Monday, August 29, 2005

Some panic in town this morning as everyone talks about a new security incident - shots being fired on the east side of town, lots of shouting, crowds of people. Help!

The seasoned aid workers adopt all of the typical coping mechanisms of being in a shitty situation but not being able to do much as it actually happens - turn up the volume on the radio, or close the window to resume that conversation about the head of mission's fling with the gorgeous new French surgeon. Unhealthy perhaps, and probably socially unacceptable as well - but that's for others to judge.

Personally, I still have sympathy for the somewhat heartless "God, I hope they don't cut off the phone lines again, I really need to send this email" or even "Jeez, these people are boring - being in this place is even worse than that time when I was kidnapped, at least then there was the fear of being beheaded to talk about" (recently overheard at an aid worker party, honest to God)

Thankfully, today's shots turn out to be coming from a trigger-happy and overenthusiastic wedding party. And in the end, our quiet sighs of relief expose us as not quite so uncaring, detached and business-like human beings after all.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

I'm glad to see that the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees - who is currently visiting Sudan - agrees that it is still too dangerous for Darfur's two million displaced people to return to their villages.

"The UN is independent from the Government, so nobody can force you to return. That’s why the troops of the African Union are here," Mr. Guterres assured the leaders at Riyad camp, who told him that rape and burning of villages were still continuing in Darfur, the western region of Sudan that attracted worldwide concern last year, but has since slipped from the front pages.

Indeed, the UN's constant mantra of "things are getting better" and "peace before the end of year" have been doing a pretty good job of contributing to this impression that, really, Darfur no longer merits much of the general public's attention. Even my mother has been asking me if I might not be able to move to another job soon "But dear, I thought that all of this fighting has stopped now. Are you sure it's still dangerous?" (Trust me, not an easy one to answer if you are simultaneously trying to reassure your mother that no harm will ever come to her baby.)

The answer that the displaced people gave Mr. Guterres is one that I hear on an almost daily basis:

"There is still rape going on. Genocide is still going on and burning of villages is going on," the chief leader of the camp told him. "We have no security in this camp. Our situation is not living. It is as if we are in prison."

They will say the same thing tomorrow, and next week, and next month. Here's hoping important people like Mr. Guterres will keep visiting so that it's not just a few hapless aid workers and humanitarian activists hearing their words.

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Today the Sudanese President Al Bashir is meeting with his bigwigs in Khartoum to discuss the new government appointments for ministerial posts at federal and state level. With somewhat desperate optimism about the future of this new government, I'm always asking people what will happen, what we can expect over the coming weeks, which changes one might hope for - but the only consistent response I get is one of weary uncertainty. While they are also hopeful, the Sudanese are clearly not quite as earnest and naive as I am in dealing with the subject.

Jokes and sarcasm seem to be one of the more popular ways of coping with cynicism and suspicion. Since they probably give a better reflection of people's perceptions of the new national unity government than anything I could come up with, I thought I’d share this particularly bad one I hear from one of our drivers this morning:

President Al Bashir calls up Salva Kiir and says: "Now that Garang has tragically died, would you like to be my new Vice-President? I want you to come to Khartoum and take over his position as soon as possible. I will send a plane to come and collect you."

Salva Kiir says: "Alright, I can be your Vice-President. I will come to Khartoum and take up the job. But don't worry about the plane, I prefer to take my bicycle."

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Correction. I did find something to smile about today - at least in that really-funny-even-though-it's-actually-kind-of-sad way.

This morning, I read in an incident report of a highway (ok ok, more like dirt road) robbery:

"Two armed youths stopped the [NGO] car on top of the hill after the wadi. An adult man on a camel, armed and in uniform, then appeared and checked the waybill. They took 28 plastic sheets then let the truck continue on its way."

Glad to hear that the camels of Darfur are finally being armed too...

When I forward this little snippet to my friend, I get the following response:

"HAH, that's nothing. The security report on my desk this morning says:

"Four-armed men knocked at the door of the [NGO] compound and told the guard to open. They stayed for 15 minutes knocking on the door, then left when guard refused to open."

Bet your uniformed camel didn't have four arms!"

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Darfur's peace talks were scheduled to start today, and since none of the media seem to be reporting on this non-event I thought I would point it out.

The talks have now been postponed to September 15th, and one of the main rebel groups - the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army - have already announced that they will hold their internal 'Congress' the week after this to clarify internal agendas. The UN has also been heard admitting that these mid-September talks might just be 'small talks' anyway, and that none of the big issues will be discussed until November.

