An oasis for malnourished children in the Darfur desert
By Steinar Sveinsson, UNICEF Sudan.
Kalma camp, South Darfur, June 2009. The road – or path to be more precise – is bumpy and irregular and now and then the driver has to accelerate rapidly to avoid getting car embedded in the yellow sand. One doesn’t expect there to be much to be at the end of this path although other vehicles can occasionally be spotted, their drivers focusing on the rough path ahead.
Leading from Nyala, the state capital of South Darfur and its population of around 400,000, this desert road leads to Kalma camp for families who have fled their homes during the years of conflict in Darfur. More than 100,000 people live at the other end of this unimpressive path, displaced, vulnerable and reliant on humanitarian aid.
Some 1.4 million people are displaced across South Darfur, assisted by humanitarian agencies that for over four years have provided a vital lifeline to those most in need. However, the suspension of 16 aid agencies, half of which were operating in South Darfur, by the Government of Sudan in March has posed new challenges for those who remain.
Negotiating trust in a volatile environment
In Kalma, the main challenge has come from the camp community itself. Distrustful of government partners, the community leaders – or sheiks – have insisted that the expelled NGOs be permitted to return and continue providing clean water, health care and other basic services. Unwilling to risk an altercation with camp residents, aid agencies have had to stand on the sidelines and negotiate safe access.
The 18 motorized water yards in Kalma have not been fully functional since the expelled NGOs left – now only 28 hand pumps serve the whole population.The 18 motorized water yards in Kalma have not been fully functional since the expelled NGOs left – now only 28 hand pumps serve the whole population. It is estimated that camp inhabitants are provided with less then 4 litres of water each per day, far below the global standard of 15 litres. To get more water people often dig into the river bed, despite the enormous risk of contamination.
Access to safe drinking water and practicing correct hygiene and sanitation practices are of utmost importance – without this package, and there are increases in many of the diseases affecting children. To address this immediate need in Kalma, UNICEF has taken on the role of negotiating access for partner NGOs between the camp community, the government and aid agencies willing to work in the camp.
While the issue of water remains under discussion, there is another oasis of hope emerging within Kalma. The camp’s Therapeutic Feeding Centre, which provides life-saving treatment for children suffering from malnutrition, was formerly managed by one of the expelled NGOs with UNICEF’s support. When the NGO was forced to leave, its 80 local staff and the mothers and children who relied on its services were – in the words of UNICEF’s Dr. Godwin Orkeh – “left in the dark.”
“UNICEF realized that the Therapeutic Feeding Centre had to be kept operational and that UNICEF would have to play a leading role in its operation,” he explains. “But in the meantime, the local staff showed unique determination, strong technical skills and commitment to the community by keeping the centre open, working without knowing if they would get paid and uncertain as to what the future would hold for them.”
Facing the hunger gap
Malnutrition is a critical issue as Darfur enters the annual hunger gap and rainy season, when coping mechanism amongst displaced families are under most pressure and the threat of disease rises. Children call fall victim to acute respiratory infection, malaria, cholera and diarrhoea – and once sick can become malnourished, leaving them even more vulnerable to diseases. It’s a potential fatal cycle that Therapeutic Feeding Centres are designed to break.
Given the determination of the expelled NGO’s local staff to maintain services, UNICEF provided the necessary supplies – including therapeutic foods and milk – along with technical guidance to keep the centre operational. It also helps arrange transportation of the local staff and volunteers to and from the camp, as well as providing cash assistance by way of incentives to the local staff.
Fouad (all names have been changed in light of local sensitivities), a logistic assistant and Mohamed, a store keeper, have worked in the Kalma Therapeutic Feeding Centre for the past four years. They are both local staff members of the expelled NGO and live in Kalma, after being forced to leave their villages themselves because of conflict.
“First, after the NGO left we used the supplies that still remained. UNICEF realized that we were running out of supplies and committed to give us the supplies we needed and to support us,” says Mohamed.
“Kalma is in many ways a special camp,” he adds. “There is much tension here and because of the security situation supplies cannot always be sent to us so we need to have a stock.”
A commitment without demandsDespite the challenges, Fouad is adamant that there was never any question of stopping work, even if his employer had left and salaries would not be paid.
“We are used to problems,” he says. “We are not working to receive money but to help our people and families who live in this camp. This is about children, not money.” “We are not working to receive money but to help our people and families who live in this camp. This is about children, not money.” Jaffar is one of those children. Just 13 months old, he was brought to the centre by his mother – one of 38 mothers now attending the centre with their malnourished children. “He was very sick,” she explains. “He had diarrhoea, he was vomiting and couldn’t eat. Here he received medicine and now he is doing much better and eating well.”
Jaffar probably owes his life to the dedication of people like Fouad and Mohamed, people who say that this is all about children, not money. People who in the midst of the sandy desert of South Darfur are maintaining an oasis of hope.