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.