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Frontline Diary

15 September 2005: Children coping with the past

© UNICEF Sudan/2005
UNICEF Child Protection Officer Kristen Geary with children at the Kalma Camp in Darfur.

By Kristen Geary

The following Frontline Diary entry by UNICEF Child Protection Officer Kristen Geary is her look back at the time she has spent working in Darfur, and her look forward to the future of the children she has come to know.

DARFUR, Sudan, 15 September 2005 – I last submitted a diary entry that focused on the children in Fata Borno camp in North Darfur. Since then, I have been in and out of a dozen camps. And just this week – I realized I have been in Darfur for over one year.

So, what is the difference now as compared to last year? Has the situation improved? Are children facing the same problems? Different ones?

I was recently in a town called Kebkabiya. Before the conflict, Kebkabiya was a town of 20,000 people. Now, due to the influx of people forced to flee their homes, Kebkabiya is a town of 90,000. The town has more than tripled in size in a matter of months.

Before reaching Kebkabiya, we passed other towns, villages and camps – and for the first time in the last year, I saw people farming and cultivating the land. There were visibly fewer people in the nearby camps – most of them were out on the farms. A very straight-forward indication that safety and security in this area has improved. A pocket of hope.

Once in Kebkabiya, the difference from last year was not as dramatic or as hopeful. The people who have fled to Kebkabiya have not begun leaving the relative safety of the town for their farms. Yes, safety and security is better – but not good enough to encourage very many of them to venture into rural areas.

Haunted by the spectre of death

In Kebkabiya, I spoke with adolescent girls about their past year and their situation now. From their words and the heavy feeling in the room, I got a deep impression that these children are going about their daily work and life demonstrating incredible resiliency – but all the while … living with ghosts.

In a group of sixteen girls, three had lost their mothers as a result of the conflict; five had lost their fathers; and two had lost both their mother and father. More than half of the group had been present at the death of one of their parents. 

As a Child Protection Officer, I work with colleagues in UNICEF and in our partner organizations to provide psychosocial support to children. We aim to assist all children in recovering and healing – to be able to develop into healthy adults.

And in the past year, UNICEF has reached over 166,000 children in the region with psychosocial support activities. We have trained over 200 community-based counsellors to provide emotional support to vulnerable girls and women – which is wonderful and a testament to the very hard work of so many Sudanese and international humanitarians.

But, how to help a 15-year-old recover from losing both her mother and father? What do you say to a 13-year-old who thinks of and misses her mother every day? These girls are incredible, kind, hard working and brave. They have survived a tragic year – but they are living with the ghosts of the past … how they used to spend their days with their mother, father, brother … And their life now – it is different.

Shaping the future of Sudan

These children are deeply appreciative of the food aid, the recreational activities, the water pumps, the free school … and they are kept alive thanks to these compassionate relief efforts. In the near future, I predict they will be back in their villages; they will stay free of polio and measles; they will grow their own food again.

And with regard to their lost loved ones – I hope that they will find ways to heal and live with the memories. But will they ever be able to walk away or hope that things can be the way they were before this conflict?

I do believe that the children and young people of Darfur can and should contribute to a more peaceful Sudan for the rest of their lifetime and their children’s lifetime. If anyone can shape the future of Sudan into a peaceful place – it is without a doubt the children.

As I was writing this, I received a memo from a colleague – a 12-year-old girl was raped this week 2 km outside Fata Borno camp.

For those who keep asking – how many have been raped? What are the numbers, statistics? I always answer and will continue to answer: one is too many.



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