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Frontline Diary

2-10 August: The brutality of Darfur’s crisis drawn by children on a bridge

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
Bridge between Nyala and Kass where children of Darfur have left their mark.

In the latest of her series of diary entries from Darfur, UNICEF Communication Officer Sacha Westerbeek spends time with children who attend school in temporary classrooms made of grass and twigs, and travels to some of the more inaccessible IDP camps, where it is difficult to provide any aid at all.

Monday 2 August

Today is another day with the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors and the rest of the lot – nine in total. I felt sorry for them that we could not go to Kalma camp due to the prevailing insecurity, but today we make it up to them by going to Kass. I see the two-hour journey through the eyes of the newcomers: villages that have been deserted or even destroyed, herds of camels, people riding camels and donkeys, checkpoints, the beauty of the country… and the bridge with the drawings.

I’ve crossed this particular bridge many times, but this is the first time that I notice there are drawings on both sides. I inform the cameraman that it might be interesting to film and we get out of the vehicle for further inspection.

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
The Darfur crisis depicted in art by unknown children

I don’t know who drew the pictures, but they look like children’s drawings which I’ve seen in the UNICEF-supported schools and Children’s Space Centres. Guns, planes, bombs and people: The Darfur crisis depicted in art – the sad reality of life drawn on a bridge in the middle of nowhere. I wonder who the kids are, where they come from, when they drew these, where they are now, are they still alive…?

Saturday 7 August

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
Children at the Al Safar Secondary School in Kass

By now, I know the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kass and Kalma better than Nyala, the town where I live. My colleagues who work in education have plenty to do, especially in Kass, which hosts up to 40,000 IDPs. UNICEF is providing classrooms, teaching and learning materials and uniforms to the children in Kass – not only for the IDPs but also for the children of the host community. This is a very hot issue, as many IDPs are staying in the school buildings in town.

Many children like Mahot had to stay home because there were no classrooms available for them. Mahot is a very bright 14-year-old and is attending the Al Safar Secondary School in Kass. She likes being a student. “I was very unhappy when I had to stay home for three months when our school was occupied by the IDPs, but now UNICEF has built seven new classrooms for us and we can go back to school.”

Mahot says to me, “I like to learn English. What is your name?” When she starts talking with me all her friends surround us. They all want to be in the photo, they ask me my name and I shake at least 150 hands, which makes me feel like a princess or pop star.

All these young girls are so eager to learn English, to learn about the rest of the world, about what UNICEF is doing and what the UN stands for. I’ve never had the desire to become a teacher but talking with these girls makes me wish I could stay with them for a while to teach them the things they want to know.

UNICEF has built 24 temporary classrooms in Kass for the secondary school students and 105 temporary classrooms for the primary school students. The temporary classrooms are very useful but they do have problems. The haboobs (sand storms) and rainstorms can easily blow them away, since they are made out of grass and twigs. Donkeys and goats like to nibble at them, making big holes in the walls. I try to imagine the excuses the children make when they skip classes: “Sorry, I can not go to school today because the donkey ate my classroom.” In order to prevent this kind of thing, UNICEF is helping build 50 classrooms made of plastic and steel poles. No more donkey excuses for not attending school.
Sunday 8 August

Today’s activities are so nicely planned: I will take two journalists to Kalma camp. A translator is available, security clearances are in place, the travel authorisation is signed, and the car, fuel and driver are ready. Perfect.

In the end I leave with only one journalist. The other has logistical problems with his connecting flight to the UK. I’m sorry for him that he has to miss this great opportunity, but I’m sure he doesn’t mind leaving Nyala either.

The road to Kalma is long and tedious. Although the camp is only 14 km from Nyala the roads are a nightmare: Mud, sand, enormous potholes and water are all around us. Sometimes we have to divert from our regular path and drive on the railway track. This does not make me happy at all: I watch anxiously for any approaching trains. I know that the chances are slim, as it only comes to Nyala a couple of times per week, but still, I do not want to end up in a movie scene being chased by a train.

