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The State of the World's Children

Childhood interrupted in Darfur’s refugee camps

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Nielsson
Since they escaped together from their village, Sumaya and her brother Baba have become inseparable.

As part of the launch of the State of the World's Children 2006 report UNICEF is featuring a series of stories focusing on children who are excluded and invisible as a result of armed conflict, poverty, HIV/AIDS, discrimination and inequalities. Their stories are the stories of millions of other children whose rights go unfulfilled every day.

KALMA CAMP, South Darfur, Sudan – Kalma Camp, the largest camp for people who have fled their home villages in Darfur, is an endless sea of tents and mud huts stretching from one horizon to the other. Over 70,000 people have flocked to Kalma in the last two years, fleeing a conflict described by the United Nations as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. 

Fifteen-year-old Sumaya, her parents and her 7 siblings came to Kalma Camp almost two years ago after the Janjaweed militia attacked their village.

“I was at school when they attacked us,” says Sumaya. “My sisters ran back to the village, and I ran with some friends. My cousin Mona was running ahead of me when she was shot. I stopped and held her hand. When she died, her hand slipped out of mine. Some boys came and told me that I had to run, so I did.”

Along the way Sumaya found her grandmother and her 4-year-old brother, Mozamel (whom everyone calls Baba). She took the little boy in her arms and started running. “We ran and ran until I felt that I couldn’t go on any longer,” remembers Sumaya. “I thought about throwing my brother in the grass because he was so heavy, but my grandmother took my hand and told me that we should all stay together.”

Two agonizing weeks went by before Sumaya and Baba were reunited with the rest of the family. Together, they walked 147 kilometres to Kalma Camp. Since their traumatic escape from the Janjaweed, Sumaya and Baba have become inseparable. “Now Baba doesn’t like anyone but me,” says Sumaya as she shoos flies away from the face of the little boy who holds on to her skirt, refusing to let go. “If I go outside, he keeps asking for me. We sleep together in the same bed.”

After decades of low-level clashes over land and water in Darfur, rebels from ethnic African tribes ignited the large-scale conflict in early 2003, accusing the Arab-dominated central government of neglect. The central government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias – known as Janjaweed – to murder and rape civilians and lay waste to villages.

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Nielsson
Sumaya shares a temporary shelter with her family in Kalma Camp, the largest camp in Darfur.

Currently the UN estimates that the conflict-affected population in Darfur stands at a staggering 3.2 million, about 1.4 million of them children under 18 and 500,000 children under 5. Over 1.8 million people have been forced to flee their homes and relocate in camps in Darfur, and more than 200,000 have fled across the border into eastern Chad.
Violence and insecurity continue to be a daily feature of life in Darfur, hindering food and relief aid to tens of thousands of people and forcing more displaced Sudanese into already packed refugee camps.

The end of childhood

When she still lived in her village Sumaya did the things that children her age usually do: she went to school, she played with her friends and she helped around the house. Since her arrival in Kalma Camp, however, Sumaya has become an adult overnight. Her parents work all day – her father as a tailor in nearby Nyala, the administrative capital of South Darfur, and her mother as an assistant at the Doctors Without Borders nutrition clinic inside the camp – and she is in charge of the household and her five younger siblings: 10-year-old Motasim, 8-year-old Motardar, 6-year-old Nadia, Baba and 19-month-old Abdul Albasit.

Overcrowding and poor sanitation make every day a struggle for survival at Kalma Camp – and the strain makes Sumaya look weary and older than her 15 years. On the patio of packed earth outside her family’s hut, Sumaya concocts meals out of the meagre food supplies she receives twice a month: wheat, beans, oil, salt and powdered food mixture.

“The food here is not nutritious,” she says, as she ladles a brown, watery stew into a large tin plate and her siblings gather around to eat. “In our village we used to eat lots of vegetables and fruits, but we can’t grow anything here.”

Temperatures can shoot up to more than 50 degrees Celsius, and there is no respite from the sun, which beats mercilessly on the dry, lifeless land. Amidst the stupefying heat, Abdul Albasit’s T-shirt, which bears a smiling sun and the inscription ‘so hot’, seems an especially cruel joke.

The rainy season brings a much needed break from the dust and the heat, but the lack of drainage means that the shelters become flooded and disease is more likely to spread.

“During the rainy season, we get wet even when we are inside the house,” says Sumaya. “There are many holes in the plastic roof, and we sometimes wake up at night all wet and have to sit up for the rest of the night…until the rain stops.”

Outbreaks of dysentery and cholera are a constant feature of life in the camp, and aid agencies are desperately trying to supply enough medicines to keep people alive. All of Sumaya’s siblings are sick, bleary-eyed, and listless. Baba is malnourished and has constant diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain.

There are no toys for the small children to play with. Their most prized possessions are the bottles of medicine resting atop a bag of flour in one of the few shaded spots in Sumaya’s home. The children fight over them, eager to drink the sweet, colourful medicine. They all take turns playing with a box of vitamin supplements featuring two smiling, blond children. They turn it this way and that, as if looking for a magic potion within that might make their lives here better.

“I want white people to know”

Between her house chores Sumaya finds time to attend English classes and to help out at a ‘child-friendly’ centre set up in the camp. Drawing, playing and other activities at the centre aim to restore a sense of normalcy in the lives of children who have seen their relatives die, their houses burn and their lives fall apart.

Sitting on a straw mat at the centre, their faces caked with the dust that permeates the air, children draw – mostly the scenes of devastation they have witnessed. Sumaya goes from child to child, praising their artwork and encouraging them to talk about their experiences.

A young boy draws a car, a plane, a helicopter dropping bombs, a house and a mosque.
“This is my house,” he tells Sumaya. “This is the helicopter that shot on my house and on the mosque. It dropped bombs on us.”
“And the plane? Whose plane is that?” asks Sumaya.
“It’s the white people’s.”
“Why did you draw it?”
“Because I want the white people to know about what happened.”

When children are caught up in conflict

Despite the hardships of daily life in Darfur, Sumaya and her siblings consider themselves fortunate in that their parents are alive and they can pursue an education. Only half of the 16,000 school-age children in Kalma Camp have access to schooling, mainly because of a lack of qualified teachers.

Nevertheless, the millions of children who, like Sumaya, find themselves in the midst of armed conflict often bear the brunt of its deadly effects. An estimated 90 per cent of global conflict-related deaths since 1990 have been civilians, and 80 per cent of these have been women and children. In a typical five-year war, the under-five mortality rate increases by 13 per cent, and adult mortality increases even more.

Even if they are not killed or injured children are always among the first affected by conflict: they can be orphaned, abducted, raped or left with deep emotional scars and psychosocial trauma from direct exposure to violence, dislocation, poverty or the loss of loved ones.

“When we first started the drawing classes at the child-friendly centre, the children kept drawing horses, camels, guns and burnt houses,” says Sumaya. “These days, they are seeing new things like mobile phones, learning new games and new songs so they can put the bad things that happened to them out of their minds for a while.”

Sure enough, a child sitting on the ground is busy making a mobile phone out of clay. Small pebbles become a keypad, and a straw serves as an imaginary antenna. The boy looks at the finished product, dials an imaginary number, raises the phone to his ear and smiles proudly. 

Sumaya also likes to think about good things, about her life before she had to flee her village: her family’s farm, her friends and her school. But for now, a dusty mud shack with its plastic roofing is all she can call home.




Fifteen-year-old Sumaya, her parents and her 7 siblings came to Kalma Camp almost two years ago after the Janjaweed militia attacked their village.

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