Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sorry, but this blog is now closed.

It's somewhat bittersweet to write those words after having ranted and raved, moaned and marvelled, and generally obsessed about Darfur for so long. Of course, it's not that I have run out of things to rant about.

In this case, it's merely personal circumstance (an agreement with my employer to be re-deployed to another crisis after having completed my mission here in Darfur) that brings an abrupt end to my brief but passionate stint as an anonymous Darfur blogger.

Letting go is never easy - and I'm bemused to discover that leaving Darfur is filled with just as much stress, frustration and heartache as living here has been. This blog has provided relief to me not just in terms of self-therapy (at the end of the day, we all just want to have a good rant), but also through the virtual friendships, offers of support, and thoughtful comments that reached me every day through that shaky satellite connection.

But this blog was (I hope) less about me, and more about Darfur, so with that bit of self-reflection out of the way, it's worth getting back to the point. Darfur. And writing about it.

Well, I am hoping that one of my friends or colleagues who are still working in the region will be persuaded to begin another blog - if anything, to provide all of you with a new opinion, perspective, and plenty of real-time information about the things unfolding on the ground. The mails I've gotten and comments on the site have really made it clear to me that people are looking for this kind of commentary.

Unfortunately, I haven't found any new Darfur blogger who's willing to accept this job just yet - but I'll let you know as soon I do, and I'm pretty hopeful they'll come along eventually.

In the meantime, I hope you keep reading the excellent Darfur news coverage by Reuters, the BBC, the New York Times, and the Sudan Tribune (to name just a few); the NGO websites that show how people in Darfur are trying to live in the midst of this conflict; the thoughtful Darfur reports produced by people like the International Crisis Group or Human Rights Watch; and also other smart, funny blogs from all over the world - like This is Zimbabwe, My Heart's In Accra, Sabbah's blog, Bestiaria, India Uncut, and of course the tales of my favourite fellow aid workerette Vasco Pyjama in Afghanistan.

Thanks for reading and good-bye.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

It's 2006 and I am greeted back to the blog world with the news that I have been nominated for a 'Bloggie' (in the 'Best Africa or Middle East blog').

I am told that this is quite a prestigious affair and I must now go and tell the world to vote for me at - having just come back from visiting the site myself though, I'd absolutely forgive you if you end up getting sidetracked with checking out some of the truly hysterical and fabulous weblogs that have been nominated, and simply forgot to cast your vote. Happy reading.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

After nine months in Sudan, I've finally managed to take some time off - and arrive 'home' (well, in the place where most my family lives) just in time for the holidays.

Culture shock, as usual, is more intense in reverse - and even on the drive home from the airport I began marvelling at how beautiful life can be in a peaceful and prosperous country like my own.

While even the most horrific stories and sights rarely make me emotional on the job in Sudan (counsellors tell me this is all to do with self-protection), I found myself getting teary-eyed at the sight of a lovingly handpainted bird house that was perched among the pines in a woody residential area near my home.

To think that someone had the time, the resources and the compassion for a few little winged creatures to erect this little bird haven for no particularly pressing reason suddenly seemed like the ultimate luxury to me - a kind of luxury that I'll be unlikely to see in Darfur for quite a long time.

As I rediscover the comforts of my 'normal' life and begin to reflect on my Darfur experiences, I will also try to take a few weeks of holiday from my blog. I hope to be back with stories and thoughts on Darfur in the new year.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I wrote about justice in Darfur last week - the type that the special Sudanese courts in places like El Fasher are trying to dole out (ie not much) and the type that the International Criminal Court will one day be passing on those who are ultimately responsible for crimes in the region (hopefully a lot more).

And while those who are following the international news remain cautiously optimistic about the ICC's ability to bring some justice to Darfur, I feel I should also point out that the people in the camps tend to be less interested in the "big picture" justice.

They may loathe President Bashir or Vice President Taha, but will almost invariable feel more strongly and more passionately about the individuals and tribes whom they watched as they burned down their villages and beat their family members to death.

To them, justice is all about blood money and tribal processes.

Women often tell me that they are expecting some sort of compensation for their murdered husbands. Justice, to them, means paying for lost lives, lost lands, lost livestock.

It also means following traditional tribal reconciliation mechanisms that genuinely involve the leaders of the victims and the leaders of those who carried out the attacks on the villages.

Unfortunaly, the few tribal reconciliations that have already taken place in Darfur have been completely dominated by government stooges and made no genuine efforts to involve the people in the camps.

Clearly, bringing justice to Darfur will entail a lot more than just getting the ICC to start investigating and handing out indictments - and after some of conversations I had in the camps this week, I felt it was important to point out that the developments on the ground will be at least as important as those taking place in The Hague or Khartoum.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The issue of men (and in particular the lack of attractive single ones) continues to be a constant gripe for the women of Darfur. Since my disastrous experience with the self-absorbed aid worker a few months ago, I've started to work again on Fridays.

I know we're here to work (and trust us, in the absence of the Friday men, we're finding it hard to be dragged away from our desks for even a day), but that doesn't mean we would be adverse to being knocked off our feet by that knight-in-shining-landcruiser.

Most of us, alas, have not had the pleasure.

What's worse, the huge number of intelligent, attractive and interesting women in Darfur have tipped the odds so overwhelmingly in favour of the single boys that it seems the few remaining members of the species hardly make an effort to woo us anymore.

Chat up lines in Darfur have become accordingly dire. A fellow aid worker emailed me recently to complain about this trend, having just been subjected to, "I've seen so much today, I just can't face sleeping alone."

"That's nothing," my housemate sighs when I read out the email to her. "At the last NGO party, I spoke to a guy who tried to lure me over to his guest house by bragging about the super-size box of condoms he managed to get off one of the medical NGOs. Thankfully, he fell asleep on top of the drinks cooler after his fifth cup of Janjaweed juice (highly potent and absolutely vile homebrewed alcohol that is served up at aid worker parties)."

I blame it on the "Darfur goggles", a condition we unfortunately seem to develop whereby one's usual dating standards drop by about a mile and cringe worthy chat-up lines or terrible excuses for not calling somehow become almost cute.

