By Edwyn Shiell, Marketing & Communication Officer, Act for Peace
In November this year, I had the privilege of visiting Nyala, the Capital of South Darfur for two days.
In the exhausting heat of the day, women stroll around in the most amazing topes which paint the arid and dusty skyline with a magnificent pallet of purples, blues, yellows and greens.
They look immaculate as the sun dips in the West and falls to a chorus of the bustling markets and streets which animate Nyala Town. Donkey pulled carriages still populate the dirt streets and it’s an off day when the men sitting in groups, adorned in white jalabiyas don’t give you a firm, warm Sudanese greeting. A strong handshake which could outlast the sunset.
The silence in Nyala was disarming in the evenings. A great peace and calm washed over me as a huge sun descended on the dry, arid land and the knowledge that the there has been so much death in this region momentarily escapes me. The feeling of safety and security washes over me.
Singing and dancing bring the dirt street beside my guarded compound to life on the Saturday night. A wedding unfolds in the still Nyala evening and the sound is beautiful and enormous. This place feels incredible and there is a desperate energy here that makes me smile. I feel safe and calm. It takes a moment for the smile to ease and remember the suffering which continues in Darfur.
It’s a tragedy which much of the world seems to have forgotten. Now relegated to infrequent media coverage and used as a buzzword for humanitarian hotspots, the ‘next Darfur’s’ of the world seem to have stolen the human element from this ongoing tragedy.
The tragedy is still pertinent. The United Nations says that out of Darfur’s 6 million people, 4.5 million still need support and 2.7 million people remain displaced throughout the region.
In the South and West of Darfur, the joint Act-Caritas programme implemented by Norwegian Church Aid along with two Sudan national partners, the Sudan Council of Churches and Sudanaid, directly offer services and humanitarian support to over 340,000 displaced people. My moments of wonder are quickly replaced by a realisation of my ignorance and blind idealism.
The recent wave of humanitarian aid worker kidnappings has served as a brutal reminder that there is still insecurity in the region and all programme workers are on high alert. The nature of the kidnappings has many people spooked. In the middle of the night, guards have been held at gunpoint, forced to unlock the workers room. These are well orchestrated and planned operations. This knowledge places an impossible burden on the minds of workers here and speaks loudly about the unpredictable state of security which still plagues the area.
The dedicated programme staff all speak of the deterioration of the security situation. This has been reinforced in the wake of attacks that claimed the lives of five peacekeepers, reported two weeks ago.
The recent attacks follow the shooting and wounding of three other UNAMID peacekeepers, also by unidentified gunmen, in West Darfur in October, and the killing of another in South Darfur in May, as well as the kidnapping of two UNAMID civilian staff members in August in West Darfur who spent 107 days in captivity.
Vasca Sebit, the Project Officer for Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) speaks with caution about the recent kidnappings. It clearly weighs heavily on his mind, “threats are completely unpredictable and there is no pattern. Violence can come from anywhere.
Vasca has worked as part of the joint ACT-Caritas programme since the beginning of the year, and while he is still finding his feet, he has a clear vision and strong presence. The project workers under him admire him and respond respectfully to his command. Though reserved, he prefers to save speech when it serves a purpose.
“Cars can be hijacked at any time and peace agreements with the rebels are fragile. You can’t drive a four wheel drive to areas like Mershing. In the streets, the vehicle will be hijacked. No questions. This is greatly affecting our day to day activities with communities.”
The Sudan Council of Churches implements peacebuilding, education , and HIV and AIDS programmes. It also supports income generating activities such as masonry, welding, and tailoring and agricultural programmes in Mershing, Bilel and Dereig Camps in Darfur.
Afaf, a peacebuilding worker, said, “We work toward the peaceful co-existence of communities, the people are trained in workshops providing peacebuilding and conflict resolution skills. In this way they can solve and participate in the process.
In Darfur, the threats to the staff are an everyday concern, though the security of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) in camps continues to be a key issue which hinders the livelihoods and future plans of the IDP population.
Afaf said, the situation is better than it has been in the past two years however, women still fear to venture out of the camps to collect firewood.
Vasca reinforced Afaf’s point. “IDPs can’t move from camps. Very few can sneak out for farming purposes or to cultivate land. People can’t work or produce. Movement is restricted in some areas.”
The workers who are serving the IDP Communities, like Vaska and Afaf are inspiring. Despite the constant threats to personal safety, each person I encountered has a tough resolve and a strong sense of purpose in Darfur.
This part of the world, which only occasionally creeps into the direct awareness of the international media today, should be on everyone’s mind.
Vasca said, “we need to show our experience of Darfur, outside of Darfur! The whole world is watching. We ask you to parade for peace in Darfur. A real partnership is needed. Pray for peace in Darfur.”