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Darfur journal

Lyndall Stein
18 November 2004

Khartoum, capital of Sudan

Khartoum is hot, very hot. The plane had been eight hours late. The tour guide galloped us through the history the great forces of Islam and Christianity roaring though – and sweeping the interests of the people who have no power before them. This tour one of the few entertainments available to visitors had a very few tourists and NGO people, from the United States, Italy, Germany, France, Ireland, England – all waiting for flights to Darfur or back home.

Water and sanitation specialists, advocacy specialists, nutritionists, trainers. How did the people of Darfur organise their lives before this brutal conflict? In the sprawling villages you do not need latrines. You can walk off to the scrub or fields without danger of death. You feed yourself though the lean times with your knowledge of the plants and grasses that can be treated to remove toxins. You know the ones that can heal you and your children. But these are different and terrible times. The intelligence, resilience and strength of the people of Darfur are compromised, undermined or destroyed by violence, destruction, rape and death.

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I walked off that evening from the Acropole Hotel, a simple 1940s building on a dusty corner. Every nationality but Sudanese as guests. Walking though the sandy broken streets I found the vast street market – bustling and lively under the setting sun. It was strange, so busy, and no tourists or visitors at all. I felt like the invisible woman, no one looked at me, spoke to me, tried to sell me any thing or jostled against me, afraid to bother this strange freckled haiwaji (foreigner). It is not a country used to travelers or tourists – despite its beauty and extraordinary archeological heritage, the fundamentalism and long war with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south have driven away casual visitors.

El Geneina, Darfur

The plane to El Geneina, the small town in western Darfur near the Chad border where Concern is based, takes three hours. On the plane was a small film crew from the Sudanese national station, a very urbane producer speaking perfect English, whispered to me as we left the plane “more media is needed here.”

We went straight to Dhourtie camp, near the little town and one of so many hastily–created refuges, of communities – fleeing death, rape and destruction, many walking many hours with their children. Darfur is vast, as big as France. The name means “the land of the Fur tribe”, but it is actually home to nearly ninety different tribes – pastoralists and nomads. It is a complex tapestry of different cultures, language and ways of life, nearly all Islamic. They somehow managed to live together for centuries, until desertification, guns, big politics conspired to tear this strong and delicate tapestry apart.

More about Sudan and the Darfur crisis on openDemocracy:

  • “Who is accountable for Darfur? An interview with Gareth Evans” (August 2004)
  • Stephen Ellis , “Darfur: countdown to catastrophe” ( June 2004)
  • Caspar Henderson, “Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa” (April 2004)

In Dhourtie camp women in vibrant orange, purple, pink or green robes queued quietly to bring their babies to be weighed, measured and assessed in order to know if they were suffering from malnutrition. They would be given the sweetly named “plumpy nut”, a special food supplement wrapped in foil and designed for mothers to take home, to put a few desperately needed ounces on the frail babies bodies; and also a sack of corn meal fortified with oil, to ensure that the other children, also hungry but not malnourished, have their own needs met appropriately. The nutrition team work quietly together – Irish, English, Sudanese, united in their urgent desire to see young lives saved.

The next day we drove out of El Geneina to Salea, into the vast spare landscape past the few sticks marking a home, sometimes with tarpaulins thrown over these fragile shelters, startling in their impermanence – contrasting with the beautifully made tourkels, the straw huts so strong, cool, elegant and robust that are home to the farmers of Darfur in peaceful times.

The grasses change from green to gold. It is dry yet beautiful. Small groups of woman and children walk or ride on donkeys. Sometimes men gallop speedily past on horses. This is one of the signs of difference and power: the Janjaweed – militias accused of massive human rights abuse – have ensured that only they can ride a strong horse. If local farmers have a strong horse, they will lose it or their lives. If they are lucky they are relegated now to their feet or donkeys, those robust little creatures which will never gallop – showing that those riding them are not fighters, have no power.

These rough camps by the side of the road are often far from a water source. Asked why they had built shelters so far from water, the refugees said: “We must be near a road so the aid agencies will find us”. Fear has changed everything and fear is not something easy for people in these harsh regions to own. Abdulla, who was working with us in Salea, a tiny place but now surrounded by refugees, explained to me that it was not the done thing to admit fear in his Darfurian culture.

Grace Deveney of Concern tells a vivid story of her daily life in Darfur, Sudan; see “Diary of an Aid Worker”.

In Salea we had to cancel a visit to one of the outlying camps when a Red Cross lorry was attacked. Two of their Sudanese staff were shot at and wounded by government officials. Further north two of our colleagues from Save the Children, Rafe Bullick and Nourredine Issa Tayeb, died when they drove over a landmine.

On the way to the camp our driver got behind a lorry packed with men and their guns. Were they police, army, Janjaweed? All three? Impossible to tell, but I noticed the way he quickly found a side road so we could move away from them.

I went for a walk that evening just before dark, into tiny Salea. Women are gathering, selling wood. They chat at the well. Children bring in the goats. A reminder that people here have a normal and richly textured life, one they want to return to.

What can we do?

Despite our best and well–intentioned efforts, we cannot solve this terrible problem, this huge social and political dislocation.

We must be both modest and ambitious knowing that at best we have an honorable role addressing the practical humanitarian problems with commitment, professionalism and compassion. We can work to prevent another outbreak of Hepatitis E, to put in clean water and latrines, to deliver food and work sensitively with mothers and children, to delicately put precious ounces on small bodies.

Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has just been to Darfur and was eloquent in his plea for the NGOs to have a role watching and witnessing as well as doing. But this is not necessarily our expertise.

We can help in a practical and intelligent way. We can do our best to ensure that the voices and experiences of those who have suffered and continue to suffer in Darfur will be heard. But to bear witness, to fulfill a role reporting violence and abuse on such a wide scale is a complex and wide–ranging role that requires immense expertise and dedicated resources.

I have been to Orissa in India after the huge cyclone and to Mozambique just after the floods. You could see hopeful signs for the future. The orange sweet potatoes planted to replace the traditional white ones so children could benefit from the vitamin A in the orange flesh. The careful work to change behaviour after the destruction of the tidal wave in Orissa, rebuilding not only the wells but also the destructive caste–based discrimination, which had prevented the dalits (untouchables) from using the wells.

Have you clicked through from Concern? Welcome! Click here to find more compelling views and truthful voices in our recent articles.

But in Sudan our capacity to influence is far more limited. The causes of this horrific disaster have their roots in violence, power and politics. The solutions must be found by those working on the world stage – the UN, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and others working together.

Pressure must be brought to bear, angry voices raised, the tragic human story told. This can help to ensure that the peace treaty signed in Nigeria holds, that the Sudanese government’s commitment not to send military aircraft over Darfur with their deadly cargoes continues, and that the aid agencies with good cargoes of food, medicines and humanitarian support have immediate, open, free, access – now, and in the future.

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