Children carry the keys to the homes they fled in Jebel Marra, Sudan

As the situation in Darfur deteriorates, families are fleeing in search of a refuge. Among the some 20,000–30,000 people crowding into the tiny village of Sortoni is a boy who carries a token of his home around his neck.

By Heidi Lehto
Three children smiling in the sun, Sudan
UNICEF Sudan/2016
22 March 2016

JEBEL MARRA, Sudan, 22 March 2016 – From between the branches of a tree at the entrance to the tiny town of Sortoni pokes the face of a young boy. He wants to know my name. More importantly, he wants me to know his name.

He is El-Fateh, and he is 12 years old. ‘El Fateh’ means victor, or conqueror – a name that seems so unbefitting of this shy boy hiding behind a tree trunk. El Fateh is one of more than 13,000 children who are seeking safety in this valley that was until recently devoid of life, except on the UNAMID* site. Now, Sortoni is packed with people who have fled 64 villages in the Jebel Marra area for fear of the intensifying conflict in this part of Darfur.

Shelter from attacks

Sortoni has become an ad hoc camp of an estimated 20,000–30,000 people like El-Fateh, people who have fled the fighting in their nearby villages. Darfur – the home of the Fur people – has seen intensifying ground and air attacks since mid-January.

Nuzzled in between the mountains of the infamous Jebel Marra, the forsaken village of Sortoni is host to mainly children, women and elders. The residents have pitched makeshift shelters of twigs driven into the ground and covered in a mosaic of discarded plastic and torn fabric. The hastily constructed huts are no match to the cold, dusty breeze against which people huddle with their livestock.

El-Fateh’s story

El-Fateh tells me about his journey to Sortoni. He never lets go of the hand of his best friend – the only one he has in this strange new situation.

“We came here, me and my father, mother, grandfather and my older brothers, weeks ago,” he says. “We heard the bombings, and escaped before anything bad happened to us.

“I was sent back, to fetch the seven cows we had to leave behind. But they had been taken.” El-Fateh gestures to show that he returned to Sortoni empty handed.

Even with their livestock looted, El Fateh’s family were lucky to have made it to safety without casualties.

Other families in the camp have suffered losses, with dozens of children still missing and many more separated from their families. Given the volatile situation, we ask El-Fateh whether he was scared to go back to his village alone. Surrounded by his peers, he denies that he was afraid, but his story speaks to how it felt. “On the way, I went to the well. I saw [men with guns] and ran away,” he continues. “I hid behind the mountains.

“Here in Sortoni, we are not so scared. Except when I hear the hissing sound of the bombs. Then, at night, I run and hide in between those rocks.”

Navigating Sortoni

The site at Sortoni is a cramped shantytown in the making. UNICEF, as part of the first multi-agency humanitarian team to come to assess the situation, is navigating a maze of families, of children scraping for food, of donkeys, and, in the absence of any facilities, of open defecation fields. This valley is not prepared for an influx on this scale. It has no clinics, no schools, no areas for children to play in, no shelter, no prospects.

The only token of safety is the 250-strong UNAMID team site. Those who fled their homes crowd the compound in hope of security, and of water, which the peacekeepers and police force bring in from their water point some 5 km away. The orderly queue of tarnished jerry cans adjacent to the empty distribution point indicates that needs are far greater than supply. All eyes are on us; the expectations to respond to the alarmingly intensifying humanitarian emergency are palpable.

  • Learn more about the situation for children in the Sudan
Protecting children first

As the people of Jebel Marra try to overcome the challenges facing their community yet again, UNICEF and its humanitarian partners are trying to scale up their ability to protect the children of the Sudan through emergency relief programmes.

Family tracing and reunification (FTR) systems, community-based child protection networks and child-friendly spaces are being set up to harness the communal efforts and resilience.

What the future holds

We are talking to El-Fateh in an open field, and a steady stream of young children leading donkeys that carry water on their backs are making their way back before the nightfall. A group of boys kick a bruised tin can around in a desultory manner.

“There is nothing to do; there is no school,” says El-Fateh. “Back home, I had many friends, but here only one. With him, we talk, sometimes we go collect grass for the donkeys, and we go to the well to bring water. We just stay here, and listen to the radio for news from my home.”

The boy sighs, fiddling with the key that hangs around his neck. Like so many of the children, he carries the key to their family home, in hope of return some day. But with no end to conflict in sight, El-Fateh knows he will be staying in Sortoni for quite some time. “I want to go to school, to learn English, Arabic and mathematics. I want to be a teacher one day,” he notes with determination, holding on to his friend like a lifeline.

At the heart of the climate of hatred and instability are the children. As in so many conflicts, it is the most vulnerable who bear the greatest burden. For, what can be the future of a generation deprived of education, care, food and safety? The damages inflicted by this conflict, by the culture of violence, have long-term impact for the youth paving the way, through distress and deprivation, to recovery. They have the daunting task to mend the broken society, so that no child should ever again seek safety in the caves of Jebel Marra mountains.

*African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur. Learn more about UNAMID.