Thursday, September 29, 2005

The UN's aid chief, Jan Egeland, has been making some noise this week about insecurity in Darfur and how unacceptable the situation is getting - close on the heels of similar remarks by the UN's genocide envoy, Juan Mendez, who visited Darfur recently.

While I'm not sure what political motivation lies behind these statements (clearly, both of these men will have known that security in Darfur has been abysmal for quite some time) it always impresses me how much the media jumps on these statements.

Any man, woman or child in a typical Darfur town, be it Geneina or Kebkabaya, will tell you that the Janjaweed are still walking through the market with their guns - or jogging through the streets with the military as new recruits, as the case may be. And that the SLA are again rumoured to be on the cusp of launching an attack against one of the major towns soon. And that no, that road is NOT safe to use - you WILL be robbed, possibly beaten and maybe shot if you keep going that way.

What would really be news is if someone actually prosecuted the people behind the violence for their crimes - or, perhaps more importantly, their bosses. Unfortunately, there's little hope that this will happen in the Sudanese tribunals that have been set up to deal with Darfur. And as the International Criminal Court, the one body who might have an impact on ending impunity in Darfur, sits around and mulls over its options I suppose the United Nations officials will be content with continuing to state the obvious.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

So, back to men in Darfur today - and not the ones with guns.

We are still having some communications problems and the girls and I have been getting slightly annoyed with some of our men and their lack of enthusiasm for romantic gestures (well, besides occasionally travelling for thousands of miles through rebel-held territory to see us). I know this is Darfur, but JEEZ - at least they could try to give us girls something to smile about.

A friend has not gotten any emails from her guy in the field for nearly a week now and is looking more and more sour every day. I keep consoling her with the words, "It's not you, he's probably just been abducted by rebels", which seems to help somewhat. It has now become our standard excuse for lack of male attention and a bit of a running joke.

Unfortunately, someone's boyfriend did get abducted by rebels this week (the SLA held a six-car convoy of national and international NGO staff in South Darfur for five days before finally releasing them this Sunday). Since humour often fails to be funny the closer it gets to the truth, we've decided to stop using this particular excuse for now - though I'm sure we'll come up with an equally amusing yet suitably morbid alternative soon. I'll let you know.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Here's how the United Nations is reporting on the events I described in yesterday's post on the military scale-up in El Fasher:

"On 24 Sept, the town of El Fasher witnessed a military show of force as SAF troops armed with RPGs, AK-47 and 50 cal. machine guns and moving in large trucks, land cruisers, armored scout vehicles and T55 tanks paraded through El Fasher to Abu Shouk IDP camp. The parade ended with a drive-by salute for the Wali [the governor of North Darfur] and military commanders near the Wali’s house. The Wali announced the activation and full implementation of the Emergency Act, which gives full authority to the military and police forces to maintain the security and sovereignty of the state. He also told the armed forces that they should be ready to protect the state and civilians against any rebel attacks."

"Full authority to the military"?!? Still not feeling confident...

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Still tense over here in Darfur - not surprising, considering the ongoing attacks on villages and humanitarian convoys, the fresh displacement across all three Darfur states and the high presence of military and rebel fighters in many towns.

Lots of people have the feeling something big is about the kick off. Nomads in the Al Malam area are still furious with the rebels for looting their camels and are threatening revenge (some people report that the new Janjaweed attacks on villages in North Darfur are already part of the retaliation).

Thousands of Arab camel herders are congregating around the Western edge of Kalma camp, where 150,000 highly politicised and angry IDPs are still living in overstuffed little shelters more than two years after they were first forced from their homes. In El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, rumours are rife that the SLA rebels are infiltrating the town.

In a move to "instil renewed confidence in the general public", the Sudanese military has sent 2 tanks, 25 landcruisers and 18 trucks to patrol the streets of El Fasher. Somehow, I'm not so confident.

Sometimes it's just too easy to forget that the Government of Sudan, the SLA and the JEM have signed more than six binding agreements promising to put an end to all hostilities and respect a ceasefire in Darfur - or that people in the international community are supposed to be holding them to it.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

And Darfur descends further into inbox is full of emails today about the latest instalment of the grim West Darfur soap opera that has been playing out over the past few weeks.

