People helping each other

New arrivals at a camp in Darfur return to their shelters with supplies issued by OxfamNew arrivals at a camp in Darfur return to their shelters with supplies issued by Oxfam

"They've only known each other for a few weeks, but already they've become close friends," 36-year old Fayiza explains as she gestures at the two elderly women sitting together on a tattered grass mat. One of them is her mother, Kulthum bint Issa, a thin and wizened woman clad in a bright orange shawl. Kulthum's new friend Halima is bare from the waist up, except for a small blue baby blanket draped over her head and the top of her bony shoulders. Her face is gaunt and her ribs are plainly visible beneath her lean, sagging breasts.

The tiny blue blanket and a piece of floral-patterned cloth tied around her waist are the only clothes Halima owns. We're all sitting cross-legged under the piece of plastic sheeting that forms a small awning in front of Fayiza's makeshift shelter in Kalma camp, South Darfur. The walls are made from sticks and reeds, and the floor is sandy earth. Fayiza's four-year old son is perched on her lap, and she raises a hand to shield his eyes from a gust of wind that is heavy with dust and grit. Her mother doesn't even blink, and it becomes apparent for the first time that Kulthum is blind.

This family of women and children has been living here since their village near Shataya was attacked and burned by armed militia five months ago. "My husband and my brother were killed when the men on horses attacked our village," Fayiza states matter-of-factly. "I fled with my mother and three of my children. I don't know what happened to the others." Fayiza's fingers comb the sandy floor as she speaks. Occasionally she finds a grain or two of uncooked millet that she quickly pops into her mouth to crunch on. Food is scarce in Kalma, and every kernel counts.

Fayiza spends many hours each day waiting in long queues to collect water from a hand-pumped well, one of 11 located throughout the camp. In recent weeks the camp's population has swelled to nearly 60,000 people, overloading the already limited water sources. Fayiza also makes several trips a week outside the camp to collect firewood from nearby forests - a task that is fraught with danger. Many women report being harassed, beaten, or raped by armed men when they venture beyond the relative safety of the camp.

Despite struggling to support her own family, Fayiza has "adopted" her mother's new friend Halima. "She arrived in Kalma alone and penniless, having travelled hundreds of kilometres from Kebkabiya [in North Darfur] in search of her relatives. Someone told her she might find them in Kalma, but so far she's had no success." Fayiza pats the older woman's arm reassuringly. "She's not from our tribe but we couldn't let her stay alone look at her, you can see she has nothing. Besides, she keeps my mother company and helps take care of the children. We all have to help each other now." Halima grunts in quiet affirmation.

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