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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Darfur aid worker's diary XVII
Sacha Westerbeek is one of the people trying to help some of the one million Sudanese people who have fled their homes in what the UN is calling "the world's worst humanitarian crisis".

She is working for the United Nations children's agency, Unicef, in Nyala, southern Darfur and is writing a diary for BBC News Online about her experiences.

Saturday 21 August


It is a hectic morning in El Fasher - North Darfur. I arrived here only yesterday and am now working on the visit of Belgian Minister of Defence Andre Flahaut and over 20 Belgian journalists. Yesterday I was told that they would arrive at 12:00, but now hear that it is back to its original schedule of 10:00. Since it is the military I'm afraid that it will be strict 10 and not "African" 10, so I need to rush.

The Belgian Army Airbus C-130 brought - for free - some 19,560 kg of medicines, medical equipment and school supplies for Unicef with a total value of $96,981.

Other agencies such as WFP will also be able make use the free services of the C-130 for one month to provide relief to some 1.2 million people who have been displaced in the Darfur Region.

While the minister is in discussion with the Wali (Governor), Unicef, WFP and UNOCHA, I leave with the journalists for Abu Shouk IDP camp. This camp, which is on the outskirts of El Fasher, was set up in April and hosts now around 44,000 people.

The major causes of displacement of the people in North Darfur are due to: successive drought, recurrent tribal conflict, deteriorating economic conditions and the attacks on villages. By now, it is estimated that approximately 370,000 people, IDPs and host communities have been affected by the fighting in North Darfur.

The journalists are eager to go to the camp as they have effectively only two hours in Abu Shouk. They expect to see misery, suffering, children with flies on their eyes and dying of hunger, but what they are confronted with is one of the "example camps" in Darfur where most of the services are in place.

It is of course far from perfect as it is meant for temporary settlement and there are still some gaps - mainly in the areas of water, sanitation, education and health care, but the camp looks very well equipped and organised and every shelter has plastic sheeting.

WFP is distributing food to the IDPs and queues of men and women are waiting for their monthly food ration, which consists of: oil, salt, wheat, sorghum, CBS and lentils. The media dashes off for interviews and the Unicef supported school next to the distribution point is so kind to allow some of their staff to translate.

A small incident occurs when some of the IDPs break through the rope, which was set up to protect the WFP distribution point, and try to offload a truck themselves.

Within 15 minutes three vehicles with armed police arrive to confiscate the looted goods and to restore peace and order. They seem to be very efficient as one of their vehicles arrives with some bags of foodstuff.


I take the journalists back to the C-130 and try to explain that not all IDP camps are so nicely set up as Abu Shouk and that there are still thousand of IDPs and affected people in need of assistance.

The Darfur crisis has not yet reached the end and they need our continued assistance to be able to survive the years to come.

Wednesday 18 August

I was supposed to be back in the office on Tuesday, but since it took us about two days to reach Kubum, which is in the dry season a trip of five hours, we are still on the road. The first night we slept in a school, the second night in an empty building and last night we made use of a Government house with enough beds for half of the group. We have now only 19 people left (four vehicles) as two vehicles went back due to the severe challenge of the mission.

Yesterday we made an assessment of the situation in Kubum and today we are in Um Labasa. Unicef and Action Contre la Faim weigh and measure children under the age of fvie and focus group discussions are being held with Sheikhs (leaders of a tribe in a certain village) from the villages that are affected by the conflict.

In the IDP camp of Kubum consists of people from about six surrounding villages. They say that there are about 3,000 IDP in this camp, but I wonder if it is not closer to 1,500. The rest of the people that left their village (about 6,000) are said to be in Kalma IDP camp. It is not clear how many went to Kass, although this would be more logical as this is more close to their villages of origin. Perhaps it has to do with the insecurity in this area.

It is sometimes difficult to get answers and this is not always because of language barriers. How many are in the camp, how many sleep in this shelter, where is your husband, what are your most urgent needs, when did you arrive, when will you go back, is it safe in and around the camp, how do you earn money, what do you eat, what do you do with the food and non-food items received, how much food do you need per month?

So many questions and many answers lead to even more questions. After two days of interviews I feel I have less knowledge about the IDP situation then ever before.

One thing I know for sure, even though the IDPs in these small camps - Um Labasa has only 426 IDPs - do not have the same level of services as the IDPs in the big and more accessible camps they seem to be more content with what they have.

The main issue that is recurring is the fact that they feel dependent. Before the conflict they owned land and were able to generate income out of agriculture or cattle.

Now they work for others and the host community will not allow them to cultivate the land for their own benefit. They ended up in a situation were they lost their house, their land, their cattle and their dignity.


At the end of the day I meet a young boy: Imad.

He is very shy, has bright eyes and has the most beautiful smile you can imagine.

Imad has never attended a regular school
He came with his father, brother and two sisters from Shataya after their village was attacked.

His mother died last year - of what he doesn't know. Imad has never attended a regular school but goes to the Koran school once in a while.

It is strange; I've actually never felt the urge to "save" a child I meet during my travels, but this time I can't let go of this boy. It is with pain in my heart that I get in the car and have to leave him behind.

Our eyes cross for the last time when the car accelerates. I wished I could take him with me. I wished that I could give Imad a better future; I wished that I would forget about the implications it would have to bring this young child into my life. I wished - I wished that I had been stronger.

Now, I'm far away from Um Labasa and Imad has not been out of my mind. I feel sad and wonder if I should have done something.

Sunday 15 August

It looks like a real expedition. With six vehicles, of which two are from Unicef, we leave Nyala for wha we plan will be a three-day trip to an area southwest of Nyala. The final destination is Kubum, about five hours drive in the dry season. The main objective of the trip for Unicef is to assess the nutritional situation of children in this area, which is hardly been reached by humanitarian organisations.

Crossing a Wadi
The rains make the roads slow going and at times unpassable
The road is disaster. We have to conquer Wadi (river) after Wadi; several times we get stuck in the mud and have to use the winch to get the cars out of water and mud; we swirl around trees, slide and end up in 360-degree circles when the car loses control of the slippery surface. I'm sure that my family will not be happy reading about this, but yes, this is the reality.

During one of the many stops when we have to pull and dig out some of the vehicles I meet an old lady. She tells me how her village was attacked and that many of her family members - especially the young men - were killed.

I ask her why she did not flee with her remaining family to one of the IDP camps nearby.

"I'd rather die in my village", she answers, "I've lived here my entire life and I'm not planning on leaving. I'll stay here until I die a natural death or until I'll be murdered".

All I can do is to wish her luck and I give her some bread and cheese. She offers me a strange looking brew that smells like sour milk and I politely refuse. After a warm embrace we part.

On the way I see amazing caravans of nomads. Men, women and children are passing by on camels; the women are protected by a colourful enclosed canapé that protects them against the sun and the rain and the boys follow while herding hundreds of goats and camels. A group tells me that they are from the Taisha tribe and they travel around and beyond Sudan.


It is raining "cats and dogs" when we reach Diri, a small settlement with an empty looking Zouk (market). I get out of the car to explore with some of the drivers if we are able to cross the Wadi near this village.

I explore the terrain barefoot and my trousers are above my knees - very indecent. When we eventually reach the Wadi it turns out that the water reaches above my head - and even above the drivers' heads. It doesn't look like the rain will stop for a while so we better make our camp in Diri.

I spend the afternoon drinking tea and talking to the people in Diri. I meet a shop owner who speaks English rather well. He went to school in Nyala and his sisters are in Khartoum. He is the eldest and had to come "home" to Diri to run the shop and to support his family. I feel sorry for him, as I can't imagine that he ever dreamt of becoming a well-educated shopkeeper in the village of Diri.

The village elders show us the school were we are to spend the night. The benches are piled up in the back of the classroom and we spread out our mats, blankets and mosquito nets. The campfire keeps us warm, as the evenings are pretty cold out here. The goat we eat tastes good. I know it is fresh, as I can't help looking at its head, which lies next to the cooking pot.

Friday 13 August

I wake up in Zalingei to a cosy atmosphere in the room I am sharing with my two colleagues, but that soon disappears at the smell - and sight - of the toilet. Since my time in Africa I prefer going in the bush then going to an enclosed toilet to be honest.

A woman breastfeeding twins in Darfur, Sudan
A woman breastfeeding twins at Zalingei hospital
During breakfast we meet the commissioner from Zalingei, who is very concerned that the international community only focuses on the IDPs (internally displace persons) and forgets about the development of the country as a whole.

The commissioner is afraid that if we "spoil" the IDPs with schools, clinics, water and food they will have no reason to return to their villages.

Unicef is in Sudan to support all vulnerable women and children, regardless of ethnic background, colour and religion.

The issue of reconstruction, rehabilitation and repatriation, I reassure him, will definitively be taken into account.

No permission

The rest of they day I spend in the hospital in Zalingei where I see many ill and malnourished children and have a long talk with a woman with four gunshot wounds.

Water supply for Zalingei hospital, Darfur, Sudan
The water supply for the hospital in Zalingei
We then left for Nertiti, where we had planned to stay. Some 25,000 IDPs stay here and we wanted to see the team that runs the newly opened clinic.

But unfortunately our pass only indicated clearance to travel from Zalingei to Nyala and not our stop-over in Nertiti.

Without permission from the government we are not allowed to stop.

The authorities in Nertiti understand that a mistake has been made, but only allow us to stay for 10 minutes.

Thursday 12 August

I leave Nyala for Zalingei in west Darfur, which is an area where Unicef has not yet been able to support many activities besides latrines, basic drugs and medical equipment.

One of the reasons is the limited capacity of implementing partners, such as the government and national and international non-governmental organisations (NG0), but also because of rain and insecurity.

We are going to assess the situation in the town and the two IDP camps.

I arrive in Zalingei at 1600 and we have to look for accommodation.

The guesthouse has had no water for a while and we are happy that the commissioner of Zalingei offers us government accommodation.

The government and Unicef have a good and longstanding relationship so we are welcomed with a clean bed and a wonderful supper of beans, meat, chicken, local cheese, salad and bread.

Evening classes

In the afternoon we try to make the most of the couple of hours of light left and we leave for a tour around town and the two IDP camps.

The IDPs who had settled in the centre of town were relocated to a camp on the outskirts of town as the situation had become overcrowded and unbearable.

Adam Adam, a teacher in Darfur, Sudan
Adam Adam's bicycle helped save his life
The total population in the area probably exceeds the estimated 80,000 made up of 30,000 local residents and at least 25,000 in each of the two camps.

Unicef has unfortunately not yet been able to support education projects in this area, but I have a look at a school supported by a local NGO.

Even though it is late afternoon, it is busy at the school and I'm surprised to see so many bicycles.

Mr Adam Adam, a teacher at the school, explains it is because there are evening classes for adult men.

When I ask about the women, the men laugh: "No, no, this is only for men. For women - too difficult."

No pay

Adam and his 26 colleagues are having a difficult time as they do not yet receive a salary for teaching.

Reluctantly he tells me that they ask for money from their students in order to buy food and other items.

IDP girl in Darfur, Sudan
Many children are on school waiting lists in the camps
I wonder how much they ask for and receive - knowing that there are about 800 children at intermediate level and over 1,000 at primary level.

There are clearly not enough classrooms, which each take up to 100 students, and there are still over 1,650 children on the waiting list, including two of Adam's children.

He and his wife and their three children came to the camp about two months ago.

Adam fled his village in February in fear of his life. He managed to get away on his bicycle.

This life-saving bicycle and the set of clothes he was wearing on the day of his escape are his only possessions.

He wants to go back to his village as soon as it safe - back to teaching Arabic, history and a little bit of English, he says with a smile.

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