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
©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.
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.
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
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
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
• 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
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
Florence Kortuem, a German Red Cross doctor,
examines a patient in the German Red Cross health station
©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 went to Darfur in August
as ICRC press officer.
Over the border
Federation runs a camp in Chad for 15,000 refugees from the
conflict in Darfur.
Waiting to board a Red Cross truck for
where refugees will have better access to
©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,
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
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
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.
“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.
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 was International Federation information
delegate in Chad.