LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A second generation may be lost to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, where worsening fighting has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in the past two months alone, some surviving for weeks without aid, the U.N. children's agency said.
Dozens have been killed in Darfur in recent weeks in fighting between rebels and security forces. The spiralling violence has forced some 320,000 people to flee their homes in March and April, most of them children.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Sudan, Geert Cappelaere, said he was shocked by what he saw on a visit to Zam Zam camp in North Darfur last week, where 30,000 people had just arrived.
"It was shocking ... to see with my own eyes that most of those newly displaced are children," Cappelaere said in an interview while on a visit to London.
International efforts have failed to end clashes in Darfur, 11 years after Khartoum unleashed militias to try and crush a rebellion by mostly non-Arab insurgents.
The conflict in Darfur, no longer just between the government forces and rebel groups, has fragmented to include fighting between tribes. The number of people uprooted this year is similar to displacement figures at the height of the conflict between 2003 and 2005, according to U.N. figures.
And there are another two million people who have been uprooted since those early years of the war, many of them living in displacement camps like Zam Zam with limited access to food, water, education, healthcare and work.
Between 60 and 70 percent of the displaced are younger than 18, Cappelaere said.
"We have a massive concern that we may have already lost a generation of children because of the conflict and because of their lives consisting only of life in a displacement camp," he said.
"And we are at risk of losing another generation because there is no end in sight yet for Darfur."
When Cappelaere visited Zam Zam, he found many who had been uprooted for weeks but had not yet received aid.
"That doesn't mean there are no efforts to help the population. But the multiple acute and chronic emergency in Darfur is such that the entire humanitarian community – national and international – is really stretched to the limit," he said.
Lack of funds and staff to distribute aid, government restrictions and fighting make it difficult for aid workers to reach all those in need, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Hunger is a major problem. North Darfur has the largest number of children suffering severe hunger in Sudan – nearly 80,000. South Darfur has the third highest number.
Many displaced children, often traumatised by what they have seen, are living in a "very fluid" situation, constantly on the move and under threat of fresh violence. Even if they are able to return to their community, they face the prospect that tomorrow they will have to flee again.
"There is always the risk this becomes normal life for children," Cappelaere said.
Displaced children also face increased risk of violence, abuse and exploitation, UNICEF said. The agency has received reports of children being killed, raped, maimed and abducted.
These reports tend to represent the tip of an iceberg as children are usually terrified to say what has happened to them, the agency said.
"We can't let Darfur be forgotten, particularly because so many of those suffering are underage children," Cappelaere said.
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