As usual, I am hoping that all of those who are enthusiastically embracing this "peace before the end of the year" idea know something that I don't. Cause from where I am standing there is little cause for that kind of optimism.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The African Union are not the only people in Darfur running out of money - today, air traffic in Darfur more or less grinds to a halt as the World Food Programme (the managers of the Humanitarian Air Services I have fondly written about on past occasions) runs out of fuel.

No more flights, no visitors or new arrivals, no supplies. No visiting finance manager to come and pay local salaries, no spare parts and no computers or other desperately awaited gadgets delivered by hand from Khartoum. At least food aid has been pre-positioned in most locations, and some cargo flights are still going ahead for now.

But as the WFP pilots join African Union soldiers on the tarmacs of El Fasher, Nyala and Geneina next to their empty helicopter tanks, I wonder who has neglected to pay the bill this time. Or, more importantly, whether they are even aware of the fact that two million completely powerless displaced people (and of course a few hundred angry aid workers) are sitting around waiting for them to do it.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

"You're always talking about how dangerous Darfur is for the people here," my friend tells me disapprovingly today.

Ignoring my raised eyebrow, she barges on, gesturing theatrically: ""You know, people are not the only ones whose life is being endangered. I have a case for you- right over there in my office (at another NGO). KITTENS."


"YES, TINY LITTLE kittens. They were dying."

It seems that, after finding three newborn little fuzzballs in a cardboard box in the garden, my friend went on a bit of a mission this week - and she decided this was something the NGOs should know how to deal with. "I went to our protection adviser and told her I had a clear protection issue."

Being another crazy khawajia, the protection woman immediately took pity on the poor heap of meowing mess and, after a serious assessment of the situation, decided this was a case for the livelihoods manager.

Unfortunately for our two crusaders, the (Sudanese) livelihoods manager displayed just a little bit less patience for their concern than they had hoped for.

"They are dying, the kittens. What can we do? What do you usually do with a problem like this? Do you know a vet?"

"Yes, there are some here." (it later turns out this man is one himself, but neglects to mention this important fact during the conversation) "But normally, we do not call a vet. We bury them."

"No no, they are not dead yet."

"Ah yes, but we bury them."

Horrified looks from the two little white girls.


"No, no. We kill them first."

"So we have to KILL them???"

"Yes, maybe. No. Where are they? Maybe I should look at them."

"No, but you are going to kill them!!!"

At this stage, the other Sudanese staff are apparently pissing themselves with laughter (both at these two crazy kitten-obsessed foreigners and the strangely unsympathetic livelihoods manager, whose morbid approach to kitten rescue apparently doesn't represent normal Sudanese attitudes towards house pets).

The girls storm off in a huff to find their kittens, and all ends well as they discover that the mother has returned to look after them and that -best of all- no one has revealed their hiding place to the livelihoods manager, at least not just yet.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Getting a haircut in Darfur is always an amusing way to spend an afternoon - particularly if the victim of the cut is not yourself but another, even more gullible aid worker.

While yours truly continues to saw off her own locks with a handy little pen knife (trust me, anonymity is not the only reason you're not seeing my picture up there in my profile), a friend decides to drag me down to the market today for the full-on salon experience.

The salon (an open-air affair sporting a collection of grotesque Craig David posters) is very excited indeed to get to work on this crazy khawaja with the shaggy mane, and the master immediately whips out his blunt razor blade and begins hacking away at my poor guy's head.

We exchange a terrified glance, but - with half of his hair already sailing to the floor - my friend grimly resigns himself to his fate. The blade flies through the air, and is eventually propped behind a comb so that the cut can be finished with off with a close, even (well, sort of) crop.

Impressively, my friend doesn't flinch - not even when the razor blade suddenly swings down to the scraggly beard on his chin, and our maestro begins to give him what looks like an intensely painful dry shave (hey - these guys are tough, no need to bother with girlie stuff like soap).

Just when we think things cannot get any worse, a final whip of the blade slices across my friend's forehead (which - as the slowly gathering crowd vehemently agrees - is a completely normal body part to shave). At least now his entire face looks red and tortured, so my friend pays and enthusiastically insists he's very happy with the service.

