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Frontline Diary

29 June 2004: A child’s story of horrific attack

© UNICEF/HQ 04-0310/Nesbitt
12-year-old Rihab draws in a notebook, in Kalma camp
More than one million people in the western Sudanese region of Darfur have been violently uprooted and forced to trek for days in one of the world’s harshest climates. Many children have horrific memories of the experience.

James Elder heard one child’s story at Kalma camp in South Darfur.

DARFUR, 29 June 2004 - When she fled, Rihab remembers two things most clearly: the gunfire and the sorghum. “When we heard the guns and the screaming we ran as quickly as we could to the fields,” 12-year-old Rihab tells me from the sand floor of her school hut in Kalma camp. “It was the right season for sorghum and so the plants were high enough to hide behind. But not for my father … he was killed as we escaped.”

Speaking softly, letting her head hang, Rihab pauses after mentioning her father. There is no point putting her through retelling the details of her dad’s death – for they are almost always the same.

Armed militia storming through farming villages at daybreak, riding high on camel and horseback, and firing modern weaponry at all below. Those who are allowed to flee – normally women and children – do so. But many of the men are killed, and the villages are always then burnt to the ground.

The political situation in Darfur is complex, but the end results of these attacks are clear-cut: poor, but sustainable farming families – just like Rihab’s – torn apart in a violent wave of killing and looting. More than one million people are now displaced, almost all facing daily fights against malnutrition, disease and the fear of further violence.

UNICEF is present across Darfur, providing emergency health care, opening therapeutic feeding centres, building classrooms, training teachers and constructing essential water pumps.

Hoping to move our conversation away from her father’s death, I ask Rihab what happened after they hid behind the sorghum. “The men on horses found us. It was me and my mother and my little baby sister. They shot my sister. She was three. What could she have possibly done to deserve this? She died there.”

As the eldest girl Rihab had taken primary responsibility for looking after her sister. They were best friends and Rihab is confused and distressed by what happened. In Kalma camp, Rihab and thousands of children like her attend UNICEF play and drawing groups. The play groups introduce them to other children who have similarly suffered and the classes encourage children to express their feelings through drawings. Rihab’s book is full of flowers and animals and all the scenes of her desert life. There are also pages of planes and bombs and men on horseback shooting into crowds of people.

Ahlam Mandy Salh is one of the women teaching drawing. “These children have seen too much,” she says. “When they first came to this camp they would just sit by themselves and were very withdrawn. But now, a month or two later, I am seeing real changes.” And so am I. In this camp, and in others I have visited, it is impossible not to be struck by the dynamism of these children. Certainly it helps when peculiar-looking westerners drift into town, play with the children and juggle rocks (badly) for a few laughs. But the responsiveness and affability of these children is astounding. They, and the other hundreds of thousands of displaced children across Darfur, deserve so much better.

As Rihab talks the rains begin to fall. And it is a downpour. Huge, wet balls of rain crash through the hut’s grass roof as people outside race to their homes, their urgency somewhat futile given the inadequacy of their shelters. It is a reminder that the lives of more than 10,000 children in Kalma camp will get harsher before they get easier.



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