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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Darfur aid worker's diary XVIII
Sacha Westerbeek
Sacha is sleeping in riverbeds to avoid air strikes
Sacha Westerbeek is working for the United Nations children's agency, Unicef, in Sudan's strife-torn region of Darfur. She is writing a diary for BBC News Online about her experiences.

She is currently travelling in the rebel-held north of the region, supporting Unicef's immunisation campaign.

The polio campaign is targeting some 50,000 children in the north and a similar campaign against measles starts next week, with the aim of reaching 150,000 children.

Wednesday 25 August

I decide to go with some journalists to the Children Spaces in Abu Shouk camp, run by Enfants du Monde (children of the world) with assistance from Unicef.

It is 0830 and the children are looking curiously at us, the new visitors, while they are washing their hands before they are allowed to enter the big tent.

Girl playing in a refugee camp
The children can forget about their plight for a few hours
Today is the fourth day that the centre is open to children in the age categories four to six and seven to 13 for a new day of fun and learning. The centre has two shifts: from 0830 to 1100 and from 1130 to 1400.

It is planned that the two age groups have their activities in two separate localities, but for now they share one centre as the second tent is still under construction.

This morning there are 28 pre-school children and 18 older out of school children present, however the maximum number will be between 50 and 60 children in each group.

While talking with the staff I carry Selma, an autistic girl around who does not want to let go of us. Sebastien, the project officer for Enfants du Monde, explains that I should turn her around so she can see her environment and not only me.

It is a wonderful morning and I learn a lot about the how the games and play activities contribute to the psychological development of children. The games that are being played here have no winners or losers and each and every child has a chance to actively participate.

The days are well organised and structured. The first thing the children do is wash their hands with soap. Many have never done this before and it is to be hoped that they take this habit with them and regardless of their age, positively influence their family members.

After the hand-washing ritual, the children meet their mates in their activity group and sing some songs. After a while it is time for story telling for about 20 to 25 minutes. The story is about a grandmother who tells about her life and how to behave well. It sounds very worthy to me, but the children love it and even the small ones don't move for almost 30 minutes.

The last activity for today is games and plays: making arty objects such as camels and houses with modelling paste, ball games, a swing made out of a jumping rope, identifying different types of animals made out of plastic etc.

One of the small boys is handicapped. He has only one leg, but he joins in all the activities. When the group is standing up, he can sit on a jerry can. I have to smile when I see that it has the Unicef logo on it.

Small things can make a big difference in someone's life. It is 1100 and the fun comes to an end. The children wash their hands before they go back home. At least, these 46 kids were able to forget about the distress they went through for about three hours.

And even for me it proves to be very therapeutic. The daily problems and stress seems to be non-existent while I am in this protected environment of the children centre and I wished I could stay here all day long. To see the smiles on these children's faces is all that counts.

Tuesday 24 August

Today UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visits al-Fashir and when I get to the airport half the town and many dignitaries are lined up to greet him.

When the plane comes to a stand still the backdoor opens and the accompanying journalist rush to the front to fight for a good spot to film Mr Straw striding down the steps.

Dignitaries line up at al-Fashir airport in Darfur, Sudan
Most of al-Fashir came out to greet Jack Straw
The first hour of his visit is dedicated to the required courtesy and protocol and then he visits Abu Shouk refugee camp at the outskirts of al-Fashir.

One of the highlights of the visit - at least I think - is a stop at the feeding centre for critically ill children run by Action Contre la Faim (ACF) and supported by Unicef and other partners.

Although it only opened its tent doors on 26 June, already 450 cases have been taken care of by the centre and at least 170 cases of malnourished children have been discharged.

Presently there are 90 malnourished children in day care. Each tent hosts 15 cases, and mothers are only allowed to bring along one additional child, as there is not the space to host entire families in the feeding centre's compound.

This is quite a big problem for the mothers, who have to leave their other children alone during the hours that they are at the centre.


On a normal day there are about six to seven new cases of severely malnourished children admitted and a couple of more complicated ones are referred to the hospital in al-Fashir.

Adam, a malnourished child at Abu Shouk camp in Darfur, Sudan
Adam needs to put on at least 2kg before he can be discharged
The ACF staff visit the referred cases on a daily basis.

One of the cases in this centre is Adam. He is said to be 17 months old, but when you look at him you can simply not believe that - he is so thin and fragile.

Like so many children who are severely malnourished, Adam has long eye lashes and his hands and head look too big for his tiny little body.

He arrived 13 days ago and his weight at the time was 4.1kg; now it is only 4.2kg.

He can only be discharged when he reaches 6.7kg. Adam has still a long way to go.

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