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Darfur’s turbulent times

Since early 2003 over 1 million people have been displaced by violence in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. Today, the conflict there is the largest humanitarian emergency in the world with massive violations of international humanitarian law taking place, in particular attacks on civilians. Some 100,000 Sudanese refugees have sought shelter and relief across the border in Chad and many more inside Sudan are looking for safe refuge. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is running its biggest humanitarian operation worldwide to respond to the needs of the people. For the local population as well as for displaced persons and refugees, these efforts mean survival.

Around 200,000 displaced people coming from neighbouring villages are accommodated in Hasha-Issa camp, Zalingei.
©Thierry Gassmann / CICR

‘‘BOOKS have always been my passion,” explains Karrar, a slim man in his early 30s from the western Sudanese region of Darfur. “I had a small bookshop in al-Fasher before the city was attacked. Life changed for most of us after that.” Now Karrar is helping the ICRC respond to the urgent humanitarian crisis in the region. Wearing a Sudanese Red Crescent badge, he spends his days as part of a local relief team in a displaced camp near his native village.

Beginning in late 2003, worrying reports emerged from Darfur of escalating violence between armed opposition groups and government forces. The impact of the war on the nearly 6 million people who live in the three states of northern, southern and western Darfur has been devastating.

It is impossible to say accurately how many people have died. Figures for the number of people forced to leave their homes are also unreliable, but there are probably more than a million. Destruction of livelihoods means that many people will continue to depend on outside help to survive. For both those who fled their homes and those who remained in their villages, health and sanitary conditions are very poor and continue to take their human toll every day.

The local response to the crisis has been impressive. Families throughout the province have opened their doors for newcomers to set up extra huts and shelters in their courtyards. As Karrar explains, “It is our duty to open our homes to those who have lost theirs.”


The burden for host families is considerable, as they share whatever food or essential items they have with twice or three times as many people. Owing to the disruption of the local economy and the ensuing rise in consumables’ prices, most people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. And yet, in what is probably the most striking feature of the current situation, Darfuris (the inhabitants of Darfur) welcome displaced families in their homes on a scale that defies the sense of the word “hospitality” as it is understood in other cultures.

As the crisis unfolded across Darfur in 2003 and early 2004, the local branches of the Sudanese Red Crescent moved in quickly to evacuate casualties and made every effort to cope with the emergency on their own. Nevertheless, humanitarian needs were growing exponentially and international humanitarian support was urgently needed. In a meeting between the president of the Republic of Sudan and ICRC’s president in March 2004, it was agreed that access to Darfur should be granted to the ICRC. Soon, teams of delegates and convoys of relief were on their way to launch the ICRC’s biggest relief operation. At the end of August, the ICRC organized its largest airlift since the Iraq war. Additional equipment and vehicles were sent in to help reach civilian populations in remote areas of Darfur.

“Humanitarian emergencies all have their own specificity but the experience in Darfur stands out,” says Barakat Faris, director of the Sudanese Red Crescent in northern Darfur. “We are demonstrating that needs can be met efficiently when the National Society is involved in all the phases of the planning and implementation of relief programmes.”

From Nyala in the south, al-Geneina in the west, al-Fasher in the north and more locations across the country, joint teams of ICRC delegates and Red Crescent volunteers set off on hazardous journeys across vast expanses of scarcely populated territory. They spend many days driving on dirt tracks, sleep rough under their mosquito nets and put in seven days of hard work a week. At a time when bands of gunmen and marauders are roaming around and terrorizing the population, the Red Cross Red Crescent teams take risks and cross front lines to make sure that isolated communities do not fall into oblivion.

“Our team of eight people all stayed one night at the house of the Omda, the most respected of all the tribal sheikhs in the region,” says Peter Scott, a New Zealander with a bushy beard who has just returned from an eight-day journey across the region. Not unlike other field missions across the country, they found that the first and foremost concern of the villagers is security. They long to be able to plant their fields and not to fall prey to attacks while they work or gather firewood in the surrounding forests. Rumours of incursions in neighbouring areas spread fast and in the absence of reliable media coverage, word of mouth is often the only source of information for rural communities.


Distribution of relief supplies by Sudanese Red Crescent volunteers.
©Thierry Gassmann / CICR

Rural communities in trouble

Villages are spotted along the way, some are hauntingly empty as the population has fled but then there is life just a few miles further on. A community is clinging to its fields and smiles are on all faces as villagers realize these unexpected Sudanese and international visitors have come with a real concern for them. Farmer communities mostly live in dire conditions and have hardly any access to medical facilities but “they will often suggest that the Red Cross teams should go and check on neighbouring villages that might have been attacked and be in need of help rather than ask for anything for themselves”, explains Victor Buhendea Mirindi, a Congolese delegate, who knows firsthand what it means to see one’s home country descend into war.