Official reports (including a recent USAID fact sheet) now confirm that a group of men responsible for many of banditry incidents against NGOs over the past weeks are beginning to force the local police into submission: following a shoot-out between the authorities and the bandits on September 19th (in which a few of the bandits were killed), it appears the buddies of the surviving ones - about 100 men - decided to march up to the police station in Geneina town and demand the release of some of their associates who were arrested as suspects.

After terrorising some of the traders in the market (a friend tells me they were forcing everyone to close their stalls and 'respect two days of mourning' for the dead criminals!), the men apparently frightened the local police chief into giving up the suspects.

So off they go to rob and shoot some more people, while the police are refusing to show their face in town and the new governor of West Darfur is off in Khartoum enjoying himself and celebrating his recent appointment to the post.

It's no wonder that even the UN's unfailingly optimistic Jan Pronk is beginning to notice that things in Darfur are, well, still falling apart.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

I'm finding it a bit ironic these days that the start of the peace talks in Abuja has done little more than destabilise Darfur even further over the past week.

Following a huge increase of attacks against humanitarian agencies over the last month, Darfur is now being shaken up by fresh clashes between government forces, Janjaweed militia and rebel groups.

The losers - as always - are the civilians: displaced families is Sheiria camp had to scramble for cover earlier this week as government soldiers and SLA rebels exchanged heavy gunfire, while international NGOs operating in the area were left with no option but to evacuate.

Other skirmishes and shoot-outs around the fringes of the Jebel Mara mountain range and in the area between Nyala and El Fasher (the state capitals of South and North Darfur) have sent families running for their lives again - it is tragic to see that even after two years of conflict we are still witnessing fresh displacement and horrific stories of burning villages, killings and rape.

As another long work week in Darfur draws to a close, I vow to lock myself into my little room for at least the next 24 hrs and pretend that by the time I come back out some magical force will have allowed the good and hopeful developments that I occasionally witness in this place to catch up with all these miserable ones.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

Bicycles are always a fun topic in Darfur - whether they're struggling through deep, hot sand or several feet of muddy wadi, the things are an absolute hit in every IDP camp. In any town, a whole section of the market will be dedicated to bicycle accesory shops: every single one of these big black monsters (most people seem to prefer the ancient but sturdy "Phoenix" model) is completely decked out with flashing lamps, colourful streamers, fairy lights, stickers and pretty much anything else that's loud, shiny or electronic.

Some NGOs provide their staff with bicycles, especially in the larger camps like Kalma, and I have recently picked up on an emerging trend in bicycle envy in the smaller camps.

"We need some bicycles too - we would have much more energy for our jobs and perform much better in them if only we did not have to walk so much," one of the volunteers argues recently during a staff meeting, obviously keen to be seen with such a beautiful status symbol.

I ask him if the bicycles would be used by both men and women and he quickly shakes his head. "No, the women don't know how to ride bikes." (Nor would the men want them to, is often the more honest answer - a woman riding a bike is still seen as somewhat of a scandal is this traditional and conservative part of the world.)

A questioning glance at the ladies in the group reveals things might be changing though. "We could learn," one of the young women says hopefully. "We could ride inside the compound until we know how to do it." Some of the men and older women quickly set her straight, and -much to my disappointment- they finally conclude that only the men should be riding the bikes in public.

Their boss tells them she will think about it, but -as usual- the best part of this story emerges when I quiz her about the issue later. "Do they really need bikes in a small camp like this? And how do you feel about buying them just for the men? How many would we need and how much would it cost?"

She laughs and quickly explains that, actually, no one here needs any bicycles at all. As usual, this seemingly simple request merely hides some more complicated twists, turns and not-so-secret personal ambitions.

"Hassan, the one you spoke to, is behind all of this. He got into a lot of debt recently and had to sell his own bicycle. And this is a problem because having a bicycle is a good way of showing off in front of women. Now he wants to get the NGOs to provide him with another one because he's embarassed that he doesn't have his anymore."

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Thought I'd leave the word to Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times today.

He's been here, he's seen it, he reports on it - very well actually. Read the column.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

I've been asked a lot recently whether or not I think that the displaced people of Darfur are beginning to return to their villages now that some measures have been put into place to provide security for them. "But more African Union soldiers are in more places now - surely, that must have had some impact," friends and colleagues (particularly those sitting in comfortable corner offices in Brussels or Washington DC) ask impatiently.

In short, the answer is no. The soldiers who are here are not enough. People do not feel safe enough to return to their villages. While quite a lot of them are currently leaving the camps during the day to plant crops on nearby farm land, there are very few families who really feel that the basic security situation outside of the towns and camps has changed.