One friend has become so desperate she's approached her human resource manager and demanded proof that her organisation's recruitment for Darfur positions truly corresponds with their gender-balanced philosophy. "Seriously, are there no male doctors and engineers anymore? Why the hell can we only get qualified women into these jobs?"

Enough is enough. I have promised the ladies to note their displeasure and have started asking former male colleagues (in particular hot, single ones) to apply for posts in Darfur. Blog readers fitting this description, please take note and check out Reliefweb.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Justice is big issue in a place like Darfur - basically, everyone agrees there is not enough of it. Not surprisingly, this means people are not particularly worried about being prosecuted when they continue to harass, abuse, rape or kill someone.

My Sudanese colleagues, especially those with a legal background, regularly try to rope me into long, passionate debates about impunity, and ask me what I know about the progress of the International Criminal Court (the ICC, the organisation that has been tasked with investigating war crimes in Darfur).

I tell them about the updates that the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, gives to the UN Security Council (such as the one he gave earlier this week), and also about reports like the ones by Human Rights Watch (which recently published a list of Sudanese officials who should be investigated for crimes against humanity in Darfur).

What always strikes me most about these conversations is not just the hope that people place in these international proceedings but more importantly the complete and utter distrust that they harbour towards their own government and its ability to bring any justice to Darfur.

It's not just that everyone instinctively mistrusts the government, which has made no secret of the fact that it hates the ICC (and which immediately organised protesters to march through the streets of Khartoum when the UN first asked the ICC to take on the case of Darfur in March 2005) - it also seems that none of my Sudanese friends has any illusions about the existence of an independent judiciary in Darfur.

"Those courts they have set up in Darfur, the ones that they want to use as a substitute for an ICC investigation, are pitiful," one of my friends scoffs when we read about new court rooms opening in Nyala and El Geneina in this week's papers. "They are just going to pick some random people from the streets and convict them for a handful of rapes and murders. They will do nothing for the victims of Darfur - they won't even scare any of the people who have committed the crimes. Anyway, many of them are now working for the police or the military themselves, there is no way these former Janjaweed will turn on their own brothers and arrest them."

The ICC - unlike the local courts - does seem to scare people on the ground. "A lot of the Janjaweed leaders have gotten passports for themselves or members of their families, there are plenty who have already fled to Chad and Lybia since March," colleagues in West Darfur claim.

"This is a real court, you can't buy yourself out of this one if they come after you. Even Bashir can't," one insists. Silently, I hope they are right.

Friday, December 09, 2005

An excellent article on IRIN gives a flavour of Darfur's current lawlessness (and the increased level of disgust that aid agency officials are publicly expressing about it): fresh clashes, attacks on towns and villages, destruction of desperately needed crops and wells, aid workers with guns pointed in their faces.

Finger-pointing has become almost meaningless in this context - no one with a gun is free from blame, whether it's the rebels, the government army, the police, or just random groups of thugs and bandits. The only consistency to the pattern is the fact that's it affecting all of Darfur - every single state has its own mess on its hands this month.

The violence has also been creeping from the countryside back into the towns. In El Geneina, the state capital of West Darfur, two NGO guest houses have received night time visits from gun-toting bandits over the past 48 hours, and the fresh fighting around Um Gunya (an SLA stronghold just south of Nyala) could be heard loud and clear even in Kalma camp.

Despite the fact that the peace talks in Abuja have not yet collapsed, there's a new sense of doom and gloom on the ground. Pessimism and dispair are the order of the day - no one inside the camps thinks they will be going home anytime soon, and the frustration is palpable.

I'm glad to see that The Economist has published a front page article on Sudan this week, since this somehow always makes people in government offices sit up and take notice. Hopefully, they'll be taking the advice that the article gives - which includes more support to the African Union to keep the peace, and generally "kicking up more of a fuss" politically. Wise words.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Miraculously, there's some more good news from Kalma camp this week - the ban on 'commercial traffic' between the camp and Nyala town (which lies around 15km to the North-West of Kalma) is about to be lifted.

The aid agencies who work inside Kalma camp have been struggling to get this result for months - since the governor of South Darfur first instituted the ban seven months ago, it has created a lot of problems for the people of Kalma camp.

Essentially, the ban has been trapping the displaced families inside the camp - since it often prevented not just vehicles but even horse or donkey carts from moving back and forth between the camp and the town, people had very little chance to earn a living or set up little shops or markets inside the camp. Prices for basic goods - like clothes, vegetables or soap - immediately increased to amounts that were beyond the reach of many of the mothers I've met in Kalma.

For the 100,000+ people piled on top of each other on a few square kilometers of desert sand, this has been a frustrating and intensely debilitating situation (and it's not as if things in Darfur weren't bad enough already to start off with).

It seems that - after more than 200 days - the local authorities will finally be lifting the commercial ban on December 15th. Together with the recently revived firewood patrols around the camp, this small step will hopefully help to make life just a little bit easier for the people of Kalma. It's been long overdue.

Monday, December 05, 2005

I've been ranting a lot over the past few days, and I thought it was about time I posted something useful again. I've finally had the chance to plough through most of my blog emails over the weekend, and am somewhat overwhelmed by the feedback that everyone has been sending.

Above all, everyone seems to be wondering "What can I do to help the people of Darfur?"

So I thought I'd post a few suggestions:

Find out more. The conflict in Darfur may be complex and the context somewhat daunting, but it's hard to help when you're ignorant about the issues involved. It's going to be a lot easier for you to help the people of Darfur if you try to understand the situation and use your knowledge to take certain actions (see the following points) or to influence others. No matter how good your intentions, uninformed opinions or arguments will not take you very far. Reading Darfur news (for example on Alertnet or Sudan Tribune) or the work of Darfur activitists and academics like Eric Reeves is a good start.

Give money. Yes, in some cases throwing money at a problem does help. Particularly if you are throwing it into the hands of a respectable and effective aid agency.
The UN HAS (Humanitarian Air Service) desperately needs some cash to ferry around the aid workers in their helicopters and planes, while the UN JLC (Joint Logistics Center) is running short on funds for things like plastic sheeting, blankets and soaps. Then of course, there's always us NGOs - and we always need money. You might have your own favourite organsition already, but if you don't it's hard to go wrong with some of most long-standing and reputable outfits like the ICRC, MSF, Oxfam or the IRC.
In addition to supporting the organisations who are providing relief on the ground, you might also want to support human rights and policy groups like Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group so they can continue to carry out research and advocacy work on Darfur - unlike the aid agencies working on the ground, these groups are not as restricted in what they can say about the situation, and they often make concrete suggestions on political solutions.
The African Union, as I pointed out yesterday, also need support - they haven't got enough cars, fuel or even ammunition (and there are people like the folks at the Genocide Intervention Fund who are doing direct fund-raising for the AU troops).