Because it was the only medical facility serving a vast region in western Darfur, the ICRC rehabilitated the 100-bed hospital in Zalingi. Equipment and construction material could only be purchased from the local market in the town of Nyala and hauled back the hard way. Samir Elias, an Iraqi engineer, led the convoy of trucks and kept in radio contact throughout a
journey expected to take anything from seven hours to two days, depending on the conditions on the road and the level of water in riverbeds, locally known as wadis.

Help for the displaced

Around a million people have been displaced and are now sheltering in temporary camps pitched across the country. The Abu Shok camp was set up near al-Fasher after discussions between the local authorities and ICRC representatives, who insisted on the need for a location that would prove secure as well as safe from flooding during the rainy season. Makbuleh Ali Mohammed, a frail 18-year-old girl, volunteered from the very first day. She toiled under the sun for weeks to help the water and sanitation engineers take measurements and designate the sites for latrines, water tanks and washing stations for a camp extending over four square kilometres of sandy dunes. She had been a volunteer with the Sudanese Red Crescent in her native village for two years, but her family had to flee an attack and took refuge in the town of al-Fasher. She heard about the camp project when she went to the local Sudanese Red Crescent branch to ask if she could be of help.

A few months on, the Abu Shok camp can boast a long list of achievements by a number of humanitarian agencies and local and international non-governmental organizations. Basic services are being provided, water holes have been dug, latrines installed, food distributions organized and schools have started operating, but “the lack of perspective for the future weighs heavily on everyone”, says al Ghali HassanNurell, a young Sudanese Red Crescent volunteer. He should know: he has himself become a displaced person and now lives in the camp. He is helping another 500 families who have just arrived. They are putting together some wooden sticks, and Ghali gives them a tarpaulin for what is now going to be their shelter.

The geography and the climate are different around Kalma camp on the outskirts of Nyala, the southern capital. Baobab trees are in full bloom during the rainy season and the earth is a striking ochre colour, but the rainwater collects on the surface and ponds form all over the place after each storm. Dry latrines have been set up as well as basins for washing but it takes a lot of effort to maintain a sufficient level of hygiene to prevent the spread of epidemics when tens of thousands of people have to share limited facilities.

a million people have
been displaced and
are now sheltering in
temporary camps across
the country.


Operational highlights

Since the start of the crisis, the ICRC, with the support of the Sudanese Red Crescent, has performed a wide range of tasks across Darfur including:

• providing basic household items for 380,000 displaced people;
• providing shelter material to 80,000 people in camps;
• delivering food aid to 110,000 people;
• repairing infrastructure, supply of medical drugs and equipment in four hospitals and posting of health teams in two of them;
• providing basic health care to 140,000 people;
• arranging daily delivery of 1,800,000 litres of water to over 200,000 people in 30 locations; and
• processing tracing requests for 747 unaccompanied children.

National Societies from the following countries are currently active in the region: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Iran, Kuwait, Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Spain United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Their contribution consists primarily of medical support, food and relief goods as well as camp coordination. Florence Kortuem, a Red Cross doctor, examines a patient in the German Red Cross health station in Darfur.

Florence Kortuem, a German Red Cross doctor, examines a patient in the German Red Cross health station in Darfur.
©Fredrik Barkenhammar / German Red Cross


“Toddy I have identified some of the kids around our health station in the camp,” says Beatriz Lopez of the Spanish Red Cross, which is involved in camp management. “There is one who never says anything, he just looks at me with immense eyes and holds my hand. He does not let go of it. When other children want to shake hands with me he still does not let go. I can’t really look at him for very long, it makes me speechless, uneasy, ashamed, panicked, I just can’t.”

Inside the camps, the World Food Programme counts on the cooperation of Sudanese Red Crescent volunteers to help organize the distribution of family rations. One day as she passed through a camp, Suzana Spasojevic noticed that armed policemen were standing guard as food was distributed. Spasojevic, a judge in Bosnia before joining the ICRC, did not hesitate to ask them to step back, winning the day for the Fundamental Principles, as they immediately obliged in front of an amazed crowd. As a tracing delegate, Suzana explains to community leaders that the ICRC can help reunite family members. But in Darfur there are few isolated children as they are always taken into the care of relatives or neighbours, and it often takes time for families to actually say that some children in their care are not their own. Still the need for family reunion exists, in particular for people who have crossed the border and become refugees in Chad.

Dieter Schnabel arrives at the ICRC delegation in Nyala. He is to join a Red Cross flight to the state of Bahr al Ghazzal, on the southern border of Darfur. He has spent more than a year on a German Red Cross development project in the region. He remarks on the devastating impact the conflict is having on the regional economy.

Nomadic tribes with tens of thousands of cattle are stranded in the south because of the conflict, just at the time of year when they should be migrating back to the north. This is disrupting the socio-economic balance in this area, as fodder is becoming scarce and food prices are too high. Fighting and looting have also upset the delicate balance of age-old trading traditions between pastoralist nomads and farmer communities. All of them suffer as a consequence and many no longer feel safe to go to market towns to trade their products.