"Since the 'arduban al achdar' ('green flies', an affectionate nickname for African Union soldiers in some parts of Darfur) have arrived, the Janjaweed militia no longer come inside the town, even the surrounding areas are now much calmer. But our villages? No, they are not safe."

"The soldiers have promised us they will start patrolling the area around my home, about 45km from here, once the rainy season is over and their trucks won't get stuck in the mud anymore. Maybe if that happens I will go back," one of the young men explains to me.

While I'm sceptical that some of the soldiers will be so keen to leave the comfort of their air-conditioned PAE tents and drive for hours across the remote, bumpy dirt roads, I suppose it's a step forward that people are beginning to discuss the options for improving security in the countryside.

It's just that numbers of troops, cars, and AK47s are not in themselves an indicator of safety.

When I ask the women what will make them feel safer, they tend to be much more specific and practical than the men. "When I know that I can send my children out with the goats or the sheep to graze all day and not worry about whether I will see them again in the evening - that's when I will feel safe," Hawa, one of the women's leaders tells me in a loud, clear voice at a meeting today.

I suppose more soldiers, patrolling more areas, and another round of peace talks (shaky though they may be) are a start towards solving Darfur's problems - but are they enough to make people think about returning home already? Let's just say I won't be convinced until I see Hawa and her children take that decision to return to the normal life she speaks about.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Another deadline for Darfur peace talks comes and goes today, and nothing happens - except that I am starting to lose track of how often I have had to write this. As of late afternoon, meetings have not yet taken place and even if they do start soon, many (including me) are leaning towards the opinion that this round could be complete failure due to the internal power struggles within one of the main rebel groups.

The displaced people in the camps that I visit ask me for news. They are desperate for information and cling to every scrap of newspaper or barely audible radio programme they manage to come across, and this even though they are under no illusion that the news they are getting is independent or accurate (with Darfur still in a 'state of emergency', the government does not even have to pretend that there is any press freedom).

Especially in the more remote field locations, speaking to a khawajia aid worker like me is often one of the only ways people have of hearing about the things that are discussed in far-away lands in their name.

Today, I almost feel guilty having to tell people that meetings have not yet started and may be delayed yet again. "Ah well, even if it starts late, at least this will be the last round of talks anyway," one of the elderly sheiks tells me patiently. "That's what they are saying on the radio - that this will be the final solution."

I don't have the heart to tell him that I disagree. If I had lost half of my family to a brutal conflict that forced me to spend the last two years inside a tattered plastic shelter and scrape out an existence on no more than international handouts, I suppose I'd try to stay hopeful too.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The African Union is (quite understandably) angry at the the SLA rebels today - according to a new press statement, the rebels have failed to release seven Arab nomads "...and their camels" abducted near Al Malam last month.

It seems the nomads are also pretty pissed off about all of this and have informed the African Union troops that they are sick of waiting for them to sort it out - instead, they have now "given notice of their intention to launch an attack to retrieve the abducted persons". Oh, "and their camels".

To make matters even more confusing, it seems the rebels are now pretending they were never even involved in this whole incident in the first place - well okay, the camel stealing part yes. But the rest, no way. The AU release notes, "The SLA have made statements even retracting their earlier admission of the abduction - though disputing the number of camels involved."

Sounding weary and impatient, the AU concludes, "We therefore, once again, call on the SLA to expeditiously release the abducted Arab nomads and their camels."

Aside from making silly references to camels (which, admittedly, probably only seem silly to a stupid non-camel owning Westerner like me), this statement caught my attention for the serious impacts it could have on wider political issues like the Darfur peace talks that are supposed to start again this coming Friday.

Abducting people is always nasty thing to do - abducting them in the full knowledge that this will cause a retaliatory strike and possibly another serious outbreak of violence just before a major political negotiation is simply stupid.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

UNICEF has released a new report that looks at the psychological trauma the people of Darfur have suffered. I haven't been able to read it yet, but I can wholeheartedly confirm that Darfur's problems go far beyond merely curbing persistent insecurity or even addressing decades of grievances over social and political marginalisation.

A few weeks ago, while visiting a small village in West Darfur I had to fight to keep my composure when I realised that even just talking about the horrors of the Darfur conflict could still reduce one of our local staff members (a proud, confident and usually jovial community leader) to tears.