Nag the politicians - and the newspapers. Politicians rely on you for votes, and they actually pay more attention to emails, letters and phone calls than most people think - particularly if these arrive en masse. Writing to your political representatives to highlight an issue - and to your local media outlets to demand they dedicate more coverage to it - can be an effective way of putting pressure on those who make the decisions.

Join an activist group. wear a wrist band, support a divestment campaign, join a student group. There are many people out there who are interested in Darfur and can give you ideas on how to take action.

Be creative. The ideas I've listed here are nothing new. People who want to make a difference sometimes need to be a bit more innovative, like the students who founded the Genocide Intervention Fund.
If you're a filmmaker you might be inspired to make a documentary about Darfur, if you're a priest you might want to discuss the issue with your congregation. You might even decide to use your existing skills to come and work in Darfur - I've had many emails asking if this is possible, the answer is absolutely, as long as your skills can be applied usefully over here (for example, medical agencies always need trained doctors and nurses, major aid deliveries only arrive with the support of pilots, mechanics, and skilled logisticians, and pretty much any aid operation can use experienced and effective managers with relevant overseas experience). Darfur jobs are usually advertised on Reliefweb - if you're qualified for a job, apply.

So there's a start. Hopefully, readers of this blog will add to this list with some of their own suggestions?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The African Union (AU) is sending a team to Darfur to assess their lack of cash and equipment- finally. For months, AU officials have been trying to speak up about the woefully inadequate support they are getting from the international community.

"If you are supposed to move people with 20 vehicles and you are moving them with six vehicles, you can understand the problems," Festus Okonkwo, the military head of the AU mission, told Reuters today.

On the ground, I've heard a lot worse. There is no fuel for AU cars, never mind helicopters. Ammunition runs out (as it did during the attack that killed four Nigerian peacekeepers and two AU contractors in October). Soldiers routinely show up at aid agency compounds to ask if they can have some mosquito nets or even blankets. Civilian police officers walk around the camps unable to communicate with people because they have not yet sent them any translators. It's clear the AU has not been able to do its job - and there is still no one actually protecting those who need it most.

The AU has been remarkably transparent about many of these shortcomings - and clearly outlined challenges like the ones I've just talked about in their assessment report in March.

Unfortunately, they still aren't getting the support and the cash they need. The US congress recently cut back on $50 million of funding they'd already pledged to the AU, and here in Khartoum everyone seems to be more interested in talking about how and when the UN can take over from the AU rather than discussing what could be done to help the troops who are already there.

In the meantime, the people in the camps are not getting any safer. If the last AU assessment is anything to go by, the forthcoming report on the state of the AU mission could well be a very useful and self-critical piece of work. My worry is that - as with the last one, when the team recommended a troop increase to 12,000 soldiers - no one will pay very much attention to it.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

I'm catching up on my work emails today, and a quick glance through the security reports confirms that West Darfur remains in a state of near anarchy.

Most aid agencies stopped using the roads in this part of Darfur in August/September, following daily attacks on humanitarian convoys. The situation had reached a level where you could pretty much be guaranteed to find yourself in an ambush if you used certain roads. Not surprisingly, many aid agencies have suspended their operations in certain areas, while others began to rely on UN helicopters to get around.

The two helicopters that are based in the El Geneina, the state capital, only have enough fuel for a certain amount of flights though (80 hrs per month I think - apparently there's no money in the UN coffers for more than that).

So now it seems that someone at the UN thought it would be a good idea to check if the roads have become a bit safer again - this helicopter business, after all, is becoming a pretty heavy drain on the budget.

"The UN road assessment of the Geneina-Mournei was conducted last week," I read in the security minutes. So far, so good.

(Before I go on, I will come out and ashamedly admit that I often find security procedures, meetings and reports over here in Darfur amusing. I know I shouldn't - this is serious stuff after all. But sometimes the information and reports are just so confusing and absurd that I can't help but laugh. In my defense, I think it's a relatively normal coping mechanism. All of us are doing it: for weeks, I have been engaged in an email battle with several colleagues to try and find more and more bizzare or funny security reports.)

So, back to minutes: "The UN road assessment of the Geneina-Mournei road was conducted last week."

Seems like a good idea, I think. Until I realise how the security assessment was actually carried out.

"Two UN vehicles with national and international staff were sent to check the safety of the road. In Habillah Konari road, the convoy was ambushed. Fortunately, the 2 cars were keeping space between each other and so the second car managed to escape and report the incident to the nearest police station. The ambushed car then joined the other one at the police station after the attackers had taken all the personal belongings of the staff in that car."

"Police responded straight away and the UN staff on their way back heard the shooting. As a result of this incident UN had suspended all the planned road assessment."

Now I'm not a security expert. I don't know how road assessments and security checks are usually carried out, or what would be the best way of going about them.

And it may just be me, but somehow, sending a few carloads full of staff into the danger zone to wait and see whether or not the bandits are still ambushing cars does not seem particularly sophisticated - or safe.

There are too many emails in my inbox to ponder security issues too long, so I just shrug and make a mental note to myself, "Geneina-Mournei road still not safe". I'm glad the UN is trying to check up on the security situation - someone needs to, because Darfur's still a mess. But today, I thank my lucky stars I am not working for a UN security assessment team.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Yesterday I wrote about the changing Khartoum landscape, but forgot to mention the Egg.

The Egg (so named because of its peculiar shape) is a massive structure (a hotel apparently) that is being erected on the banks of the river Nile, right in downtown Khartoum. Some people say it's supposed to resemble a sailboat; a taxi driver tells me it's "Ghaddafi's house" (it's being financed by the Lybians).

A friend refers to it as The Teardrop, and today I realise her description might be the most accurate.

