CHILD'S PLAY: The Recuperative Power of Wartime Recreation
A little girl tugs at a piece of string tied to the leg of a maimed sparrow. She runs away in shame when an adult approaches.
An act of animal cruelty? Maybe. But to this particular child in this particular place, pure desperation has turned a poor bird into a little toy.
Boredom is an easily overlooked and vastly underestimated problem facing the 1.2 million people displaced by upheaval in the Darfur region of Sudan.
While providing food, medical care and safe shelter remain of paramount importance, the IRC is also working to help the displaced deal with the overwhelming tedium of life in the camps, which breeds a restlessness that can lead to unrest. No one is more affected by the numbing monotony than the largest population in the camps: Kids.
“Their crushing boredom here is a testament to the attention we’re getting,” said Gerald Martone, director of the IRC’s emergency response programs, as mobs of youngsters dogged his footsteps during a tour of the Kassab camp outside Kuttum in North Darfur.
Besides providing basic water, sanitation, education and health programs to the displaced in Darfur and in Chad, the IRC has begun putting in place programs to engage the budding intellects of the children by giving them something fun to do.
“It’s important to get them playing again,” said the IRC’s Dean Brooks, who is tasked with assessing the needs of and helping set up programs for the smallest yet most abundant victims of war and oppression. He says pure playtime provides structure and diversion, and acts as a conduit to education.
Abu Shouk, which is the best of the roughly 150 settlements scattered around Darfur, already has soccer fields and volley ball nets and the IRC is now setting up special “child-friendly spaces” where kids can be kids and escape the grim realities of the limbo land inhabited by the uprooted.
“We’re roping off shaded areas and supplying the kids with crayons and jump ropes,” Brooks said. “The activities are mostly recreational at this point, but we’ll soon begin informal education activities; something like kindergarten.”
An IRC household survey indicated that a whopping 54 percent of the residents at Abu Shouk—more than 15,000—are under the age of 15.
Among Brooks’ duties is training teachers to help children and adolescents deal with the trauma of what they have seen; in some cases, their loved ones were slaughtered or raped.
“I talk about the trauma to the children,” Brooks said. “But we also work with the teachers, who tell me, ‘Hey, we’re traumatized, too.’”
Targeted for similar youth-oriented programs are the more isolated population clusters where only rudimentary health care is available, and where the misery index is much higher. Places like the Kassab camp outside of Kuttum, as well as the Zamzam camp about 20 minutes outside of El Fasher.
Kuttum is a rugged, three-hour drive across muddy, often flooded terrain that reminds one that even the sizzling Sahara has a rainy season. To reach it requires travel across a surreal moonscape of mountains built of almost cartoonish boulders, some so precariously perched atop others that it seems that a touch of a finger might set off a rockslide.
The unfortunate sparrow notwithstanding, children are adept at creating their own playtime. For instance, there is no shortage of people to man the well pump at Abu Shouk or other camps. “This is the biggest toy in camp,” Brooks said.
But the kids want more. “That’s what they tell me,” Brooks said. “They say, `Can you just give us a ball to play with?”’