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Frontline Diary

19 May 2004: Terrible conditions for displaced people in El Fasher

© UNICEF USA/2004/Thomas
Julianna Lindsey of UNICEF's Humanitarian Response Unit.

Julianna Lindsey, of UNICEF’s Humanitarian Response Unit, is travelling through Sudan’s Darfur region.  The unit she works for helps organize UNICEF’s activities in emergency areas.  Here’s the first of her diary entries giving her personal view on what is happening there.

EL FASHER, 19 May 2004 -The last stop in our tour of the three Darfur states is El Fasher in North Darfur.  We visited a couple of camps here that illustrate the moral dilemmas that aid workers are faced with.  Several months ago, thousands of people arrived in El Fasher after their villages were destroyed, and they settled in a dry riverbed (known as a wadi) called Meshtel.  The area was attractive at the time because the water table is higher in a riverbed so the displaced people figured they could find water there.  They were camped in incredibly crowded and miserable conditions.  One pretty tough and experienced Norwegian guy who has seen a lot of hard sights in Africa told me he was almost in tears at the sight of these people squeezed next to each other with absolutely no opportunity for sanitation or privacy.

With the rains coming, agencies and the government in El Fasher wanted to get the people out of the wadi, which will fill up with water in the rainy season.  They were finally able to negotiate a new site called Abu Shouk and the International Committee of the Red Cross stepped in to design a new camp and provide plastic sheeting and poles so that around 30,000 people could construct basic igloo-style huts.  UNICEF provided several large water sources along with the government, supplies for latrines constructed by Oxfam, and essential drugs for a clinic organized by the Red Cross.  After everything was organized, all of the people camping in the wadi moved to the new camp on a hill, safe from floods.  It’s still a pretty tough place, though – there are no trees or bushes anywhere, just sand and hot sun.  But, the displaced people and agencies felt it was a safe place, and that’s
their most important concern.

Here’s the dilemma: once displaced people camping with their relatives in town saw that if you stay in Meshtel for a while, you get a nice plastic hut, they decided to move into Meshtel, which had been empty after the original inhabitants moved to Abu Shouk.  Many people living in town had endured conditions even worse than those in Meshtel.  One UNICEF staffer told of visiting a group of 137 people in El Fasher town who were packed into a space the size of a large two-car garage.  The stench from the latrines was almost unbearable.

Agencies were then faced with the quandary of whether to move the new Meshtel people to Abu Shouk, knowing it would just attract more displaced people to the wadi, which will soon become dangerous because of floods, not to mention the poor sanitation.  At the same time, the conditions in Meshtel are so awful that we certainly can’t just leave people there.

I went down there myself and was struck by how pitiful the place is.  People had literally placed thin pieces of cloth over a few branches to protect them from the sun and forge a tiny amount of privacy – but that’s the only thing separating them from their neighbours, who have literally constructed the same thing only a foot away.

I’m not sure what was finally decided about the new inhabitants of Meshtel, but I feel confident it will result in a somewhat better situation for them. One of the reasons for my optimism is that the Government of Sudan has now announced that visas for humanitarian workers will be issued quickly and travel permits for Darfur will be abolished.  If the system truly works,
then this will make it dramatically easier for both NGOs and the UN to provide assistance.  Let’s hope it does – inshallah.



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