Diary of an aid worker: Stories of our disaster relief work in Darfur, Chad and Sudan

Day 1

The drive to Abu Shouk camp takes under 15 minutes from Oxfam’s office in El Fasher. Before leaving town glimpses of the camp, home to over 56,000 people, can be seen through gaps between buildings.

What hits you first as you enter the camp is a feeling of permanency. It feels like a town. People have built walls around their shelters, and many plastic shelters have been remade with bricks. Erected in rows, at the end of each row is a street name…N15…N9…W2. This feeling that it’s going to be a long stay is confirmed again and again …‘We have no ray of hope of returning home.’  Abu Shouk camp opened 3 years ago this month…it’s an unhappy anniversary.

Abu Shouk camp, with spiralling line of jerry cans at water point (in foreground). Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

 

Before entering the camp we see large, brown pyramid-like structures…as we pass closer we see these are for baking bricks. As people settle in for the long haul, brick-making has become increasingly common-place and one of the few livelihoods available to the people at the camp. It’s estimated that 30% of households in Abu Shouk are involved in brick-making and it takes around one litre of water to make one brick.

This enormous extra demand for water is placing huge strain on scarce natural resources, and depleting the amount available for drinking and domestic use. The Oxfam team in Abu Shouk is working to try to promote brick-making projects that use less precious water and are more environmentally sustainable. The management of water has become an enormous challenge - a natural resource quickly diminishing.

Abu Shouk means small spiky animal…. but the basic needs of an increasing displaced population, the desperate need to earn a living and the impact on natural resources are anything but small.

 

Day 2

Flying down to Kebkabiya due west of El Fasher. What used to be a six-hour drive by car is forty-five minutes by helicopter. The roads are now too unsafe to travel by. Hijackings are virtually a daily occurrence. Visibility is difficult…it seems like the Haboub (wind with dust) has arrived. As we get closer to Kebkabiya visibility improves.

First we drop off our bags at the Oxfam house, where we coincide with the water delivery. Because there’s no running water supply, water is being delivered by donkey cart.

Back in the village -- Kaltom & donkey returning home with water. Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

 

The situation in Kebkabiya is quite different to El Fasher. Here Oxfam is working in the town but also, apart from MSF running some clinics, Oxfam is the only organisation working in the rural areas. It’s good to get out of the town and visit some of the villages. With 2 million people having fled to the towns and camps, the needs of people who've remained in their villages are often overlooked. We meet women at the hand pumps collecting water. Before they had to go quite a distance to a wadi (a seasonally dry river bed), but now there are hand pumps next to the village. Others are cleaning up the village.

Security continues to be the main challenge here. Though things on the surface seem calm we are all aware of how fragile and volatile the situation is. Oxfam is regularly unable to get to villages like this because it is too dangerous. One of the women, Kaltom, has recently come back from Kebkabiya. ‘When this conflict happened I went to the town. I was very happy to return home.' Unfortunately for most of the 2 million others who fled their homes, going back is still an impossible dream.

Day 3

The first thing I see when I wake up this morning is an Oxfam vehicle. Too hot and stuffy in our rooms, we’ve moved our beds outside. But by early morning it gets quite cold and a warm blanket is needed. People are telling me that one of the differences between living in the camps and their homes is the heat…as well as the congestion, the water, food and firewood situation, the lack of being able to earn a living, and security.

Yesterday we flew down to Shangil Tobai, around 65-70 km from El Fasher. There and back in a day on the once a week helicopter, together with teams from other agencies. A year ago it was a fairly safe drive… but now the road is too dangerous. In Shangil Tobai there are two camps – Shangil Tobai & Shaddat… I spent most of the time talking with children. I ask one boy what message he would like to send back to boys his age in the UK - ‘ To be good children, to help keep things clean, to concentrate on your education and to work at sport, especially football.’ Mahmoud is 14. I’m struck by the fact that at 14 he still sees himself as a child…and despite all the traumatic things he’s probably seen in his short life.

Waking up next to an Oxfam vehicle. Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

 

In Shaddat I meet a group of boys and girls from Oxfam’s children’s group. We spend a lot of time talking about their lives. When I ask them what they think life is like in the UK the first thing they say is, ‘ Life there is very different because there is peace. Not like here, where there is a lot of conflict and fighting, and we are very scared.

