Newcomers at Al Salaam: Stories of our disaster relief work in Darfur, Chad and Sudan

 

 

Photo: Like a beacon on the hill, Oxfam water tanks promised relief from the relentless heat and sun for newly displaced people who have just arrived at Al Salaam Camp in North Darfur. Some walked for as long as five days to reach the safety of Al Salaam after fleeing the violence that wracked their villages. Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam

Topping a hill at Al Salaam camp in North Darfur, two massive Oxfam tanks—each holding 45,000 liters of water—stand silhouetted against the sky. They promise relief for the hundreds of parched and weary people who have trekked for as many as five days to reach this camp.

Now, they are waiting under the hot midday sun to be officially registered at Al Salaam, where more than 25,000 other displaced people just like them are surviving on food, water, and shelter provided by a host of international aid groups, including Oxfam. The newcomers are from the area around Korma, about 70 kilometers northwest of here, where a new outbreak of violence has forced them from their homes.

Their arrival is testament to the festering insecurity in the region despite—or maybe because of—a peace deal signed in the spring between the government of Sudan and just one of the various rebel groups in the region. More than three years of violence has displaced nearly two million people in Darfur, but going home now is clearly not possible, not when streams of people are still fleeing their villages to find safety elsewhere. Talk about home in the camps, and you’ll be met with a vehement no!—even as people long to return.

“I want it (to go home) very much,” says Ibrahim Omar Hussein, the assistant headmaster for a girls school at Al Salaam who fled from near the town of Tawilla with his seven children. “It is my original village. We are born there.” But the Darfur Peace Agreement, signed May 5, is not a ticket out of the camp.

“It’s not an agreement,” says Ibrahim, “because war is still not finished.”

I learn from Magda Abdallah and Anwar Gubora, two of Oxfam’s staff, that Al Salaam is not the only camp in recent days to see an influx of new arrivals. Families are flowing into camps at Shangil Tobai and Zam Zam as well, and for many of them, the options are grim. They face a long wait in a far away place with no guarantee that home, when they are able to return, will offer the same comfort and security it once did.

For the newcomers flanking the hill at Al Salaam, the immediate future appears as if it’s a mirage: From where they sit, they can see Abu Shouk camp just a few kilometers away, the tarps of thousands of shelters shimmering in the hot desert sun while their owners have lived in limbo—some for three years or more.

Now, for the people from Korma, a similar wait has begun.

Crowded into patches of shade under tiny shelters they have rigged from branches and cloth, some of them sleep, exhausted from the long walk to this place. Under one shelter barely six feet by six feet, I count 11 people resting on the ground. In another, there are 18. I hear coughing and crying, and the hum of many voices that together sound like a prayer.

Around the perimeter of this sprawl of families and goats and heaps of household belongings, stand the donkeys. There must be 100 of them, heads bowed, munching on hay that their owners have scrounged for them. Thank goodness for the donkeys. Some of them ported five and six small children each on the long trek here, an aid worker tells me.

But not all of the children who fled made it, says a sheikh.

“Many of the children disappeared,” says Mahmoud Ibrahim Suliman. “And there are children without parents and without relatives.”

Stories like these are all too familiar to the families who have made Al Salaam their home since it opened about a year ago. Knowing there would be hunger and need where the newcomers have dropped, the residents of Al Salaam have welcomed them warmly.

“They haven’t anything to eat, so those living here before bring them something to eat. They assist them,” says Elnour Osman Elnour, an Oxfam staffer, as we pass two enormous, blackened pots and the remains of a cooking fire.

Rasha Abdalla, a young mother of 24, is among those who have offered a welcome. She is from Korma, too, and has lived at Al Salaam for the past year. She expected that one day others would be forced to follow.

Sadness crosses her face as she speaks of home, and all that she misses there.

“This (Al Salaam) is not our home,” she says. “We lost our home and a lot of people during the war.”

With the news that more violence has rippled through Korma, Rasha’s fate in this camp seems sealed. Al Salaam is her only home for now.

 

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