, insurgent groups pillaged large consignments of aid items. A UN aid worker in Logar Province, who did not use his real name because of the security issue, told IRIN (a news service for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) that he no longer carries his identity card and tries not to use official vehicles for humanitarian work: "If the situation doesn't improve, no one will dare to work for foreign organizations. People like me may lose their jobs, but the real suffering will be endured by communities in need who will have nobody to assist them."

The actions by Sudan's president and the Taliban are bold strokes making clear that these are brutal regimes willing to sacrifice their own people for the sake of tightening their hold on power.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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