On the way to the camp we pass many people with household goods loaded onto donkey carts. I’m curious: Where are these new IDPs coming from? I ask the driver to stop the vehicle and jump out, straight into a huge mud puddle.

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
Family travelling on the road

I approach one of the donkey carts and we ask  – I am now with a translator so it is much easier – where they are from. A woman is sitting with her baby on her lap and tells me that she is from Yassin, a village about 50 km east of Nyala. They left about two weeks ago; they were afraid because of the fighting that took place near their village. She saw armed men come to the outskirts of her village, on horses or in vehicles. They did not get very close, she said, but her family was afraid of what might happen. So they decided to leave their home.

About eight days ago the family reached Nyala by truck. During the next week they managed to get the donkey cart in order to transport their goods. Her husband is already in Kalma to find a place and has begun construction of their new ‘home’, which they will share with their three children, her aunt, sister-in-law and other extended family members.

When we finally reach Kalma the rain begins. We pay a visit to the local authorities and learn that they estimate there are now 83,450 people in the camp. Every single day there are hundreds of new arrivals. The influx of IDPs just does not stop. Yesterday, gunshots were heard in a village near Kalma; it is expected that the number of IDPs will continue to increase.

The rain makes driving and walking almost impossible. We stop quickly at the MSF clinic but are told to evacuate as soon as possible in order not to get stuck in the mud. A night in the camp does not sound very attractive; we leave. So altogether we had 30 minutes in Kalma camp.

At least the journalist has seen how the rains interfere with the projects and activities carried out by UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations. It is not easy to accept, but some things we cannot control – and one of them is the rain.

Tuesday 10 August

I’m very excited about going to two new places: Manawashi and Mershing, which are situated about 80 km north of Nyala. Today we travel together with colleagues working in education, water and environmental sanitation (WES) and nutrition, to monitor the UNICEF-supported projects in this area.

We are lucky that it did not rain yesterday, so we can drive fairly quickly to our destination. On the way, we see two trucks with goods from other aid agencies that got stuck in the wadi (riverbed). This road, like so many others in Darfur, is serious trouble in the rainy season. The rain makes it nearly impossible to travel to some areas. You can imagine that it is very frustrating for my colleagues that they support projects in these places, but most of the time they are not accessible. Other areas are inaccessible due to the prevailing insecurity.  It’s amazing we ever get out at all.

We drive by Duma, a small village. I remember the name, because recently two of our WES counterparts were kidnapped here. One managed to escape and the other one is still missing. I’m sure that nothing will happen… but I still check whether I locked the car door.


We arrive in Mershing around 10:00 o’clock. Mershing consists of eight IDP camps, hosting a total of about 27,000 IDPs. The situation is dire because access to this area is very difficult. I’m told that since last June about 19,000 people have not received food. I ask how they survive… They don’t.

I visit an old school building that has been converted into a kind of clinic called a ‘stabilization centre’, which deals with severely malnourished children. The clinic is run by Save the Children UK (SC-UK) with support from the UK Government, the World Food Programme and UNICEF. UNICEF provides the milk, some medication and the ‘hardware’, including scales, measuring boards, etc.

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
Mother and her baby at the health clinic in Mershing

Inside the stabilization centre, I meet Khadija and her very young son. They are from the next town over, and was brought here by the SC-UK outreach team. Khadija looks very young, but is already a mother of five. This baby is the youngest; he is severely malnourished. Although in the centre, he is still losing weight. He suffers from serious diarrhoea and vomiting which are not yet under control. Khadija has to stay here to be with her sick child for at least another week. In the meantime her husband is looking after the other children.

She looks worriedly at her baby. He is indeed in bad shape. By the time I get around to asking whether I can take a photo, she had covered the child. She apologizes that he won’t look good in the photo in his condition. I promise her that I’ll come back to take a nice picture when her child is better.



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