Debbie DeVoe, CRS’ regional information officer for East Africa, shares the latest from West Darfur in Sudan.
Peering out the helicopter window, my stomach dropped again. This time it wasn’t from the twinge of fear I felt when the nose of the U.N. chopper dipped forward on liftoff. It was from what I was seeing on the ground.
We were dropping into Sileia on our way to Sirba – two large villages in West Darfur that suffered immensely during recent government efforts to drive out rebels. After flying for miles over the stark but beautiful desert landscape, golden glints of thatched huts and fences appeared in the distance. As we got closer, the view changed drastically.
Next to a cluster of picturesque family compounds was a sickening scar of scorched earth. Blackened circles clearly marked where huts had been burned to the ground. The helicopter banked left, and the scene repeated itself.
Five years in, the conflict in Darfur continues unabated. More than 2 million people are displaced from their homes, feeling too scared to return to their villages and risk another attack. Each week, the number grows. Yet, somehow, people still find hope.
Eleven-year-old Faiza Khalil Hamad is happy to be attending classes in the West Darfur capital of El Geneina: “I used to look after our sheep every day, but now I am in school. I have learned a lot so far. I like school.” Abdullah Assal is proud to be part of a Catholic Relief Services food relief committee that helps distribute emergency rations each month to thousands of people, pleased to be helping his neighbors.
Mariam Abdalla Bakhit, who has lived in an El Geneina camp since January 2007, misses her house and garden and farm and animals. Ask her how she’s doing, and she’ll say “well” — much better than when she first arrived with nothing. Her husband Abdul Karim Hassan describes their life a bit more stoically: “Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s normal.”
It can be disturbing to see just how normal life appears at times in Darfur. School girls play jump rope. Small boys drag along wooden cars tied to string. Men chat over tea and coffee in wooden shacks, while coworkers sit down for a midmorning breakfast of fried goat, beans and puffy bread. Cars zip along El Geneina’s recently paved roads, lined with shops that sell everything from soap to hookah pipes.
Sit down for a longer conversation though, and smiles disappear. Women fear for their personal safety when they have to go into the bush to collect firewood. Men can’t find enough work to support their families. An older woman shows me her paralyzed hand and the responsible bullet lodged in her upper arm.
When it comes time for me to leave — a luxury I’m well aware of — I ask my new friends Mariam and Abdul if they have any questions for me. “This is difficult to ask,” Abdul replies, “but when will the conflict end and peace come?”
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