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DARFUR: An IRC Aid Worker's Firsthand Report
By Peter BiroThe IRC’s Peter Biro, who has just returned from Darfur, shares his impressions of the situation for refugees displaced by the continuing crisis:
As the United Nations helicopter begins its descent into the South Darfur town of Nyala, an astonishing bird’s eye view of the Darfur tragedy unfolds before one’s eyes. Row after row of makeshift “houses” built from straw and plastic sheeting stretch for several kilometers across a dusty plain. The many improvised shelters made from mats and sticks provide terrifying evidence that refugees continue to pour into this part of Darfur in spite of a peace agreement signed in May by the largest of the Darfur rebel groups and the Sudanese government.
I was sent to this desolate region of western Sudan by my organization, the International Rescue Committee, to report on our aid programs and photograph what I see.
Before I left for Darfur, I was told that attacks on civilians and humanitarian aid workers are increasing and that around Nyala alone, perhaps up to 150,000 people have sought shelter from the ongoing atrocities. Many have lived here since 2003 when the Janjaweed, Sudan’s feared proxy militia, first carried out attacks against the civilian population of Darfur, razing villages to the ground and driving 2.5 million from their homes. Only half an hour before making our decent to Nyala I spotted the charred clay walls remaining of an abandoned village down below.
In the IRC office, on a dusty side street in Nyala, field coordinator Rod Volway tells me that the IRC provides health care and fresh water to tens of thousands of people in six of the camps surrounding the town. We also run programs that help children heal from the trauma of war through sports, games and basic education. Rod, an energetic Canadian, says that 15,000 more people have arrived in the past few months alone—further evidence that the peace agreement has had little impact on people’s lives.
I accompany Rania Hassaballa Ali, the IRC’s environmental health manager, to the Otash camp, home to some 40,000 people. It is early morning and the blazing rays of the midday sun are still a few hours away. A large group of women and children are flocking around one of the water taps our teams have installed across the camps to provide its population with fresh water.
“People are living so close to one another and the minute they are unable to access clean water, there will be a major outbreak of disease,” Rania says.
One of the women filling up a dirty jerry can, Khadmalla Hassan, tells me she just arrived from a village south of Nyala called Legediba.
“I lived there and had 25 cows and ten goats and some donkeys,” she says. “Then the Janjaweed came and took everything and forced us away. They even made me saddle up the donkeys for them. It was in the middle of the day. They killed seven people. They burnt our houses and we were hiding in the desert for a week. We were very hungry and thirsty. Eventually we saw a truck drive by, which took us to here.”
A little further from Nyala is Kalma, Darfur’s largest camp. A dust cloud trails behind us as we drive into this inhospitable patch of arid land. Some 95,000 people live crammed together in this vast, sprawling patchwork of makeshift shelters, huts and more permanent clay structures. In one corner, next to rows of houses covered with blue United Nations-donated tarpaulins, a hut is offering World Cup matches on TV. The entry fee: 50 dinars (20 U.S.cents).
“I hope Brazil wins,” says a man sitting under a nearby shelter.
A ten-minute drive from this temporary escape from misery is the IRC clinic, one of the biggest medical facilities for displaced people in the world. Thomas Badia, the health manager, tells me that the clinic treats 400 patients a day, many of them recent arrivals.
“They mainly suffer from acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, and eye and skin infections,” he says. “We also have 108 cases of cholera in the camp right now. The newly-arrived walk long distances without water, so we see a lot of dehydration and malnourished children.”
Thomas, like my other IRC colleagues, says the peace agreement has increased tension in the camps, especially in Nyala and in Zalingei further west. Many displaced people in the southern part of Darfur are loyal to the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) faction that refused to sign the peace agreement. This has created mistrust and sparked demonstrations in the camps.
Rod tells me that a lack of policing and overcrowded conditions has also led to an increase in crime and insecurity inside the camps. “The situation shows little sign of improving and is likely to continue to spiral downwards unless something is done,” he says.
As for the thousands of people living outside the camps, the situation is also worsening. Not only do they face the threat of the Janjaweed militia but there are also clashes between SLA factions inter-tribal feuds and banditry.
The woman at the water pump, Khadmalla Hassan, looks sad when we talk about the future.
“Only Allah knows,” she says. “But maybe I will have to stay here in this camp forever.”