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...