As we walk away he clocks the smirk that is slowly creeping up my face, and - to his credit - manages to immediately silence it with the simple but ominous threat of: "Just shut up you, or you won't get any sympathy from me after your next local-sugar-gunk bikini wax either."

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Saturday, August 20, 2005

The displaced people in South Darfur have written a letter to the UN here in Sudan: they are asking the international community to ensure that Darfur's peace talks, which have been making painfully slow progress over the past few months, are not delayed again this month.

Peace talks were scheduled to resume next week, on August 24th. But since one of the main rebel groups, the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army), are stalling for more time to iron out internal differences, it now looks as if the next round of talks might be just as meaningless to the people on the ground as the last few.

The United Nations Mission in Sudan - particularly UN boss Jan Pronk - continue to hail the "positive steps" and "beautiful words" reached at past negotiations, but somehow I'm not quite sure I would agree that a mark of their success is that "nobody walked away".

And with even Pronk now admitting that the next round of talks may be a small, quick affair and that no "big" decisions are likely to be reached before November, I'm not quite sure what exactly he will be telling the people of Darfur in his reply to their letter. "We know your houses are filling up with water, your children are getting sick, your food is running out and occasional bullets still whizz past your heads - but do us a favour and just sit tight for a little longer until the rebels manage to reconcile their egos?" I'll make sure I get a copy if there is a reply...

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Today I discover that the African Union soldiers in Darfur may have bigger problems than worrying about the the way that they are perceived by the locals: there's a chance they won't be getting paid salaries soon.

Media reports are claiming that funding shortfalls to the mission may mean that the cash for soldiers' salaries could run out in about three months.

"Within three months we will not be able to pay the wages of our troops who are on the ground there," an AU official told the Associated Press in Addis Ababa. "The international community, UN, European Union and NATO can't ask us to increase our force in Darfur and then not come up with the money."

This news seems to have been confirmed by a visiting US politician, Chris Smith, who told IRIN: "We were told they were $173 million short and would only be able to carry on the programme of deployment for three months, and it is mostly in the area of medicine, but also as to whether the troops will get paid."

I know they're getting to play lots of football and drive around in shiny white cars, but somehow I still doubt the news will go down too well with those guys over in dusty Darfur (who, if rumours are to be believed, are only getting a pretty miserable salary for their presence to start off with). I dread to think what all of this will be doing to troop morale in the coming weeks...

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The rains and floods in Darfur now seem to have made the news headlines (albeit the small ones) - and I still can't make up my mind as to whether I should love or hate this season.

The scenery, particularly in the more fertile regions of Darfur, is lush and gorgeous - and many people I speak to are ecstatic that this year has brought them 'good rains'.

Even though a lot of people are still stuck in their camps, they are trying to plant inside compounds and on the outskirts of town. Some are even visiting their fields during the day or - in areas that are not quite as dangerous - several days each month. There is a general feeling that this year's harvest (though marred by the extreme limitation of movement) might be a good one.

The children are just as enthusiastic about the season as the adults, even if this might have more to do with the fact that they can splash around in puddles and bathe in the wadis once the clouds and storms have cleared.

The flipside of the coin is that there are lots of diseases festering away in those puddles, and the children who've managed to catch diarrhea or malaria are already looking decidedly less cheerful. While few malnourished babies in Darfur look quite as alarming as those I've seen in pictures from places like Niger, they are still a miserable and haunting sight.

Every location has its own sad tales and horror stories of toddlers, kids, even adults (including an AU soldier in West Darfur) being swept away by the raging rivers, and floods in low-lying areas have caused some houses to collapse. It's not easy battling the elements when you're already running low on life's bare necessities.

There are many striking things about the people of Darfur, but the one that continues to amaze me most is the fact that they just get on with it all while sit around to dwell on random thoughts like these. "It's life," they shrug. "Now when do you think we'll get some more food and plastic sheets? We don't have time to wait around all day."

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The rains have come back with a vengeance in some parts of Darfur so not much time to write...

I was intrigued to hear about the problems that aid workers in another part of the country are having though: a friend of mine in Khartoum tells me today that the police has been going around in the camps where South Sudanese displaced communities live, arresting anyone who owns a bed, a mattress, or anything else of any value. The argument is that these people are usually poor, and that any possession out of the ordinary would almost certainly have been looted during the riots earlier this month.

Some of the arrests have unfortunately included national staff members of international NGOs in Khartoum, who are starting to get just a little annoyed by it all.