Arriving back in El Fasher we hear the news that another aid agency vehicle has just been hijacked and taken in the town centre. In the evening someone from one of the UN agencies talks about the number of new people still arriving at the already overcrowded and ‘closed’ camps on the edge of town. The need for another camp is becoming very clear.

Day 4

Now in South Darfur. The drive to Kalma camp, one of Darfur’s largest and most well known with nearly 100,000 people, and one of five camps near the town of Nyala, takes just over 25 minutes. On route we have to pass through several checkpoints where we have our travel documents checked.

The scene as we approach the camp is remarkable. Intensive brick-making has created a dark and pitted landscape. Some pits are now so deep they nearly swallow the people working within them. Large, neat mounds of wood, consisting of both large mature and small young logs, give way to the heat and the smoke of the charcoal makers. Once again we see that – as the conflict drags on and the camps become more permanent - people living in them seem to have little opportunity for any kind of income, other than activities that deplete the already scarce surrounding natural resources.

Drawings by children living in Kalma camp. Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

 

Before leaving the office we have been given strict security guidelines. There’s frequent tension and insecurity in and around the camp. When walking around we aren't meant to be out of sight of the Oxfam vehicle…just in case we have to leave the camp quickly.

The most disturbing thing I see today is a pile of drawings from children, who Oxfam is working with as part of its public health work. As I leaf through the pile I notice that virtually all the children have drawn guns, people being shot, homes and villages in flames.

As we leave the camp the people I’ve been talking with point up to the sky…lots of clouds are gathering… ‘The rains are on their way. We desperately need plastic sheeting. Our shelters won’t withstand the coming rainy season.’  When the rains come living conditions in the camps throughout Darfur will certainly be miserable. And the ingredients are already there for outbreaks of life threatening diseases like cholera and malaria. In the coming months people could face another emergency within an emergency. There is a very large cloud over the whole of Darfur.

Day 5

Another helicopter flight took us to the small town of Um Dukhun literally on the Chad-Sudan border. The weather is cooler, the sky is overcast but the humidity is high. In the ‘garden’ at the office-guesthouse there’s a bunker left from the days when there were no solid walls, only a ‘soft’ fence…a place of safety for when there was shooting nearby.

In Um Dukhun there are refugees from Chad and the Central African Republic, as well as many people who have fled from their homes due to the conflict in Darfur. Oxfam’s work here was recently suspended for nearly one month after an Oxfam vehicle was hijacked and stolen in one of the camps on the edge of town. This was just the latest in a series of serious incidents, and all the aid agencies withdrew from Um Dukhun and have only just returned. Unfortunately access to the rural villages around Um Dukhun, where the needs are actually highest of all, is still too dangerous.

Hawa Idriss Ibrahim and her donkey Sarokh (Rocket). Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

 

I’ve spent most of the day meeting donkeys. Oxfam’s distributed over 500 donkeys to people living in the camps, town and villages. I’ve met ‘Helicopter’, ‘Landrover’, ‘Rocket’, ‘Small’, ‘Fast’ and many more. All female. All healthy and hardy. The security risks impact everything Oxfam does...we distribute female donkeys as their value is lower and they're therefore less likely to be stolen. The donkeys are being used for transport, to carry water, and material to build homes, as well as enabling many of their new owners to earn a living. And people aren’t just pleased... they’re proud of their donkeys. My Sudanese colleague is surprised that people are naming them. Later someone from another international aid agency says, about the donkeys, ‘It’s the best distribution I’ve ever seen.’ - quite a compliment.

As the helicopter lifts off to return us to Nyala I feel sad to be leaving. Somehow Darfur has a way of getting under your skin. We’ve only a few days left until our return to the UK. I’m already hoping I’ll have the opportunity to come back. Before coming here all I’d heard about Darfur were the worst aspects of the conflict. What I’ve had here is the privilege and the opportunity to meet the most amazing people; people who have been exceptionally warm and welcoming, despite what they have been through; the people who are the real face of Darfur.

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