The hotel, I'm told, is being built for the African Union summit - a major event that is supposed to be taking place in Khartoum in January.

Since Sudan has not exactly been behaving like a particularly honourable member of the AU club, there has been lots of debate about whether or not it should really be permitted to host Africa's heads of state in this high-profile forum.

The summit, however, is just the beginning –what's even more worrying to some people here in Khartoum is the fact that Sudan is also up for the Presidency of the African Union next month. There's not just the small matter of principle (should a government with this much blood on its hands really be representing the entire continent?) – what’s also at stake is the question of how this move could impact on the African Union troops in Darfur.

Flawed as they may be, it's clear the African Union troops are the only ones who are currently mandated to address the abysmal security situation in Darfur - and the Sudanese government has not exactly been helping them on this front, as the recent row about the AU’s “grounded” armoured vehicles showed.

On a political level, there's an obvious conflict of interest in letting Sudan preside over the entire African Union at the same time it's hosting an AU intervention force (in particular one whose main job is reporting on ceasefire violations, including the governments own transgressions).

In the field, I shudder to think how tricky life could become for the AU troops if the Sudanese government gets to meddle in their affairs even more than they are trying to do already.

And somehow, each time my journey takes me along the river Nile this weekend, that unfinished blue-green monstrosity begins to look more and more like a Teardrop to me.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I'm in Khartoum for the weekend, and things have changed a lot since my last visit.

To begin with, the World Food Programme, which runs the HAS (Humanitarian Air Services, aka my favourite airline), has started charging us aid workers $100 for the pleasure of sitting on the 8-hr flight to Khartoum (it should be 2 hrs, but most of the time the planes stop in at least three other places to pick up more it's more like a bus than an airplane). WFP has been nagging the donors for more funding, but it seems not enough of them have come through - and now the aid agencies have got to fork over the cash for the flights themselves. Ouch.

In the city itself, I can't believe the amount of construction going on - there are now so many restaurants that people have stopped referring to them as "the Turkish", "the Indian" or "the Italian". They have real names now.

There is even a coffee shop ("Solitaire") - more like Starbucks than Sudan, with a real espresso machine, pastries, panini, and - brace yourself - WIFI. It's bizarre to step off the dusty streets of Khartoum into this little bubble where aid workers and well-heeled Sudanese teenagers are hunched over their laptops, sipping lattes and occasionally glancing up to check out Carson Daly on MTV on the huge flat-screen TV hanging from the wall.

Ozone, the new bakery on Coca-Cola round-about (a well-known Khartoum landmark - there's a huge replica of a coke bottle in the middle of the road), is just as impressive. As soon as you step through its gleaming doors, you're hit by the tantalising smells of fresh ciabatta, French baguettes, and whole-meal rolls. There are Italian ice creams, fresh juices, specialty coffees and Black Forest gateaux. The cakes are like something out of a Viennese novel.

What amazed me most though was something I found on the shelves of the Amarat shopping centre last night: condoms. While I've always loved Amarat for its Swiss chocolates, Nutri-Grain bars and bottled Starbucks frappucinos (yes, really), I'm distinctly impressed to suddenly see a full range of lubricated, ribbed, even flavoured condoms lined up near the counter. This is certainly not the Khartoum I know.

I'm intrigued. Let's see what else the weekend brings.

Monday, November 28, 2005

I met with Nick Kristof from the New York Times while he was over here in Sudan this month - and Nick recounts part of our conversation in yesterday's NYT column. (Thanks to everyone who emailed me about this, I'm trying to plough through the mountain of mail right now, but with the connection speed I've got this might take a while.)

While he was in Darfur, Nick also wrote an article on three women (two of them heavily pregnant) who had been gang-raped by Janjaweed militia just outside of Kalma camp recently. I know that he's horrified by the things he has seen and heard in Darfur, but I think today Nick might be a little bit encouraged by an important piece of news out of Kalma camp.

Now that the camp coordinator, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), has finally been allowed back into the camp after a two month absence (a long story - you can read about parts of it in this post), they have met with the African Union and local police officers to revive the so-called firewood patrols.

The idea behind the firewood patrols is pretty simple: the African Union (who has deployed about 6500 troops to Darfur to monitor the situation and create a more secure environment) is meant to work with local police officers to accompany the women of the camps when they venture outside to collect firewood. Since women often have to walk up to 5-10km away from the camp to get the wood, they are vulnerable to attacks, beatings, rape or worse during their journey - and the presence of the troops is meant to prevent anything happening to them.

Firewood patrols are not a new thing, but unfortunately they have not been particularly well coordinated in many parts of Darfur. There are camps that have been promised patrols for months - some for more than a year - but nothing has ever come of the plans.

Patrols require close coordination between the residents of the camp and aid agencies (to identify the routes used to collect the wood), the African Union and the Sudanese police (who are supposed to work alongside each other to organise the escorts for the women). Often, they have failed to be properly implemented due to a breakdown in coordination (be it on the side of obstructive local officials, undermanned African Union forces or even the aid agencies - for example, when they are prevented from doing their jobs as NRC was in Kalma camp).

While I won't pretend it's a major step forward on a wider Darfur scale, the news about the resurrected firewood patrols in Kalma camp is encouraging.

Of course, it should have happened more quickly and more efficiently. And it should be happening in more camps. But when the new firewood patrol leaves from Kalma's sector 3 this morning, it's likely to save dozens of women from suffering the same fate that the three women Nick met in Kalma two weeks ago had to endure.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

I nearly fall out of my chair today during a phone call with one of my staff members in a North Darfur camp.

It has gotten quite cold in the area where we works and most of the agencies have started planning their responses to the approaching winter weather. I ask him for a quick update on our plans in this camp, and nod along approvingly as he lists the programme activities that he wants to carry out.

Blanket distributions, yep. Lots of them. Plastic sheeting to fix some of the shelters, yep. More clothing for the children, yep.

"Oh, and we're also encouraging people to get married before the winter starts." We are doing what? I jump to attention (this is stage where I nearly topple out of my chair). Surely, we're having a language problem again here.

But no, he repeats it. "We're encouraging people to get married, especially the ones who don't have blankets yet. They're cold inside their shelters at night. Just think about it - it's a lot warmer for two people sleeping together, and then of course..."