For once, I thank my lucky stars that the problems I am trying to tackle today are not political but just linked to overflowing rivers, health risks and water supply. Will write more about how I'm getting on with that tomorrow.

Monday, August 15, 2005

My comments on the African Union soldiers in Darfur have sparked a range of interesting emails, and some of them are simply too good to keep to myself.

An aid woker in South Darfur writes: "A few dozen AU troops have finally arrived in Kass, and so far they seem to be taking a phenomenal amount of time setting up their tents. I haven't seen them play any football yet, but the locals tell me that they are barbecuing (!) monkeys."

On a slightly more serious note, Darfur researcher Eric Reeves writes that the Sudanese government's message on the AU in Darfur is clearly a case of: "We have allowed AU forces into Darfur, with a highly restricted mandate, only because we know that they can address deadly insecurity in very limited ways. We know that the international community does not have the courage to intervene effectively in Sudan - and we will act accordingly." (South Sudan and Darfur in the Wake of John Garang's Death, August 11, 2005)

Some people who know more about this than I do have pointed out that the mandate is not the issue - it's up to commanders to interpret their mandate, and they are as much to blame for the mission's limitations as anyone else. (It's got to be said that there is some truth to this: I've met a few AU commanders who seem to be less interested in protection issues and more interested in telling the aid agencies how to do their jobs, along the lines of "Isn't it about time you started a livelihoods programme for the IDPs?").

The displaced men and women probably know even less about 'mandate issues' than I do. And while it may sound naive, I have to admit that - of all the statements I have heard on the African Union forces - their simple observation of "There is still no one taking away the guns from those people who attacked us" the most relevant of all. Pity that the people who matter aren't listening.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

My mind is feeling a bit useless today, so thought I would post some useless pieces of Darfur trivia on this blog.

So, did you know that...

...the most frequently used word in an aid worker's vocabulary is 'ok', at least according to the kids in the IDP camps who shout the word incessantly at any khawaja? (I'm actually more inclined to believe it's 'inshallah', meaning 'God willing', as in 'god willing my flight will leave on time/at all', or 'god willing, power will come back later' - but who am I to doubt the kids? )

...plastic water bottles make fantastic homes for satellite telephones if you cut a little pocket into them and hang them up by a piece of string? (the good ones are even rain-proof)

...boomerangs in South Darfur are almost twice as big as boomerangs in North Darfur? (Just in case you were wondering, boomerangs are used in Darfur to hunt rabbits. I have yet to see a rabbit here, but my sources swear they exist. When I asked if rabbits in South Darfur were also twice as big as rabbits in North, I just got strange looks though...)

...camels will not walk across any area of vegetation that has been burnt? (Apparently the soles of their feet are too sensitive.)

...the rumour about the oh-so-hot French man in Darfur is really just a rumour (and trust me, I have rarely seen so many clever, enthusiastic females do as much research on an issue as on this one)? There is some indication that a similar rumour is now resurfacing about a hunky Swedish man, but until he materialises, I'm afraid there still isn't anyone, er anything to do in Darfur on those long, lazy Fridays. I dread to think of what will happen once we have all finished 'War and Peace'.

Time to go home now I think - before my mind becomes even more useless...

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Friday, August 12, 2005

There is lots of talk of more African Union soldiers coming to Darfur, and I have to admit that recent news of new airlifts and arrivals does leave me with a postive feeling. But it seems as if everywhere I go, the locals have a different opinion of these developments.

In many camps, people are very positive about the soldiers and express gratitude for the improved security (even if they do sometimes get a bit confused about the African Union's role as a military force).

In other places, people are most skeptical. At a staff meeting yesterday, I am treated to another typical collection of cynical comments from our local staff.

"They only come out and drive around in big cars when they are bored - when you need AU, they don't come out."

"They don't have any power. They are just here to advise, and to watch. But not to act."

"All those AU men do is play football with government soldiers. And eat. They eat a lot."

And even an outraged: "They eat SO much that the price of meat at the market has doubled since they got here."

While some of these observations are based more on rumours or resentment (AU soldiers often get to work in nice air-conditioned tents, while the rest of the us swelter in the heat of the Darfur sun), a lot of the comments seem painfully close to the views of Darfur analysts who bemoan the AU's weak and confused mandate.

You don't need a degree in international peacekeeping to understand that more soldiers alone will not prevent violence - particularly if these soldiers have no authority to intervene on behalf of the victims. And the victims are starting to get more vocal about this.

