The Otash camp lies just outside Nyala, the capital of southern Darfur and epicentre of the world's single largest humanitarian crisis today.

Otash is small by Darfurian standards. It provides food, primitive shelter and basic sanitation to 40,000 people, who fled there after their villages were looted and burned by the Arab armed militia, the Janjaweed.

Kevin Rudd

PUTTING A HUMAN FACE TO A TRAGEDY: Kevin Rudd visited some of the more than two million people living in camps in Darfur.

 

"The tragedy is that Otash is only one of 167 camps across northern, western and southern Darfur. There are now 2.25 million people in camps and they are still streaming in, despite assurances from the Government that, with the signing of the Darfur peace agreement on 5th May, it is now safe to return."

The Government in Khartoum disputes that it has any role in arming the Janjaweed.

The village people of Darfur have little doubt, and point to the sophistication of weaponry, the Toyota LandCruisers and the combat fatigues suddenly sported by these nomadic Arab tribesmen, whose traditional form of transport is the camel.

I spoke to refugees who had come from different parts of Darfur in the Sudan. Some had fled two years ago, others two months ago, one family three weeks ago.

But all the stories had the same chilling theme: organised attacks in the dead of night by hundreds of Janjaweed, killing, raping and stealing from the villages.

One middle-aged man came striding across the camp with his daughter and tiny grandson.

All three had been burnt after their house was torched. The man's daughter removed her shawl to reveal appalling burns. His other grandson died in the fire.

The tragedy is that Otash is only one of 167 camps across northern, western and southern Darfur.

There are now 2.25 million people in camps and they are still streaming in, despite assurances from the Government that, with the signing of the Darfur peace agreement on 5th May, it is now safe to return.

It is at times like this you thank God for the UN World Food Program; for NGOs such as World Vision, physically responsible for distributing supplies to a quarter of a million people; and for the United States, which has physically supplied a staggering 55 per cent of total food shipments to date.

Darfur is consuming 60 per cent of the world food program's global budget and represents the third largest food emergency in the WFP's history.

The logistics of keeping 2.25 million people alive, leaving aside other programs in the rest of Sudan, are mind-boggling.

The tragedy is that Darfur has been sliding off the global radar screen, if in fact it ever really made it on to the Australian radar screen in the first place.

To keep all these people alive this year will require $2 billion.

As of June, only 39 per cent of this had been pledged, but even that had not been delivered.

And there is a six-month gap between the delivery of funds (not just the pledging) and the physical delivery of food in camps. The result has been to force the WFP in March to halve food-ration allocations to refugees from the recommended minimum of 8,800 kilojoules a day to 4,600 a day.

They did this so as not to run out completely by October. Since then, there has been improvement largely due to a surge in US support.

But as of Sunday, when I visited the WFP warehouse in Nyala, the pure soya-bean ration now stands at only 375g per person a month, compared with the 1.5kg recommended minimum. The incidence of malnutrition and mortality will inevitably increase.

The Government's contribution this year to Sudan has been less than flash. Of the $960 million contributed so far from donor governments, the Howard Government has put in only $3 million.

This contrasts with the Netherlands at $68 million, Norway at $28 million, Canada at $23 million, Denmark at $20 million, Sweden at $17 million and Ireland at $7 million.

"The Government's contribution this year to Sudan has been less than flash. Of the $960 million contributed so far from donor governments, the Howard Government has put in only $3 million. This contrasts with the Netherlands at $68 million, Norway at $28 million, Canada at $23 million, Denmark at $20 million, Sweden at $17 million and Ireland at $7 million."

This is not good enough for a country such as Australia, and from an Australian Government that constantly boasts it has global, not just regional, interests.

It's on this basis the Government justifies the $2 billion it is spending on the Iraq War, which may just be our single greatest foreign policy failure since Vietnam.

The Government did well on the tsunami response and the Opposition congratulated Mr Howard at the time.

The Government has also done well in its modest contribution of 25 defence and police personnel to the UN mission in Sudan in support of the north-south peace accord, ending a civil war that has cost two million lives in different region of Sudan.

I was briefed by these young Australians in Khartoum and they are doing a first-class job for their country and for Sudan.

But the Government is not doing well on humanitarian assistance to Sudan, where the death toll is about as great. Australia needs to reclaim its previous mantle of good international citizenship and not get buried in the margins of crises beyond its immediate sphere of strategic interest.

Of course, a humanitarian response through food aid is only a short-term response.

The longer-term response goes to the core question of security and restoring confidence on the part of local villagers to return home and rebuild their livelihoods.

Time is running out for the Government of Sudan, which deployed the Small African Union Force to monitor the as yet unsuccessful Darfur Peace Agreement.

If it fails, the UN Security Council will have little option but to proceed with deploying a UN peacekeeping force.

In the meantime, all people of goodwill have a responsibility to act on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur -- described by Tim Costello of World Vision as like watching Rwanda in slow motion.

The Australian Government should act. And so should we, by giving at www.worldvision.com.au.

Kevin Rudd is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Security and has just returned from four days in Sudan at the invitation of World Vision. This article was first published in Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspaper.