Notes from the field: After 16 years a return to West Darfur reveals hope and the promise of peace
Abdulkadir “AK” Musse first traveled to West Darfur in 2004, this year he returned to find many changes and a new optimism following the recently signed peace agreement.
Abdulkadir “AK” Musse, Senior Emergency Coordinator for UNICEF’s Emergency Division, first traveled to West Darfur in March 2004 at the peak of the Darfur crisis. “We did not have a big operational presence in West Darfur at that time, only one staff member and one vehicle. And that staff member had only just arrived as they were on a mission themselves.”
When AK arrived UNICEF had just rented its first office and in four months they grew quickly grew from a staff of two to more than 60.
One thing that was familiar to AK on his return to West Darfur was the large population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) there. Due to conflict and recurring violence, entire villages were displaced and ended up living in camps. “ Some of the IDP camps used to be on the outskirts of town, the town has grown so much now the camps are within the city or at the edge of the city,” says AK.
Just two months before AK arrived, in July 2020, more violence flared up causing 2,000 homes to be destroyed. As AK witnessed, the devastating impact of violence and conflict is not a distant memory but still a lived reality in West Darfur.
Currently, IDPs fleeing recent violence have taken shelter in government compounds and 36 schools inside the town. Not only are these locations unsuitable to support the basic needs of the families living there, such as sanitation, but they also are not available for the host communities to use. More than 20,000 children will be affected and unable to return to school if the IDPs are not relocated.
Local authorities are trying to relocate the IDPs from schools and government premises to nearby IDP camps. UNICEF has advocated with the Governor that any relocation should be voluntary and that IDPs should not be removed by force.
“It is sad to see this same displacement is still taking place. It really has been a lost generation for some. I met some young people who were two or three years old in 2004, many married young as child marriage is a problem there. Many are parents now also raising children in the camps,” said AK.
While some children who grew up in the camps have been able to make a life for themselves, like the Omayma Abdullah. Omayma, who is 25-years-old, arrived at the IDP camp as a 9-year-old, today she is happily a student at Omdurman Islamic University in Omdurman.
But many were not so lucky. “Many of the young people I spoke told me that if they had been in a stable situation they could have gone to university, owned livestock, been able to farm,” said AK.
Right now, their options are limited, and most can only go into town and try to pick up daily labourer jobs. Almost all are still relying on humanitarian agencies for all of their basic needs.
“I met a young girl, about 10-years-old, who told me that she does house cleaning and laundry in the host community earning as little as 200SDG ($0.20 cents) to support her family instead of going to school.”
In West Darfur, child labour is a difficult issue to tackle. It is regarded in a positive light as a non-stigmatized type of work especially for girls, and the hazards linked to that are a matter of a serious protection concern. These hazards include humiliating or degrading treatment including physical and verbal violence, sexual abuse, carrying heavy loads, handling dangerous items such as iron, insufficient and inadequate food, and long working days. These factors have an irreparable psychological, moral, and physical impact on the development, health, and wellbeing of a child. UNICEF is working to link this issue with the denial of the fundamental rights of the child, such as access to education and health services, the right to rest and the right to play.
Hope on the horizon
In August 2020, Sudan’s transitional government signed a peace agreement with an alliance of rebel groups in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. Curious to see what they thought of the new agreement, and what it would mean for their lives, AK asked several IDPs about the peace deal.
“After over a decade of living in the IDP camps, what struck me is that they all have the dream to go back to their land. They still hope to go back to their old villages – that is if they can get peace and security and reestablish their lives,” he remarked.
AK traveled to West Darfur to meet with the newly appointed Governor to advocate for the protection of the most vulnerable there. UNICEF is working with the government to find sustainable, and safe, solutions for the recently displaced as well as supporting plans to reopen schools in the area. UNICEF and partners are also supporting the host community with providing basic services inside the camps including health and nutrition interventions, water, sanitation and hygiene, education and child protection activities.
“There are big expectations from the local population and IDP community for the newly appointed Governor. He is from West Darfur and he told me himself that now while they have made a good step forward now that the peace agreement has been signed a lot of work still needs to be done for peace to materialize,” he said.
AK acknowledged this big step and expressed the desire that UNICEF and partners can support the region’s peacebuilding initiatives and play a role in ensuring that the hopes and dreams of the people of West Darfur become a reality.
On his next trip back AK anticipates even more progress. What won’t change is the commitment and dedication put forth by his UNICEF colleagues in West Darfur, whether it be one colleague or 70, to make lasting change and impact for the most vulnerable populations there.
UNICEF’s work in West Darfur is thanks to the generous contributions of the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the Sudan Humanitarian Fund (SHF), European Union Humanitarian Aid, German Cooperation, USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA), German Cooperation and the China International Development Cooperation Agency.