Dear God. I'm sitting up straight now and cut him off mid-sentence. "What are we doing? Hassan, can you start again from the beginning with this one? I really don't understand."

There is a silence on the line, but I think he can sense my utter disbelief. "Hassan, are you still there?"

Finally, he erupts with laughter, I can hear some others behind him joining in. "Calm down, I was just joking with you. We haven't started a marriage service yet. But it's a good idea, no?"

I'm smiling now. "Ok, you got me there. We'll keep it in mind, the marriage thing. But stick to the blankets for now."

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

An American friend has just reminded me that it's Thanksgiving today.

While I already know that the people of Darfur don't have much to be thankful for at the moment, I'm somewhat surprised when he tells me that a few of his fellow Americans in Sudan have also been experiencing some disappointments - albeit of a much more frivolous nature.

The US embassy staff in Khartoum, who apparently order a lot of their food and other goodies directly from their supermarkets and department stores back home (I'm told there's a plane that comes out to Sudan just to bring them their stuff!) had been planning a big Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. As anyone who watches Hollywood movies will know, the turkey seems to be the all-important centre-piece of this particular holiday feast.

Unfortunately, the Sudanese customs authorities don't seem to watch these movies- and promptly destroyed the big American bird when it arrived. I'm not sure whether they were simply confused about what it was (after all, their measure of things are scrawny Sudanese chickens), or whether they were just trying to mock the silly foreigners who had ordered it. In any case, they curtly passed on the word that the turkey had been incinerated at Khartoum airport, much to the horror of the poor Americans.

Naturally, some people have their suspicions about the real turn of events ("Incinerated? Barbecued and eaten's probably more like it," snorts one of my friends). But at least the tale of the holiday turkey manages to keep us all amused over here in a not-so-happy Darfur.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I sigh as I open my inbox - the first thing that greets me today is an email giving credence to the the rumours about government attacks on West Darfur villages (carried out under the pretense of trying to hunt down Chadian deserters who have crossed the border into Darfur).

A colleague of mine in El Geneina writes: "There are now three military helicopters at Geneina airport, and all have been taking off and flying to towards Jebel Mun area, in the north."

The UN security agency in Geneina is telling NGOs that there have been heavy attacks on villages, with around 1200 civilians seeking refuge in the nearby mountains. Some seem to be surrounded by government forces, unable to get in or out, and it's not clear whether they have access to water and food.

Another mail in my inbox paints a distressing picture of the 15,000 men, women and children who have been pouring into the camp in Gereida, South Darfur.

Many villages in the area have been attacked and burnt to the ground, and people have rushed to find safety in numbers - setting up shelter underneath the shade of the trees, using bits and pieces of blankets and plastic sheets to protect themselves from the wind the the sun. Even the lucky ones who managed to bring some food with them will probably run out of it in a few days time.

Just another day in Darfur.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

It's the 21st of November, and this means that the 7th (and "final") round of the Darfur peace talks is supposed to start today (well, media reports can't seem to make up their mind as to whether or not they've been postponed, but last we heard they are back on).

Many people over here continue to be amused by this whole "final" thing. More and more, I'm hearing people joke that we've still got another 18 or 19 years of conflict ahead of us - 'hey, just look at how long it took for South Sudan to get a peace deal with the government.' The most depressing days are the ones when I realise that some of them are not joking.

So what's the problem in this round of peace talks? Well, besides the obvious (the fact that none of the parties has ever made the slightest attempt to actually respect the ceasefire agreements or principled declarations they sign during these meetings), this one's mostly down to the rebels.

For months, the internal split within the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) has been growing deeper and deeper. None of the international community's rushed attempts at pushing the two main sides together seem to have made any progress (well, unless you count their unfailing ability to give a bunch of arrogant men the chance to dramatically storm out of grand meeting rooms and denounce each other).

The fact that all of these men are doing the people they claim to represent an enormous disservice seems to have somehow escaped their notice.

In the camps, community leaders bemoan the lack of a united front. While few have the luxury of receiving detailed reports on what actually happens in the peace talks, almost everyone I speak to in the camps is united on one thing: the rebels should just stop squabbling with each other.

"If you ask me, I don't even understand why JEM (the Justice and Equality Movement, Darfur's other main rebel group) ever split from the SLA. I think they should all just stick together if they want to make a strong point," one of our local volunteers tells me this week. His colleagues nod. They are sick of living in the camp. But unlike their so-called leaders, they have to get along to survive (and well, storming out of a makeshift shelter covered in USAID plastic sheeting just doesn't seem quite as impressive as doing it in a plush Nairobi hotel).

People living in the area just North of Um Kadada (North-Eastern Darfur) must be even more sick of the rebel antics, having just witnessed a bunch of clashes between different SLA factions that all claim to be supporting the rightful leader of the movement.

I search the internet this morning for an indication that the new round of peace talks really did kick off today. So far, there's nothing. Who knows which of the rebels will turn up, or when. I wonder how convincingly Minni Minawi and Abdul Wahed would explain yet another delay to the people who are waiting inside the camps.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

The papers are buzzing with the news of the Chadian deserters who have apparently slipped into Darfur over the past few weeks. Everyone is on the lookout for the sleek fighter jets that locals and aid workers recently spotted over West Darfur ("How on earth they think they'd be able to spot any deserters while they zoom past at mach speeds is beyond me," one of my more intelligent friends in El Geneina remarks in her security report.)

My local staff are a lot less interested in the Chadian rebels or the French jets that the Chadian government has sent in to hunt them. Their main focus, as usual, is on the Sudanese government's sinister motives and the rumours of helicopter gunships and Sudanese troop build-ups aroud the Chad border area.

"It's a perfect excuse for the government to attack some of the rebel areas," I'm told. "They don't give a shit about Chad or helping President Deby find those guys - all they want is a cover-up for attacking the border villages they suspect of having links to JEM (the Justice and Equality Movement, one of Darfur's main rebel groups)."

As an outsider who still doesn't really get 90% of what's really happening in Darfur, I just nod and make a mental note to scan my security reports for attacks on villages in these areas. We never run out of gruesome rumours over here in Darfur, but sometimes they do turn out to be chillingly accurate and I have learned to listen even to the craziest off-hand remarks.

