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12-13 August 2004: Assessing the situation in West Darfur

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
One of the many children living in IDP camps in Zalingei.

By Sacha Westerbeek

In the latest of her series of diary entries from Darfur, UNICEF Communication Officer Sacha Westerbeek visits the West Darfur towns of Zalingei and Nertiti to try to assess firsthand the situation in the overcrowded IDP camps.

Thursday 12 August

I leave Nyala for Zalingei in West Darfur, which is an area where UNICEF has not yet been able to support many activities aside from latrines, basic drugs and medical equipment. One of the reasons is the limited capacity of implementing partners, such as national and international NGOs and the Government. Other things hampering our activities include the rain and the prevailing insecurity. We plan to assess the situation in the town and in the two IDP (internally displaced person) camps.

I arrive in Zalingei and we have to look for accommodation. The ‘guesthouse’ has had no water for a while and we are happy that the Commissioner of Zalingei will host us at the Government accommodation.

In the afternoon we try to make the most of the couple of hours of light left, and we leave for a tour around town and the two IDP camps. The IDPs who had settled in the centre of town were relocated to a camp on the outskirts of town, since the situation had become unbearable for the host population and also for the IDPs. The total population probably exceeds the estimated 80,000, with 30,000 host population in the town and each of the two camps housing at least 25,000.

UNICEF has unfortunately not yet been able to support education projects in this area, but I have a look at a school supported by a local NGO. Even though it is late afternoon, it is busy at the school and I’m surprised to see so many bicycles.

Adam, a teacher at the school, explains that the crowd is because of the evening classes for adult men. When I ask about the women, the men laugh… “No, no, this is only for men. For women: too difficult.” I take the answer for what it is and don’t ask further.

Adam and his colleagues are having a difficult time. Although Adam, and many of his 26 colleagues used to work as teachers prior to coming to the IDP camp, they do not receive a salary (yet). Reluctantly he tells me that they ask for money from their students in order to buy food and other items.

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
The water supply at Zalingei hospital.

I wonder how much they ask for and get – knowing that there are about 800 children at intermediate level and over 1,000 at primary level. There are clearly not enough classrooms as they host up to 100 students each and still have over 1,650 children on the waiting list – including two of his own children.

His three children, ages eight, seven and two, and his wife came to the camp about two months ago. Adam fled his village in February in fear of his life. He managed to get away on his bicycle. This life-saving bicycle and the set of clothes he was wearing on the day of his escape are his only possessions. But he is grateful. He is still alive and wants to go back to his village as soon as it safe – back to teaching Arabic, history and a little bit of English, he says with a smile.

Friday 13 August

I wake up in Zalingei with my roommate from Nyala and a colleague from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in the same room. It feels a bit like a cosy holiday trip with friends. The cosy element disappears quickly at the sight – and smell – of the toilet. During my years in Africa I have preferred going in the bush to going to an enclosed toilet, to be honest. I don’t think I would ever be asked to become a hygiene educator. That’s okay; I don’t have the ambition either.

During breakfast we meet the Commissioner from Zalingei. He is very concerned that the international community only focuses on the IDPs and forgets about the development of the country as a whole. The solution could be to put basic infrastructure (such as water and sanitation, education, health care, etc.) in place to ensure the IDPs have a similar level of services at home as in the camps. The Commissioner is afraid that if we “spoil” the IDPs with schools, clinics, water, food etc they will have no reason to return to their villages.

© UNICEF Sudan/2004/Westerbeek
Adam, a teacher at Zalingei’s classes for men.

His concern is appreciated and we discuss briefly how UNICEF operates and supports the Government. Additional resources have been allocated to the Darfur crisis, but our regular Country Programme, although at a lower pace, still continues. UNICEF is in Sudan to support all vulnerable women and children, regardless of ethnic background, colour, religion, etc. The issue of reconstruction, rehabilitation and repatriation, I reassure him, will definitely be taken into account.

Ten minutes in Nertiti

The rest of they day I spend in the hospital in Zalingei, where I see many ill and malnourished children and have a long talk with a women with four gunshot wounds. Her story still resonates in my head when we leave for Nertiti.

We planned to stay in Nertiti, a town with over 25,000 IDP staying nearby, to see the team that runs the newly opened medical clinic. Unfortunately the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) office from the Government only indicated on our clearance from Zalingei that we will travel from Zalingei to Nyala and they left out the stop over we planned in Nertiti.

Without permission from the Government we are not allowed to stop. HAC and the military in Nertiti understand that a mistake has been made. They are so kind to allow us to stay for 10 minutes. Aren’t we lucky!



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