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Frontline Diary

16 June 2004: Providing for 60,000 displaced people in Mornei

© UNICEF/HQ04-0287/Nesbitt
UNICEF communication officer James Elder in Nyala, South Darfur

With hundreds of thousands of weary and ailing women and children arriving in make-shift camps across the dry Sudanese state of Darfur, the rapid provision of water and sanitation services is critical.

James Elder visited a camp in western Darfur, where new arrivals have led to a 1,200 percent increase in the population; UNICEF’s interventions are turning the balance in favour of life.

DARFUR, 16 June, 2004 – At the foot of an immense, bare mountain, surrounded by miles and miles of sparsely wooded flatlands, Mornei village was a model place to live in the savannah of western Darfur. The village comfortably sustained 5,000 people. But over the past nine months, ferocious attacks on scores of farming villages across western Sudan have forced an additional 60,000 people to take refuge in Mornei.

One of the most populated Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps in Darfur, Mornei is now more mess than model. Thousands of unsteady grass huts – the lucky few with plastic sheeting for roofing – have sprung up at the foot of the mountain. The ground is scorched – a sign of too many people trying to feed themselves; and the children are uncomfortably thin. With local resources – water, sanitation and food – stretched beyond breaking point, the health and well being of tens of thousands of people is at risk.

“In this sort of situation, with unbearable stress on water and sanitation services, a massive outbreak of water-borne diseases is our greatest concern,” says Vishwas Joshi UNICEF Sudan’s Water and Environmental Sanitation Project Officer.

UNICEF began operations in Mornei in March and after tireless work these past 150 days the UN Children’s Fund is just one week away from supplying clean water to every single IDP in Mornei. This has been combined with massively boosted sanitation systems – 570 latrines and counting – and training scores of hygiene promoters.

It is UNICEF’s three-pronged attack to control water-borne diseases and to reduce the stress on IDPs. The water pipe will not only provide clean water to more than 60,000 people (when I was in Mornei local authorities reported an additional 10,000 IDPs had arrived in the past weeks), but the pipe will also safeguard women. For it is the women who have to venture further and further away from the settlement in search of water. Many have been attacked. Some have been raped. All are tired and frightened.

At the same time UNICEF and its counterpart, the state branch of the National Water Corporation, have trained more than 100 hygiene promoters to liaise with their own people and communities, delivering ‘hygiene packages’ of soap, jerry cans and blankets, and imparting essential information on sanitary habits and health. Darfur has never been an area terribly well serviced in the health sector, and so UNICEF is seeking to save lives today, and empower people for tomorrow.

Asma Wahid is a UNICEF hygiene promoter in Mornei who says she has entered “hundreds of homes”, and believes the message is getting through. “I continue to find a lot of malnutrition and diarrhea,” she says, crouching in the straw door of a home no more than two metres by two metres. “I advise them on how to keep good sanitation in these hard conditions. And I am starting to see things improving, and importantly people are starting to talk to each other about these issues.”

Following Asma as she goes from home to home, past hundreds of people now idle with no farms to tend, we come to the home of Yonis Ibrahim, his wife Khadega, and their two small children. Still nervous after surviving a brutal attack on their village, Khadega is at first unsure of the visitors and hesitant to accept anything from strangers (she fears the soap may be poisoned). But after some calming words from Asma, the family sits down with her and listens to her advice.

Once living relatively well in their village of Mandiga – Yonis owned land and some cattle – they lost everything when their village was ransacked and burnt. “Here we have nothing,” says Khadega. “My husband has no work, my children have too little food, and the place is not clean.”

As we leave, Khadega takes my hand and expresses a flurry of ‘thankyous’ in her native tongue. She has been given three bars of soap. Imagine her pleasure when UNICEF provides clean water to her and 60,000 like her.

Better still, imagine her joy when her family is able to return home and restart their lives. Security issues mean that is still some time away, and until then UNICEF’s resources in dozens of camps across Darfur are extremely stretched. Only with continued and heightened international support will UNICEF be continue to be able to improve conditions for women such as Khadega in camps like Mornei. The alternative is too grim to consider.



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