In the meantime, I can't help but marvel (and very nearly despair) at my local collegues' instinctive reaction to any piece of news. I can't say I like or trust some parts of my home government, but I suppose I should count myself lucky that they have not yet given me any reason to suspect they will kill me and my family as soon as they're given an opportunity. I can't imagine it's a comfortable feeling to be living with.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The attacks are not stopping.

More than two years have passed since Darfur's rebel groups first began fighting, and government troops and Janjaweed militia responded by fiercely attacking villages and civilians - but the scenes of horror continue in many parts of Darfur.

In Gereida/Tulus locality, dozens of villages have been destroyed and burnt to the ground over the past two weeks, with the desperate survivors fleeing to the safety of the camps. The UN has now reported more than 10,000 new arrivals in the Gereida area and - with daily reports of new attacks still flooding in - this number could well rise.

Not only is it acutely disturbing to hear locals tell you that 50, 60 or 70 people have been killed today - there are also concerns that the insecurity is still preventing humanitarian agencies from assisting victims with food, water and shelter. Two-thirds of South Darfur are still considered too unsafe for travel and it's scary to think what the situation is like in the parts we are not reaching.

In a shouting match with a Darfurian government official earlier this week, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was treated to a sublime display of the Sudanese government's complete disregard for establishing what is really happening in this ugly and intensely complicated conflict.

Unlike the US government official, the people in the villages did not have the opportunity to shout back at those who were threatening them. And while it may seem naive, I suppose I'm still somewhat hopeful that this most recent visit to Darfur will give Mr. Zoellick some incentive to do it for them.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

I sometimes forget which month we're in over here in Darfur - and that's not just the information overload and general confusion speaking, it's also down to the fact that it's pretty much always blisteringly hot and the scenery inside the towns and camps does not change too dramatically on a day-to-day basis.

Recently, however, even I have remembered that the winter is coming. It's not just that the hedgehogs have been disappearing (see my post from September 8) - it really has become distinctly chilly in the mornings over the past few weeks.

For me, this doesn't really mean a whole lot more than shorter showers (and longer shrieks of displeasure as the cold water hits my back) in the morning. But the Darfurians really are entering full winter mode. The guards that sit in front of my guest house huddle together in their little hut, faces obscured by enormous winter jackets, hoods, and scarves. Some of the little boys in the streets are wearing ski masks.

Even in the middle of the day, my Sudanese colleagues march around the camps in big woolen vests and coats - with an outside temperature of more than 30 degrees Celsius (I suppose the drop from 45 to 30 degrees is pretty significant, but to us non-desert dwelling folk, 30 degrees daytime temperature is still pretty sweltering).

While my Northern soul may not be particularly sympathetic towards the gradual change in climate just yet, it does remind me that the families living in Darfur's camps will soon be facing some new and uncomfortable challenges.

Particularly when I visit the new arrivals in the camps, I am vividly reminded of the fact that people are entirely exposed to the elements due to their displacement. Some of the families that have sought refuge in the camps from the last few months' militia attacks on their villages are still living in rickety little shelters constructed from merely a few small branches and pieces of thin cloth or fabric (often colourful sarongs - called 'tobes' in Sudan - that the women wear). Families crouch together in these makeshift huts with hardly any protection against the sun, wind or nighttime chill. Most don't even have mats to sleep on, and simply put their children to bed directly on top of the deep sand.

In meetings and reports with other aid agencies, I continue to hear and read that the public health situation and general condition of Darfur's displaced people is improving - and while I know this is true, I sometimes wonder if people outside of Sudan realise that this is entirely due to the agencies' non-stop efforts to stabilise the situation. The impact that the humanitarian work has had inside the camps is huge - but it remains fragile, with more than two million people entirely dependent on the international community for all of their basic needs.

And while I'm glad (and somewhat proud) that there are now less malnourished and sick men, women and children inside Darfur's camps, I still worry each day about the big and small events - whether it's the slow arrival of the winter, or a massive new wave of insecurity - that prove to me that Darfur is still only just hanging on by a thin piece of thread.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Now that the rebel leaders seem to have moved on from Haskanita to Nairobi to sort out their power struggles (or at the very least spend another few nights in a cushy hotel while they don't actually sort out a thing), the people of Darfur continue to ponder the fate of the upcoming peace talks. As usual, this one's being hyped up as "the final round" (many people in the camps have heard this one so often now they have either stopped believing it or caring that the talks are still taking place at all).

It's not surprising really. Even those Darfurians who are still interested in the big talks taking place so far away from their homes are failing to see how the eagerly awaited signatures on that piece of paper will bring them any tangible change.

Despite all the signed ceasefire agreements, despite even the much heralded Declaration of Principles signed in July, persistent attacks are still preventing people from making a living in Darfur.

This rainy season, many have managed to go back to their farms during the days to plant - but no one knows yet whether they will actually have anything to harvest. In June, I wrote about the problems of militia or other armed groups occupying people's lands and stealing their mangoes, and no one here has forgotten that this is a very real threat. If this rainy season brings another round of trampled fields, destroyed or looted crops and occupied lands, it's very unlikely people will be convinced that Darfur is really safe enough to begin thinking about the start of a normal life again.

And while the talks focus on the big issues of power sharing and wealth sharing, there is little indication they are addressing major grievances like compensation (both in terms of land and assets, as well as blood money for family members that have been lost). "I think every woman who has lost their husband should receive support from the government," is a suggestion made frequently by the young women who have been left to raise their children without the usual safety nets that existed in Darfur before the conflict tore their lives apart. Unfortunately, people aren't exactly queuing up to listen to these ideas.

Even if it were safe enough to return home, I am often reminded, people's villages have been destroyed - burnt to the ground in many cases. "I have been back to my village once to see, but there's no water there since the well was destroyed. How can we live?" men ask me. Schools, hospitals, and most importantly homes would need to be rebuilt - roofs literally have to be put over people's heads. "And with what?" they ask. "There's no money for all of that."