To see an African man cry in public is a rare phenomenon to start off with. To see him cry for the sake of a virtual stranger was even more shocking.

We were visiting a village that had recently seen a substantial number of families come back from their temporary camp, most of them ordered to return by a corrupt tribal leader (who had obviously engineered this arrangement with militia and/or government officials keen to prove that Darfur is finally getting safe). Besides having to pay the Janjaweed militia between $10-20 per month in 'protection fees', these families continue to live in absolute terror of being attacked, harrassed, killed or tortured.

While no one would speak openly about their fears in a group discussion, visits to individual households quickly revealed the sinister practices still going in areas beyond the watchful gaze of the international community. A young woman living with her sister (both of their husbands had been killed) asked that a relative take away her children so she could answer our questions more openly.

When the children had left, she quickly, and with surprisingly little emotion, recounted her tale in rapid Arabic. While I was not able to follow a large part of the conversation, I caught the gist of it when she turned silent and my colleague's body slowly started shaking, silent tears running down his cheeks.

After weeping quietly for several minutes, he composed himself and turned to me to translate. "The militia arrived here and took her and her sister with them to another house in the village. There were several of the men living there, and the sisters had to do everything that was asked of them - mostly, they were raped. They were basically kept prisoners, for several weeks. When their father, who only lived a few houses away and had heard enough of their screams, summoned the courage to appeal for their release the men brought him to the house and beheaded him in front of the two girls. A few days later they let them go. They are both pregnant by the men who raped them."

"She says there is nothing left for her now. She wants to die."

My Sudanese colleague still talks about that woman, racks his brain about what we can do for people like her. To hear a Sudanese person saying that they want to die goes completely against any cultural norm he knows. While I worry for him and the strain that this sort of work is putting on his mental health, I shudder to think where one would even begin to address the trauma that is festering away inside the victims and their families. I don't know how a society can ever truly recover from a Darfur.

And while I can't seem to download the full UNICEF report on my desperately slow internet connection out here in the midst of this big mess, I imagine it's got similar things to say.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

I hadn't really noticed until today, but it seems all the hedgehogs have gone. Ever since I arrived in Darfur at the beginning of the dry season, the place has been literally crawling with these poky little creatures. They would scurry around compounds at night, curl up into little balls when chased by a cat (or over-eager aid worker), and most importantly keep me company at night.

While some of my friends groaned about how the things would keep them awake at night, sitting underneath their beds and crunching loudly on insects, I found it quite comforting to know that I had half a dozen other living breathing (though unfortunately not exactly cuddly) elements in my room with me. I even talked to mine (yes, we aid workers do develop strange coping mechanims in places like this).

It seems that with the arrival of the rains, the hedgehogs have gone. I'm not sure exactly where they are now, but I miss the little guys.

My only consolation is that with the coming of the rains there has now been a new invasion of wild creatures in the compound: frogs. Going on first impressions and some initial bonding attempts last night, these green fellows actually seem to be better conversationalists than the hedgehogs. Let's hope this is the beginning of another great friendship.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

"It is prohibited to indulge in sex in the Sudan," claims an UNMIS (United Nations Mission in Sudan) statement today.

After a quick panic at the thought that I may have begun broadcasting the joyous news about my man a bit too widely, I read on and begin to realise that this is referring to another piece of news that is a bit bigger and more serious than mine (namely the UN clarifying its rules for staff in relation to the events described below):

Two African Union soldiers deployed to Darfur have died of HIV/AIDS complications, the Ministry of Health (and later the African Union) confirmed this week. Sad as this may be, it is hardly surprising in a continent as ravaged by the HIV/AIDS virus as Africa. What is somewhat surprising - and probably quite worrying - is the public reaction and scare-mongering that seems to be kicking off around this announcement.

The Ministry of Health is ranting about wanting to screen all arriving peacekeepers for HIV/AIDS, and oh - while they're at it - all those morally-challenged foreigners too. Foreigners carrying the HIV/AIDS virus will no longer be issued with residents' permits for Sudan.

The African Union has hit back with a press statement today to say that the deaths, while regrettable, are statistically insignificant - and that it has full confidence in the efforts of the troop-contributing countries to carry out their own medical screens as necessary.

