Inside the Darfur camp where a child dies every two hours

<span>People inside Zamzam, North Darfur’s biggest camp for displaced people, last week. Dengue fever and malaria are sweeping through the camp.</span><span>Photograph: MSF France.</span>
People inside Zamzam, North Darfur’s biggest camp for displaced people, last week. Dengue fever and malaria are sweeping through the camp.Photograph: MSF France.

Everyone knows a family that has lost a child in Zamzam, a camp for hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Sudan’s Darfur region. Hunger and disease have become grim features of daily life, and a child is dying in the camp every two hours, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“There have been many, I cannot remember them all. The latest died yesterday,” says Laila Ahmed, who lives in the camp with her nine children.

Like most of Sudan, Zamzam has had no phone or internet connection for the past two weeks, but the Guardian managed to talk to refugees through a satellite link.

They described a desperate situation, with no clean drinking water and little access to medical treatment. Families share meagre food stores. Almost 25% of children are severely malnourished.

Dengue fever and malaria are sweeping through the camp. Beyond its perimeters roam militiamen who kidnap or attack women who venture out to collect firewood or grass for their donkeys. Apart from one small distribution in June, no food aid has arrived since fighting erupted across Sudan on 15 April.

“I think we are approaching starvation,” says Abdullatif Ali, a father of six. “The people are suffering from malnutrition, disease – many issues.”

Zamzam was set up in the mid-2000s in the wake of the genocide in Darfur, carried out by predominately Arab militias called the Janjaweed. Before the current war between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which grew from the Janjaweed, a patchwork of international aid agencies provided services to Zamzam, but they abruptly pulled out when the fighting started.

Since then, the camp’s population has swelled with new arrivals fleeing fighting farther south. “This is a vast, overpopulated camp that needs a large amount of support, but it has been completely left on its own,” says Emmanuel Berbain, an MSF doctor, who visited recently. “It’s a complete catastrophe, to be honest.”

MSF and Relief International are the only aid groups still operating in Zamzam and the nearby town of El Fasher, where 2 million people need help. Strict internal security rules mean UN agencies cannot send staff to the region, while the NGOs simply do not have enough money to restart their operations.

“We are overwhelmed,” says Kashif Shafique, Sudan country director for Relief International. “It’s too much for two organisations to cover.”

The scale is simply terrifying. Zamzam is just one camp. There are hundreds of others in Sudan

Sudan has been brought to the brink of collapse by 10 months of fighting. Half of its 50 million people need food aid, while almost 8 million people have been uprooted from their homes, the world’s largest internal displacement crisis.

In the “most likely scenario”, famine will break out across most of Sudan by June, killing half a million people, according to research published by the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch thinktank. In the worst-case scenario, a countrywide famine could kill 1 million people, it predicts.

“The scale is simply terrifying,” says William Carter, the local head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “Zamzam is just one camp. There are hundreds of others in Sudan where we are seeing skeletal babies not getting assistance.”

NRC was working in Zamzam camp but money is tight and it cannot afford to return yet. These cash constraints are shared by all the agencies in Sudan, where the worsening humanitarian crisis has been eclipsed by the war in Ukraine and Israel’s offensive against Gaza. Last year, the UN received just 43% of the funds it needed to respond.

“The international community simply haven’t prioritised Sudan or given it resources,” says Carter. “Being frank, I think it’s sheer laziness that has got us here. They could have found a solution if they were motivated to do so, but they’re not.”

In December, the fighting spread to Gazira state, a logistics hub for aid agencies and the site of Sudan’s largest irrigation project, further disrupting the country’s battered food system.

Some markets have no food left. The communications blackout, meanwhile, has made it impossible for humanitarian groups without satellite equipment to run their operations. Mobile cash-transfer applications, a vital lifeline for people trapped behind the frontlines, no longer work.

On Monday, volunteers running a network of 38 soup kitchens in Bahri, a satellite city of the capital, Khartoum, said they were suspending their work because they could no longer source and distribute food amid the blackout. They were feeding almost 200,000 people every day.

“I have no idea what they are going to eat now. There’s nothing we can do,” says Mukhtar Atif, a spokesperson for Emergency Response Rooms, a volunteer network working across Sudan.

Related: UN warns of ‘epic suffering’ in Sudan and appeals for $4bn in aid

Toby Harward, the UN’s deputy humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, says “frequent bureaucratic impediments” placed on aid groups by the authorities are making the humanitarian crisis worse. These make it difficult to get visas, transport aid across the country and import humanitarian supplies.

Earlier this month, the UN’s World Food Programme said 70 of its trucks, carrying enough food to feed half a million people, were unable to move from Port Sudan for two weeks because they were waiting for clearances. Another 31 trucks, “which should have been making regular aid deliveries”, were stuck in the city of El Obeid for more than three months.

Yet more trucks have been held up and looted. Sudan’s military chief, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has suggested he will not allow aid into areas controlled by the RSF, which would violate international humanitarian law but mirror tactics used by previous Sudanese leaders.

Several aid warehouses and offices were gutted by looting at the onset of the fighting. “This means we are starting this response with zero supplies,” says Eatizaz Yousif, the Sudan head of the International Rescue Committee. “Everything aid groups had put in place before the war – food, blankets – it was all wiped out and removed,” says Yousif, who also emphasised “the failure of the international community to put any pressure at all” on the warring parties to respect humanitarian principles.

Despite clashes in November, an uneasy truce has prevailed in El Fasher, the only major city in Darfur not yet captured by the RSF. Elsewhere in the region, the RSF and its allies unleashed a campaign of ethnically motivated violence against civilians, which has drawn parallels with the genocide of 2003-2005. Yet cash-starved aid groups still cannot get there. “Unless there is a massive intervention to distribute food and cash, the country cannot survive,” says Yousif.