I hope that the rebel leaders marching around to the tunes of the shiny brass band in Haskanita last week spent at least a little bit of their time listening to these voices.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Some hopeful news comes across my desk today. I'm happy to report that the aid agency managing Kalma in South Darfur has finally been allowed back into the camp. For the past 10 weeks, the international community had been trying to exert pressure on the powerful South Darfur governor in every way possible to achieve this feat. It seems that something they did finally broke the deadlock and wore down the authorities' dogged attempts to make life in Kalma camp as miserable as possible for the displaced families. It may just be a five-month respite until the contract runs out again - but for now, this is good news for the residents of Kalma.

Unfortunately, I hear from a colleague in North Darfur today that problems of preventing aid agency access and arbitrary arrests have also been occuring in Abu Shouk camp, with aid agencies being denied access to the camp on two days this week. El Fasher has been getting tense recently, and the governor has declared a state of emergency that allows police and national security forces to search houses and detain people more or less at will.

I always find it a bit difficult to comprehend how authorities like the North Darfur governor manage to warn people of the grave threats of imminent rebel attacks at the same time that they insist to the local press that Darfur is a haven of calm and tranquillity and the NGO reports of ongoing insecurity are completely made up.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

I have survived Ramadan - and as anyone who's ever been on the road around sunset in a country like Sudan will know, this is a proud achievement indeed. With everyone desperate to break their fast at home or in a central meeting place like the town market, being on the roads during Ramadan is one of the most frightening experiences I have had in Darfur.

Granted, the roads tend to be quite empty at this time (most people have already settled comfortably around their big communal dinner trays and wait patiently for the call of sundown) - but those that are still on them tend to be starving men on a mission. Who think nothing of driving at 100km/h across unpaved roads.

The donkeys (and, more worryingly, the children) become mere flashes of colour in your peripheral vision, and I've found it's better to close my eyes and hang on to the handlebars for my dear life (obviously, this works better when you're the passenger, not the driver) rather than bear witness to dozens of near misses and quasi-suicidal maneuvers.

Having said this, I do admit I will miss the jovial atmosphere in the markets during the Ramadan 'fatur' (meal time). It is almost impossible to walk past a group of friends, acquaintances or even complete strangers and not hear the words 'itfaddal' (you're welcome), accompanied by eager waving of hands inviting you to join in the fun of dipping little round breads into tasty sauces, asida (a kind of porridge) or grilled meats.

Having not fasted during the day myself, I used to feel like a bit of an imposter during these dinners - but the warmth and traditional Sudanese hospitality soon made me forget that part.

So Ramadan kerim, Sudan. And I'm relieved to hear it will be safe to venture back onto the roads during this weekend's Idd festival...

Monday, October 31, 2005

With the Darfur peace talks in recess, the SLA rebels are currently holding an internal leadership conference. Everyone is kind of hoping that the rebel leaders can finally reconcile their oversized egos in this kind of forum - but in the meantime, Darfur remains an angry, explosive mess.

The rumour mill in Nyala this morning is heavy with new arrests in Kalma camp, and everyone is bracing themselves for more unrest after last weekend's riots and hostage taking incidents.

Attacks on buses, trucks and aid convoys (particularly those trying to deliver food to the camps) are not getting any less violent - every day, there are new reports of drivers getting shot and public transport being looted. Brutal new attacks of villages like Tama (South Darfur) are confirming that the militia are still just as active as the looters and the splintered rebel factions behind the (euphemistically termed) 'banditry' incidents.

Reuters reports today that mediators have now arrived to help the SLA leaders iron out their differences. I suppose it's a start. People here are excited about the conference, and hopeful about the results it might produce. I try to share their optimism, but still, I worry that the longer the focus remains on the power struggle between a handful of falsely proud men, the longer it's going to take them to start thinking about the needs of those they claim to represent.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

It's always hard to know where to start when I try to write about Kalma camp - everything in Kalma always seems to be just a little too complicated to explain in a quick blog post.

The bottom line is, living in Kalma camp is not easy: it's overcrowded, it's tense, and it's not particularly safe (it's got the population of a mid-sized city, but no police or any other effective authority to uphold order - riots, assaults, murders and attempted lynchings are not uncommon in Kalma).

The local government authorities hate Kalma camp (they're not so keen on a huge crowd of angry armed men so close to a state capital and major airport) - as far as they're concerned, everyone would be much better off if the people of Kalma camp would just go back home. In this spirit, they have done a pretty impressive job in making people's lives even more miserable than they already are through the economic blockade of the camp, attempted relocations and more recently a stubborn refusal to cary out headcounts that would allow those who are still not registered to finally receive ration cards. (A successful headcount did take place this month, though it was preceeded by yet another failed attempt - for which the police conveniently forgot to show up.)

One of the more worrying decisions in recent weeks has been the Nyala governor's refusal to renew the contract of the Kalma camp manager, a very capable and dedicated NGO. Since the end of August, Kalma has not had a camp manager (the NGO has not even been allowed to enter the camp) - which means the displaced people have no central authority that they can approach with their concerns or grievances.

Instead, people continue to rely on their tribal leaders, the sheiks, to solve their problems. The problem with this is that not all of the sheiks really have their community's interests at heart - while some are genuinely representative and trusted by their people, many of the newly crowned kings of Kalma camps are corrupt, power hungry and overly politicised. Who - as we saw this week - won't stop short of detaining aid workers to make a point.

As usual, it's the regular residents of Kalma - particularly the women, children, elderly people and other marginalised groups - who are suffering the most. Because of the riots, two sectors of Kalma are currently without water (not surprisingly, the state water company whose staff were taken hostage have not yet returned to the camp). Tensions continue to rise, trust between all actors is eroding, and addressing the needs of those who are the most vulnerable is becoming increasingly difficult.

The international community - led by the UN agencies and the African Union who have a mandate for this sort of thing - are currently trying to negotiate some solutions and ideas for restoring order in Kalma camp. The sooner they find them the better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Just a quick post to say I am still here and have not been 'extremely kidnapped' (as some of you suggested in your mails following a news story on the BBC about this weekend's riots in Kalma camp).

In fact, I am happy to confirm that no aid workers are being 'held hostage' in Kalma anymore (most were able to return to their homes Sunday night after the riots calmed down). It seems that the IDPs are still detaining a handful of government employees from the state water company, but everyone is hoping this will also soon be resolved with the help of the African Union and the United Nations.

