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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Darfur aid worker's diary XIX
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.

Monday 30 August

The Darfur area is so neglected - but it is worse than I expected.

It really hits you though - it is like going back to the Stone Age.

Map of Sudan showing location of Darfur
The big difference between the north and the south is the weather conditions. It is very dry in the north and the rains are very serious in the south.

There is a serious drought here.

In this area people do not gather together in IDP [internally displaced person] camps. They are IDPs - but they are scattered.

People have left their villages of origin. They have all scattered into the bush, into riverbeds.

They are hard to reach.

People who made big money are living on grass, they give up their BMWs to fight here as a rebel
There has been no infrastructure in the region since the last government came to power in the 1980s. There are no roads, no health clinics, no schools - almost nothing.

The area is completely cut off. We have to find our way through dry riverbeds, with the advice of local people.

A local woman asked me if I could accompany her to a house nearby, where there were two children who had been injured in air strikes.

I feel bad I couldn't check, but I had to get back before dark because car lights put people at risk. And I am not a doctor.

I am sleeping in dry riverbeds so as to be a little bit out of the village. There are still air attacks and the villages are easy targets.


People are very disappointed in the government. One of the reasons the SLA [rebel group] is standing up to the government is because of the unbearable situation.

They faced bombings. Later, the Janjaweed [pro-government militia] came to loot - and took everything.

The people here have one thing in common - the desire to live in peace and freedom.

Highly educated people - university students and lawyers - all came back to Darfur from abroad or from Khartoum to fight for justice.

Even people who made big money are now living on grass.

Sunday 29 August

Since time is running short and there are only two of us (Dr Samson and me), we have to strategise on how we can reach all the villages in the area for the polio immunisation.

Logistics are a challenge. We brought 64 gallons of diesel, but it is going down rapidly due to the distances we travel in the sand.

A boy receives his polio immunisation
Up to 50,000 people were targeted for polio immunisation
It has been decided that we should split up and I'll be responsible for the training of teams in six villages. I have a teacher - who is now out of a job since no schools have been operational since last year - and someone who knows the villages with me to assist with the identification of the immunisation teams and the translation of the training.

In the early morning, Dr Samson gives me a quick training on polio immunisation. It feels strange. I've never imagined myself a health worker, but now I will be - at least for one day.

The training sessions are not going too badly I think and we manage to locate many people for the training although it takes ages for them to show up as they are working in the fields or hiding in places far away from the villages as they are afraid of attacks.

In the meantime, we look out for pregnant women in order to give them an Insecticide Treated Net (ITN) to prevent them from malaria, which is one of the main causes of death in the Darfur region.

Danger in the dark

Boba is the last village where I'll give training today. Arafa, a mother of five tells me that she came back to Boba only four days ago. After her village was attacked in January, she fled to Chad, but now the rains are coming she decided to come back to Boba to cultivate her land.

With anger in her voice she explains that during the attack (from the air and land) many people were killed and the attackers took all of their cattle and also kidnapped four girls and 12 boys.

Immunisation training is given to local people
Training is passed on to local people
Only two girls returned after they had been gang-raped for many days and also two boys managed to come back. She is afraid the other children died.

A friend of hers stayed in Boba after the attacks although she would have preferred to leave the place. The sad reality is that she could not leave her two children behind.

They got injured during the bombing and are not able to move at all. They only breathe and eat a little. She could not take them with her and did not want to leave them behind.

No doctor has been to this faraway place and they ask me if I can have a look at the two young children.

I feel so incredibly useless as I'm not a doctor. There is nothing I can do but to take this information back with me and find out who would be able to come to this place - two days' drive from al-Fashir, the capital of North Darfur.

When we drive back we are trapped in a small haboob (sand and rain storm) and we do not manage to find our way or previous tracks to get back to our base.

It is getting later and later and we still try to find our way while it's becoming dark.

This is getting very dangerous and I'm happy that we eventually find a small village were we can spend the night. The car seat proved to be a reasonable bed.

Saturday 28 August

This is my third day in the SLM/A area and we have achieved a lot over the last couple of days.

The trucks with supplies arrived yesterday - it took them two days to do what our 4x4 vehicles could do in nine hours.