It may not be fashionable to criticise to African Union, and a random collection of off-hand comments may not be the most eloquent way of doing so. But today, as I watch the soldiers tear up the dust in another energetic football match, my thoughts do pause for a minute to consider how many of Darfur's problem these guys can really hope to solve.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hard work and more bad connections are not leaving me much time to write, but then again my worries seem somewhat insignificant when I compare them to those of the people I work with.

Two years of living inside overfilled temporary camps seem to be taking their toll on the displaced communities - and tensions in Darfur are running high wherever I look.

Kalma camp has already seen several attempted lynchings and stonings over the past weeks, and all throughout the region groups of armed men have been disrupting camp head counts and food distributions, killing several people in the process.

It's almost impossible to establish exactly who and what is causing the problems; even the aid workers seem mostly confused. The divide and rule tactics that the Sudanese government has perfected are doing a great job in adding to this chaos: rumours are running wild, and there seems to be a concerted effort underway to pit sheiks, tribes, camps, even aid agencies against each other.

Places like Al Salam in South Darfur (the site that the government was hoping to move some 25,000 of Kalma camp's residents to) have turned into a new breed of 'political camps'.

Ignoring insistent pleas from the NGOs that the area is safe from neither violence nor seasonal floods, authorities have managed to get a few thousand people to move to this site (interestingly, the new arrivals have not moved from Kalma camp, but seem to be a random bunch of families who were transferred to Al Salam amid much confusion during a recent headcount at the nearby government-controlled Sherif camp)."It just seemed like a good opportunity for the government to dump a few confused people into a new site," a fellow aid worker remarks wrily of the headcount.

NGOs who have begun visiting the newly arrived families in Al Salam to assess the situation have been ceremoniously introduced to "the new sheiks of the camp", a group of suspiciously young men who seem to have trouble remembering the names of their original villages.

Truth in Darfur is becoming harder to find every day. The only thing most of us can agree on is that Darfur is still a mess - it just happens to be one that boils along quietly while the world is turning its back.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Apologies for the short blog hiatus (long story involving rains, a leaking roof and an unfortunate Thuraya satellite phone...), but please rest assured that aid worker community of Darfur is alive and well.

Well, alive and busy mostly - treating the increasing number of malaria cases and diarrhoea patients, passing out food, plastic sheeting and mosquito nets, repairing flooded latrines, and generally swamped with all the rest of the mad rainy season activities.

There has been an avid exchange of vital information going on at the aid distributions in camps this week - while we aid workers hear long diatribes on the quantity of oil needed for one month of cooking and the preferred style of blankets this season, the camp residents are returning to their homes with an ever-increasing vocabulary of aid worker jargon and three-letter acronyms.

My favourite one has still got to be the basic concept of 'IDP' (that's "internally displaced person" for the jargon-challenged...and just to clarify, IDPs differ from refugees in that they have not crossed a border to get to a camp).

While even some of my most highly educated friends or relatives at home would struggle to suggest what on earth the term 'IDP' means, there is no illiterate man, woman or child in Darfur who does not use it. People introduce themselves to me as "I am Mohammed, IDP", they talk about "IDP schools", "IDP hospitals" and "IDP latrines".

While 'IDP' seems easy enough to remember, some other acronyms have undergone hilarious transformations: in one camp I recently visited, I was sad to hear that IDPs would soon be receiving "non items" (as opposed to non-food items, or NFIs, the word that aid workers love to use for things like soaps, buckets, clothes or plastic sheeting).

Similarly, I was slightly worried to hear that a new type of 'NGO' (non-government organisation) had cropped up alongside the health, education, food and service providers - "that NGO responsible for security", known to the rest of us as the African Union soldiers.

While some might object to this cosy comparison between an aid agency and a military force, I suppose it's nice to know that the African Union troops, despite their woefully small numbers, are seen to be providing a service to the people of Darfur.

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

After writing about uncertain futures earlier this week, I realise it is not just the displaced families of Darfur who are trying to find a balance between short-term and long-term thinking: the NGOs are doing the same, albeit with some much more tragically funnny results.

In one of those "I-just-can't-face-another-dry-chicken-bone-for-dinner" conversations, a fellow aid worker tells me about his ill-fated attempt at starting a chicken-raising project in one of the towns.

Wildly popular and often very successful in development projects, this type of iniatitive is starting to appeal in a place like Darfur where people are desperately looking for income-earning opportunities after being dependent on aid for such a long time.