Abd el Karim Idriss Hassan, Sudanese Red Crescent director in southern Darfur echoes his colleague Barakat Faris from northern Darfur when he confirms that through this crisis, ICRC delegates and SRCS volunteers are learning to sit down together and exchange views. But he concludes with a question that deserves to be posed: “How do you see us Darfuris?

Roland Huguenin-Benjamin
Roland Huguenin-Benjamin went to Darfur in August as ICRC press officer.

Over the border

The International Federation runs a camp in Chad for 15,000 refugees from the conflict in Darfur.

Waiting to board a Red Cross truck for Tréguine,
where refugees will have better access to
humanitarian aid.
©Gauthier Lefevre / International Federation

‘‘AT last we have a place to rest,” murmurs Mafadhal Ali Mohammed, as a volunteer from the Chad Red Cross shows his family to the tents that will be their home for the immediate future. After several months of wandering across borders and arid land, they are finally settling in at the Red Cross camp in Tréguine, eastern Chad.

“We are exhausted,” he continues. “When our village was attacked, we escaped on foot with some animals. We got to Chad after walking for several weeks. All our animals died, and we thought we would, too.”

Mafadhal, his two wives and five children survived for a while, around the border town of Adré, from the generosity of the local population and odd jobs that he managed to obtain. When food ran out, they once again gathered their meagre belongings and walked for three days to the nearest camp set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees at Breijing.

“As soon as we saw the camp, we collapsed right there,” recalls Mafadhal. “At first, we were alone, but soon other families settled around us. We built a flimsy shelter on a rocky outcrop and we waited.”

But their hopes of receiving adequate humanitarian assistance were dashed once more: originally planned for a population of 20,000, the camp was already home to over 45,000 refugees in desperate need, with dozens of new arrivals every day. There was not enough food or water, or adequate facilities, for all.

Mafadhal’s family joined the thousands of “spontaneous” refugees who could not be accommodated in the official camp and struggled to survive on its fringes, relieved only by handouts from more fortunate neighbours and by whatever aid was left over.

Africa’s gravest refugee crisis

Over 1 million people have been chased from their homes in Darfur. Some 200,000 of them have made it to the safety of neighbouring Chad. They still bear the scars — physical and psychological — of their grisly fate.

“The planes came and burned our village from the sky.” The chatter of his young children ceases as Mafadhal recounts the events that forced them to flee their homes. “We ran to the hills and hid there until the bombing stopped. When we returned to see what was left, armed horsemen of the Janjaweed militias rode in and attacked us. Several of the villagers died.”

The children in the camps still run away at the noise of an airplane or at the sight of a journalist’s camera, which they mistake for weapons.

The displacement of such a large population has created a grave humanitarian crisis. The refugees who managed to cross the border into Chad have been struggling for access to the very limited resources of this part of the country. The lack of food has sent malnutrition rates soaring. The lack of clean drinking water has spread diarrhea and other diseases. Medical teams are monitoring the health situation very closely and are looking out for cholera particularly, which could have devastating consequences. Relieving the urgent needs of refugees who have been through such terrible events will be easier in the Red Cross camp.



Joint action

“Setting up this camp has been a challenging experience,” says Langdon Greenhalgh, from the International Federation, responsible for camp management. “When I got here the rainy season was in full swing and traveling even short distances was a nightmare.”

Simply reaching the site of the camp was hard: Langdon was held back for several days by a flooded wadi, a seasonal river that swells up after the biblical rainstorms that hit the region almost daily between June and September.

Transporting several tonnes of equipment, supplies and raw materials to build the infrastructure of the camp was even more difficult. “Without the participation of the entire Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, the camp would never have emerged,” says Langdon.

The Chad Red Cross, which was on the ground from the very early days of the crisis, has increased the number of volunteers and resources dedicated to the operation. To support them, the International Federation has deployed delegates with specific technical expertise, as well as equipment from tents to medical supplies to cooking utensils.

Red Cross Societies from Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom have contributed to the effort by sending their emergency response units. The 23 six-wheel-drive trucks donated by the Norwegian Red Cross, after six months of transferring refugees to other camps, have provided the much-needed transport capacity for the entire operation, moving people and materials to the Tréguine site. They are currently used to take the refugees and their luggage along the three-kilometre road from Breijing to Tréguine.

The ICRC has launched tracing activities to reunite families that have been separated by the conflict and is promoting international humanitarian law to a wide range of officials, refugees and humanitarian staff.

What hope for the future?

As the Sudanese refugees in Chad slowly restore a sense of normality to their lives, their thoughts are now free to roam back to their homes and villages in Darfur.

“Will I ever see my land again?” Mafadhal wonders. “At night I cannot sleep because I think of my friends lost, my house destroyed, my belongings stolen. Here in Tréguine, the Red Cross gives us food to eat, water to drink, a tent to shelter us. But will we ever be truly alive away from home?”


Gauthier Lefevre

Gauthier Lefevre was International Federation information delegate in Chad.


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