There is not a great deal of choice when it comes to truck rental companies in Darfur so it was no surprise Unicef ended up with two old trucks of which one had to stop every other hour to cool down the engine and the other to top up water.

Polio vaccines being delivered by camel
All forms of transport are used to deliver the polio vaccines
All young men staying in Muzbat village are mobilised to assist with offloading the trucks. The tent Unicef brought is set up to store our medical and educational supplies.

The school in Muzbat was damaged during the attacks last year so the Unicef mobile school tent came in very handy.

The cool boxes with ice packs, vaccine carriers, polio vaccine, mosquito nets, medical supplies, school material and high-energy biscuits are stored in the tent and guarded 24 hours a day.

When the polio and measles campaign is finished the community can use the tent as a health clinic or a school.

Today we begin with the first phase of the actual immunisation campaign with full support and commitment from community leaders and SLA. I drive with my Unicef colleague, Dr Samson and some people from the area to three villages, which takes us an entire day.

When we enter a village it usually seems completely empty.

Only after a while some armed men approach our vehicles and our local friends explain the objective of our mission.

In each location we check if there is any one who has experience with immunisation and we try to locate people that know how to read and write.

In each of the villages we give training on how to administer the polio drop and how to register it on a tally sheet.

Searching for patients

Each immunisation team consists of two people: one who administers the polio drop and one who tallies how many children have been reached and for how many it was the first time.

They receive a vaccine carrier with ice packs and vaccine sufficient to immunise at least 200 children.

For the first time I feel really vulnerable being out here
The teams go out in search of people in the surrounding villages to give the children up to 59 months two drops of the polio vaccine and a pack of high energy biscuits.

Sometimes the teams have to travel far by foot, donkey or even by camel. Their trip can even take up to two days to make sure that all children in the area are immunised against polio.

The villages in the SLM/A areas have not had access to health care for many years. Also other services such as water and education are practically non-existent.

Schools (built by the community) have been bombed and books and furniture burned.

The lack of food is a main issue in this area and cattle have been stolen or have died due to the drought or poisoned by the phosphor from the Antanov bombs.

At night, while sleeping in the Wadi (dry river bed) I hear planes flying over. I try to listen where they come from and if there is any bombing as I know that this is not the sound of a commercial flight┐

For the first time I feel really vulnerable being out here. Not because I'm the only woman and there are many armed men who are sleeping not too far away from me, but because of the planes. I stay awake and try not to think about what might happen.

Thursday 26 August

This week will be the week of a very exciting event: Polio immunisation of 50,000 children in the part of North Darfur, held by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) rebels.

I leave al-Fashir together with my Unicef colleague Dr Samson - a cheerful Nigerian doctor.

At the last moment the World Health Organization is unfortunately not able to join us, so we decided to go together with two vehicles packed with 65 gallons of diesel, food and water enough for the four of us.

Rebel holding shells
Rebels say their village was bombed
Two trucks loaded with vaccine carriers, vaccine, ice packs, malaria nets, medication, energy biscuits, school material, etc. left the day before, but since they don't drive very fast we arrive at our destination one day before them.

Just after crossing the "border" between the government territory and the SLA-controlled area we are confronted with a fully armed vehicle with about 15 armed young men.

The overtake us with an enormous speed, stop in front of us and the guys jump out pointing their guns at us.

My colleague talks to the guys and phones the commander as the SLA agreed to the immunisation exercise in their area. Everything is fine, we shake hands and some of the men give me a tour through their village.

I have a look at the school which was hit by a bomb last year. I can see clear traces of attack by air and have a look at the explosives and the burned houses.

Four wheel drive vehicles on sand
Even four wheel drive vehicles have trouble with Darfur's terrain
Unfortunately I can not stay too long as we need to get to our destination, and to find our way is a real headache. There are no roads, only some faint tracks and the area is very sandy.

Even with our four-wheel-drive vehicles, we have a hard time getting through.

Just before dark we reach the village were we are going to spend the night. We make our camp in the Wadi (dry riverbed). I take a grass mat, a sheet, a blanket and a sweater as pillow and have a wonderful night in this full star hotel.

Instead of counting sheep, I just look into the sky and count the stars before I go to sleep.

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