After convincing his team to go along with the idea and receiving a truckload of young chickens from Khartoum, my friend makes the fatal mistake of dumping the poor creatures in his NGO compound to "fatten them up" while he finalises the plans for his new project.

A few dozen dry chicken dinners later, he belatedly begins to notice a sudden decrease in the clucking and pecking going on in the compound.

Horror dawns upon him, and an awkward conversation with the guards and the cooks confirms his worst nightmare: there had indeed been some surprise among the staff at the sudden wealth of (and complete lack of explanation about) the live dinner ingredients running around in the yard.

In their defense, I am told that the cooks did make every effort to come up with an ever-expanding list of creative new recipes to deal with the crazy khawajas' strange craving for daily chicken dinners.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Khartoum remains tense today as a third day of violence draws to a close (I am told one of my favourite pizza places has been smashed up in the riots). Things here Darfur are as calm as usual apart from a few grumbling clouds of rain. While the UN has been telling its staff to get their emergency evacuation bags ready, the locals are still trying to figure out what it all means for Sudan.

This morning a woman who is usually too shy to even say her own name tells me that she thinks the government has killed John Garang. There are nods of agreement all around at this.

While I know these perceptions are hardly based on facts and good information (satellite TV is not exactly standard fare in your average plastic-sheeting house), they speak volumes about the trust (or rather lack of it) that people have in their government.

The fact that absolutely no one doubts their leaders' capacity for political assasination is hardly an encouraging sign for the Darfur peace talks that are supposed to resume next week.

Not all are as gloomy as me though - and I have to laugh at the somewhat misplaced optimism of one of our staff when he proclaims that this will lead to a break-up of the government within a matter of days, clearing the way for all of Sudan's rebel groups to unite in one big happy family of the previously opressed. I suppose everyone can dream...

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

There is still some tension in the air about the big news yesterday - but as usual, people are just getting on with their lives as normal.

Well, trying to at least. It's hard to get on with your life if you have no sense of what the future holds and no power to influence it in any way. They may have never heard of Dante's Purgatory, but the people of Darfur are waking up to it every day.

After two years, living in a state of limbo is taking its toll on families and communities. It's not just the little things, like trying to decide whether you will stay displaced long enough to justify to cost of building yourself a brick wall or one made of plastic sheeting. It's the big things that are beginning to fundamentally change traditional institutions and social dynamics.

As I wander through the camps and towns, I dread to think of what the future holds for children who have missed nearly two years of school (only one-third of Darfur's children are currently thought to be receiving any education). What awaits the thousands of young girl I meet at the women's centers who have been raped rather than married - as well as those who have been left widowed.

Traditional coping mechanisms (like men taking their deceased brother's widow as their second or third wife so that she and her children are not left without a home or means of income) are already changing or becoming irrelevant in the camps. The holes in the old communal safety nets are gaping from the strain of the conflict.

While my friends at home agonize about the uncertainty of getting a new job, getting into the right college, or whether or not that gorgeous man will really call, the people of Darfur are held hostage to an entire life that is nothing more than a big question mark.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

The news about Vice President John Garang's death hits us first thing in the morning - even out in a distant field location where I am working today, the VHF radios are buzzing with the latest.

The initial reaction is one of intense frustration. The aid workers are shaking their heads at the ill-fated timing of the event - it's such a crucial stage of the peace process, and everyone is frantically asking each other "what does this mean for Darfur?"

The locals are angry. While they are careful to say that nothing has been proven (well, at least as far as those of us without satellite television know!) everyone is incredibly suspicious and upset. Speculation runs rife: why were there no government officials travelling with Garang on a state visit like this? Why did no one hear about it until this morning?

When I ask one of our staff what the Darfur rebels will make of it he just shakes his head. "It's just like the government to do something like this. They have even killed their own friends when they don't like their opinion. Now no one will want to go to Khartoum and make peace - they will just kill them too!"

Everyone has friends and relatives in the capital, where roads and airports have been closed and riots are taking place. "People are shouting there, because they are angry. Here, we cannot shout and get angry - the government would just start shooting before they asked any questions," I am told.

It's a sad start to the week - even if this whole thing turns out to be an accident (not unlikely I suppose). There has been a lot of hope invested into the North-South peace process, even in those parts of Sudan where conflict still rages. Having that little bit of hope snatched away at this stage would be disastrous.

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