Responding to international accusations that lawless militias have been committing serious human rights violations in the western region of Darfur, Dr Sulaf al-Din Salih, the commissioner-general of Sudan's Humanitarian Aid Commission, told IRIN that the international community was misinformed about the reality in Darfur. The accusations, he added during an interview in the capital, Khartoum, on 2 April, were part of a campaign against the Sudanese government and people. Below are excerpts:
QUESTION: Since December 2003, the humanitarian situation in Darfur has reportedly got considerably worse. What has happened?
ANSWER: I don't consider that the situation has got considerably worse. On the contrary, I think the situation has really improved since then. Everyone knows this was triggered by a rebel attack on civilians, on government properties, on government projects. And it was quite a natural thing that the government authorities, as well as the local communities, started fighting back at the rebellion
It peaked when many areas were not accessible. But now almost all areas, except for a limited area in the Jabal Marrah, are accessible. Now we have national and international NGOs placed in the area. We are encouraging local NGOs from Darfur, and they are making their own campaign for collecting donations and establishing their offices there
Q: So humanitarian access is better now, but there are many reports that the situation on the ground is much worse
A: It is not true, it is not true. And I'm quite sure, because we are in every village, we receive reports, and we follow up on the situation very well. There is no famine, there are still some attacks between different groups, bandits moving around, but definitely there are more police forces going to the area, more army to keep the security of the people in the field. So we think that things are improving quite a lot
Q: The Janjawid [militias], plus the army, have been accused of ethnic cleansing or a scorched earth policy. Reports say the situation is getting worse and will continue. How do you respond to that?
A: We think this is a political campaign. Unfortunately, the UN office here in Sudan and worldwide has been part of this political campaign against the government. This is very serious - we are really considering an option of taking the UN out of the area
This is very serious because these statements are not true. This is false information, because they [the UN] don't have the ability to access all the areas
So now the UN office worldwide is producing data which is quite contrary to what is happening in the field. This has been used by many political groups against the government, against the whole peace process
Q: It's not just the UN though. Other groups such as Human Rights Watch, groups that are very highly respected worldwide, are also reporting the same thing
A: They are not in the field. We are having problems, yes. It has mounted into some sort of tribal conflict, but we are exerting the maximum effort from the government side to stop this. At first it was one group, a political rebellion, then it became a tribal conflict. But as I said, we have managed to get the fullest commitment from all the tribal leaders to stop this
This is one of the major projects for the government: to bring the social fabric back again
Q: So the tribal leaders have committed [themselves] to stopping the violence. But do they control the Janjawid?
A: It is not only the Janjawid. People forget about the other groups called Tora Bora and others as well
Definitely the government did not have enough forces to control all the area. So these groups have committed atrocities and have gone beyond the normal security or military operations. But it is the commitment of the government, and this has been raised by the president on all the committees, that everyone has to be under control of the army or the police
I think we have succeeded in controlling all these groups to a very great extent. Up to now, there are still some activities, but far less than there used to be
Q: There have been many accusations that the army is involved in the attacks, working alongside the militias. Do you accept that, and what is being done to stop it?
A: If there is any such claim, we want to know it so we can investigate. We know of some cases where things were brought to court. But we do welcome, really welcome, any specific cases so we can investigate
Q: The last time we spoke in December, you talked about the fact that the government had supported the militias in an effort to fight the rebellion in Darfur, that it had called people forward to fight the rebels.
A: We asked all the people of Darfur to help in protecting themselves against the rebellion. This is standard practice which we do in this country. Whenever there is an attack on a community, we ask the local community to support, to help.
Q: But we have a situation now where the same people are committing atrocities…
A: Now the situation is largely under control by the armed forces, the police and local authorities. Also because of the involvement of local leaders, local chiefs in the peace process, there is a better humanitarian situation compared to the past
But I think that the international community should be fair and positive enough to state that it was the rebel groups which started attacking. They're the ones who ignited the whole problem in the area. And then it became a sort of catalytic [sic] thing, of people fighting back or defending themselves, or even going beyond defending themselves..
We have a list of atrocities committed by the rebel groups - killing, raping, looting, destroying development projects. In South Darfur, they have been killing people inside hospitals - patients. So I think the international community should adopt a more balanced vision and approach to the problem
Q: You mentioned there being more army and police enforcement in Darfur, and yet reports are still continuing of atrocities. What is being done to arrest or stop either the Janjawid or the rebels?
A: We have asked the judicial system there, the police and the army to take things into their hands, and for people to report to the police and to take cases to court so that everyone can raise their case in front of the judicial system
It will take some time from our own experience, because we don't have many courts. It is the tribal system which is going to have the major role. These tribes have their own mechanisms of settling problems between themselves. They have their own systems of compensation, or recognition, and there are very major claims of looting of thousands of herds and killing of people
Q: You keep coming back to the statement that the international community has a false impression of what is happening in Darfur. Why is this?
A: It is a campaign, a political campaign led by groups against the people of Sudan, the government of Sudan. This is an imbalance, it is not fair. Our position is the following: yes, we have a problem, we had a very serious problem in the past. We managed to control it in a reasonable way. Things are improving in terms of delivery of aid, of controlling atrocities
But there are still some problems. We recognise this, we want the international community to help us to bypass and bring safety and security and reach some sort of an agreed solution to the problem
This problem did not start last year. They [people of Darfur] have had their own political concerns for more than 40 years. So now one of the decisions of the ministerial committee is to look in depth into the reasons for the grievances. I think this is a real challenge for us now, how we identify the reasons: marginalisation or an unbalanced approach to the area or whatever; but really we have to look at the root causes of the problem and try to tackle them
Q: In the event of a ceasefire, what will be done to allow the hundreds of thousands of displaced people to go back to their homes?
A: People are already going back home. People have the ability to assess the situation, whether they can go back or not. This has been done through local mechanisms or tribal systems. They make an agreement between themselves that they are going to protect this process of return, that no one is going to attack them. So whether there is a ceasefire or not, this process has already started
Q: Will the government be giving assurances to people that they can move back?
A: We are already giving these assurances to people. But as I have said, the people are making their own decisions. They have their own system of sensing whether it is safe or not to go back. We are trying to encourage it, but definitely it is their own decision
The state government, the local authorities, as well as the local chiefs, are helping them to make that decision. But it is quite a voluntary process.