Al Yaum, one of the seven major newspapers that apparently carried this story (the one I saw on the front page) trumpets the warning that "2 AMIS soldiers die of HIV/AIDS - African Union to increase forces in Darfur to 18,000 by next year" (if only - at the moment, there are a mere 5471 troops, and everyone I speak to is still sceptical that we will get to 7700, never mind the 12,000 that the NGOs are demanding)

It's fair to say all of this raises a lot of concerns - including the question of whether this will cause even more delays in getting the promised African Union troops deployed to Darfur by the (already extended) October deadline...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Since some of you have keenly picked up on this in your emails, I am now forced to admit that I have begun taking several Fridays (even Saturdays!) off in recent weeks. No, this should not be taken as an indication that our workload in Darfur has diminished. It is simply a reflection of the joyous fact that I have (yes, really, finally) found a man - and of course we all know what that means.

I've now discovered it's actually not so easy keeping track of your man in Darfur (and no, the predatory other women of the aid industry are not to blame). Today, the girls and I compare some of the better excuses we have heard (and unfortunately, had to believe) for not receiving that eagerly awaited phone call or visit from our men:

"Sorry, but my tukul (mud hut) was flooded and the satellite phone died."

"I can't get there today babe, the UN planes have run out of fuel."

"I can't drive to El Fasher today, the wadi (river) is too high to cross and one of ours cars tipped over when we tried yesterday."

"There are rebels attacking our town, we have to evacuate for a few days to a place south of here."

"There's a 24-hr curfew in the city because of the riots."

And finally, my favourite:

"I'll come see you next week, honey. I've just got to pass out food to 50,000 people first."

Yes, I can finally confirm it - romance in Darfur is alive and well indeed.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Glad to see Reuters reporting on a West Darfur security incident this week, "Armed men in Darfur attack aid convoy, beat staff". Most of us out here heard about this over the long weekend, but I have to admit it was just one in a long list of attacks and security updates that are reported at weekly meetings, in emails and rushed Thuraya satellite phone conversations. The reason this one got more attention than the others is that it targeted aid workers rather than Sudanese civilians.

Attacks on both private and commercial vehicles are a daily occurence in Darfur - and often involve harassment, beating, rape or in the worst case murder. If they wanted to, Reuters and the other news sources could probably publish an article like this about incidents involving local people every day.

It's fair enough that the international media and aid workers (including my good self) are suddenly becoming more interested and vocal now that outsiders have also started to become targets - but it should not detract from the fact that, actually, people in Darfur experience this kind of violence pretty much on a daily basis.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

A colleague who has just returned from Mukjar (West Darfur) tells me today that local authorities in the town are again arresting rape victims over adultery charges. (I should add that this happens so commonly in a country like Sudan that is barely raises an eyebrow anymore among the aid worker community.) For those who are not quite as brutally desensitised as we are, here's a very quick, over-simplified version of what often happens in Darfur:

Women are raped. They are too afraid to report the cases to the police, who will often threaten and harass them if they do. They may not even report the case to their sheik (out of shame) or seek medical treatment (for fear of being seen in the clinic, and possibly reported to the national security).

If the women are unmarried and become pregnant as a result of the rape, the police can then charge them with adultery. Since they have not filed an official rape complaint, the women have no legal grounds to appeal their charge. Once in custody or before a court, the already traumatized women usually suffer more shame, harassment and punishment than they have already endured. End of sad story.

In the case of this latest Mukjar report, there seems to be a new twist to the ordeal: the women, who were held in jail overnight, were released under the condition that they sign a document in which they agree to their punishment (100 lashes) - and to a bizarre clause that obliges them "not to harm the babies" once they are born.

While this clause clearly indicates that the police are well aware that these women are rape victims who are likely to abandon and/or harm the babies they have conceived during their attack, it seems to me a tragic paradox that the authorities implicitly acknowledge the women's situation at the same time that they are punishing them for their alleged crime.

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Friday, September 02, 2005

So this week we hear that Sudan's oil industry is worth a cool $9 billion a year.

While the United Nations is still appealing to the rich donor counries for about half of its Sudan budget, and Darfur funding for the NGOs is certainly becoming unpopular now that the crisis is entering it's third year I thought someone might eventually make the novel suggestion that the Sudanese goverment pay for something (like food, medical care, water...)for its own people for once.

Unfortunately, no one is. Khartoum villas continue to flourish though, and I hear there is now an actual ATM cash machine in Afra Center. I suppose all of that cash must be accumulating somewhere - all I can report is that none of it seems to be making it to Darfur. Funny that.