The most important part of the BBC news coverage, to me at least, was the statement that angry reactions and corrupt power structures are nothing unusual in Darfur's camps.

It may not be news anymore, but it's important to understand that the 2 1/2 years they have spent living inside temporary camps and cramped conditions are taking their toll on people. And while I've blogged about the breakdown of the normal social order and community structures as a result of the conflict before, I suppose it's worth pointing out that this precarious existence of not knowing when they can return to their normal lives is still a daily reality for 1.8 million men, women and children in Darfur's camps.

Will try to write more about the latest from Kalma camp - where all these issues tend to come together and violently explode - when I find some time tomorrow.

Monday, October 24, 2005

As of yesterday, I am 'extremely single' again.

I'm finding this quite amusing, particularly after I recently received a flood of emails asking why on earth I still kept the words "extremely single" listed in my profile (above right) after miraculously managing to snag myself a real-life aid worker last month. Well...let's just say that a bit of realism (or is it cynicism - I can't tell anymore) seems to come with the job.

So what happened to my aid worker? Ehhhm, he' aid worker. A hero out to save the world and carve out a place for himself in history. Busy pouring over height-weight-body mass tables at all hours of the night or rushing off for days to risk life and limb as intrepid leader of an aid convoy or humanitarian delegation or what-not. Desperate to do a good job and help people...all of which is well and good of course (not to mention extremely attractive), but seems to leave him with precious little time to add any lovely new people - aka me - to his life.

I'm can practically hear you sympathise with the man here. Ok - so he has an important job. A selfless one even. And he is doing a lot of good. So what if he doesn't call, doesn't write or doesn't notice the people trying to save the world with him?

No, you're right. No big deal I suppose - the only slight drawback being that he's going to have to spend his nights alone from now on (to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure he has noticed yet). Because eventually (and after much grumbling to the other Darfur girls who have suffered a similar fate), this girl simply gave up and decided that being 'extremely single' was marginally more bearable than being 'extremely ignored'.

They may have better intentions and objectives than other men, and they may have much more noble aspirations in life. Clearly, they even have better excuses for not calling you over here in Darfur - but at the end of the day, they're still men who don't call.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Aid workers in El Geneina, West Darfur, are yawning and complaining this morning following a night of particularly loud and violent shoot-outs. As usual, there is little clarity about who is shooting at whom (though the Janjaweed feature as the most popular character in any tale), or even why - but anyone with a pair of ears can confirm that the shelling did not let up until the early hours of the morning. Today Geneina, as so often over these past few weeks, once again seems like a lawless outpost in a wild, wild west scene.

A dusty little town only 30kms from the Chadian border, Geneina does actually look like it belongs in some kind of country and western movie: horses and donkeys meander through the streets, men with big guns saunter through the market, and there isn't a single paved road in sight (and this includes the airport runway, where aid workers regularly sit inside little HAS planes after a heavy rain, waiting for the gravel air strip to dry enough for the planes to take off).

While people somehow still manage to joke about the night's events, there is no denying that everyone is tense. There are rumours that the bandit networks that have been terrorising cars and trucks on the roads of West Darfur (the UN has recently declared all roads leading outside of Geneina off limits for travel) have started moving inside the state capital itself to continue their looting sprees. Aid agencies are struggling to decide what this means for their operations and whether or not it's safe to stay put and continue operating.

But for the moment - and, as usual - the only thing that people seem to be agreeing on is that Darfur's still a mess, and that anything could happen next - and that the only way of not dwelling on it too much (at least for those of us not making any of the big political and security decisions) is simply to get back to work.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

I've been accused of blogging too much about the problems of Darfur and the mistakes that people are making - and not offering any bright solutions myself.

While it's a sad fact that there simply ARE lots of problems and very few successful solutions in Darfur, I am taking this criticism on board - and here is my solution for the day:

Send us those Canadian armoured personnel carriers.

There are currently 105 armoured personnel carriers stuck in a warehouse in Senegal - waiting to be transported to Darfur so that the African Union soldiers can use them in their patrols. Unfortunately, the Sudanese government - which has very little concern about the safety of people in Darfur - is refusing to let the shipment come into the country unless it gets a certain degree of control over their use. After much negotiation, it seems that 35 have now been granted permission to come here.

While I have not seen these big new trucks arrive here yet (or know much about the negotiations and lobbying that are taking place behind the scenes about this), I do know what sort of impression a fully-equipped military can have on the perceptions of people on the ground.

Over the past few months, I have repeatedly heard Darfurians - be they IDPs, SLA commanders or government officials - snicker at African Union cars or helicopters that have run out of fuel and make throwaway comments about the soldier's ability to fight back when threatened.

Especially in the volatile areas affected by recent clashes, every kid in town knows that the armed groups that the AU are trying to deter quite simply outnumber and outgun the peacekeepers - and I can't say it's making anyone feel particularly safe.

Equally, I have seen the impact that a few new trucks and guns, or a newly deployed group of enthusiastic and professional African Union soldiers can have in a previously unpatrolled area - women feel more protected, thugs become more wary of showing their faces and the townspeople nod their heads approvingly. "Now they have real power, now they look professional. Maybe now they can protect us," a sheik recently told me after the AU deployed a full battalion of troops to his town, which had previously seen little more than a few sorry-looking tents and a dozen glum, confused men.

The African Union troops in Darfur have struggled to have an impact - some argue that they have failed miserably in their mission to protect civilians (though others, of course, would argue that this was not their role in the first place and they are only there to monitor and report breaches of ceasefire...but more about that another day).

Personally, I believe there's still a lot of hope for the African Union Mission in Sudan, and they have done more good than many people will give them credit for. But in those instances where they have failed to do their job or acted incompetently, much of the blame deserves to be spread to those who have refused to equip and prepare them properly for their mission (AMIS is still suffering from a funding shortfall of more than $150 million - a fact some international donors continue to blissfully ignore), and those who try to undermine them in other ways (like the GoS refusal to let them have their equipment).

The Canadians have been kind enough to provide the troops with some important gear at this crucial moment - and if the international community could now push just a little bit more to make sure these trucks actually arrive in the place where they're meant to have an impact, that - for me - would be a small solution in today's minefield of problems.

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