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Last Updated: Monday, 28 June, 2004, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Darfur aid worker's diary

Marcus Prior
Marcus Prior: 'The scale of the need... is overwhelming.'

A crisis is looming in western Sudan's Darfur region, where some 1.2 million people have been fleeing attacks by Arab militiamen.

Aid worker Marcus Prior travelled with the World Food Programme (WFP) to visit the refugees caught up in what the UN has described as the worst humanitarian situation in the world.

:: Sunday 27 June ::

0800: Manon from Logistics, newly arrived in Al Junaynah, has already brought her feminine touch to the shared accommodation, taking down all the sheets that hang across the windows as curtains and sending them off to be washed.

0900: My return to Khartoum is confirmed by the presence of my name on today's flight manifest. With the number of humanitarian workers in Darfur increasing all the time, seats on WFP planes are at a premium.

1400: Our flight routing takes us back through El Fasher. From the air I get a perfect view of the sprawling maze of white-sheeted roofing that is Abu Shouk camp. It is, in every sense, monstrous. 1730: Touch down in Khartoum. Not quite home, sweet home - but it'll do for now.

:: Saturday 26 June ::

0730: The donkeys are back with more water. This morning I'm feeling about as clean as a greasy wok, so the strip wash is heaven-sent.

0800:The rains meant yesterday was cooler than usual, but today it is business as usual. A clear blue sky and a fireball sun.

0900: A frustrating morning, largely spent waiting for the necessary clearances to head out of Al Junaynah.

First we have to secure the approval of the local branch of the Government's Humanitarian Affairs Commission, then complete the UN's own security procedures. In a place as unpredictable as Darfur, it's reassuring to know your absence come curfew will be noticed.

1300: Head north-west out of town towards the border with Chad. Another appalling road, which all but disappears when it crosses wadis [dried river beds] that flooded in the recent rain.

1400: Notice for the first time during my travels in Darfur that there are people preparing the fields for planting. I'm told the local African Ereinga tribe have struck a deal with their Arab neighbours and as a result the area is relatively calm.

1415: As soon as you think you've worked Darfur out, something else crops up to confound you. Suddenly we are in the middle of Birdageig - a camp for over 10,000 people. Some 15% of the people here are from Arab tribes - victims of war like any other.

The Ereingas say they have been targeted by the Arab Janjaweed militias; the Arabs say the rebels have forced them from their homes.

Between them, however, the inhabitants of the camp have set up a security committee and as a result people are safe to cultivate fields within a 10km radius.

But living conditions at Birdageig are even worse than those I witnessed at Riyadh camp yesterday. When the rain falls, EVERYONE in Birdageig will be soaked to the skin.

I escaped the formalities with the community leaders and went on a brief wander through the camp. Two women approached me, each motioning to a tiny baby strapped to their back. I'm not a medical expert but both looked extremely ill. It's to save young lives like these that WFP is doing its best to get food to those who need it as quickly as possible.

1800: Fell asleep writing this. Feeling beaten up and ready to head back to Khartoum.

:: Friday 25 June ::

0300: I've been lying on this hard wooden bed for four hours trying to get to sleep. Have tried every position possible and a few previously thought impossible.

0800: Water arrives by donkey, enough for a strip wash. I am already up and dressed so settle for brushing my teeth.

0900: Reports are coming in of trucks carrying WFP food struggling to cross flash flooding rivers after the first rains yesterday. The reality of running a relief operation during the rainy season is immediately hitting home.

1000: It is Friday - the weekend in the Muslim world - so the WFP office is quieter than usual but still very much at work. In a very real sense it never sleeps, with a round-the-clock radio room tracking the comings and goings of west Darfur's humanitarian community.

1400: Head to Riadh camp on the outskirts of Al Junaynah which more than 5,000 people now call home. The camp is in a state of recovery after yesterday's rain, most have no plastic sheeting for shelter and fled to friends or the nearby school when the downpour began - many simply got soaked. Community leaders tell of how they fled attacks on their villages "without even a spoon". An old woman tells me she has been working in town as a bricklayer to earn money to buy food. She is carrying two small bags of green leaves - all she can afford. I'm told that armed men on horseback continue to loot livestock from the camp.

1800: A brief walk to the market to buy bread where I get double the amount my colleague Danny managed at lunch for the same price. I think briefly of boasting of my bartering skills but one mouthful is all I need to know that my bread is stale.

:: Thursday 24 June ::

0615: Wake up in the compound. It is already sweltering hot. Check boots. No scorpions. I haven't seen any yet but you never know.

0900: We hit the road again to make a brief return to the Abu camp where a food distribution has started. One woman has attempted to write the number one in front of the number four on her ration card in a bid to claim she has 14 children to feed. It doesn't work.

Burial in Darfur
Mourners bury a young victim of malnutrition in the refugee camps
1100: I take a short flight to Al Junaynah, capital of West Darfur. The small plane feels like it is doing somersaults on the desert thermals. I hate flying.

1230: I'm offered "breakfast" at the WFP office. As I haven't eaten anything yet today I go for it. Again, camel-foot bread and beans with a tomato and onion sauce. It even had some feta cheese in it. I don't where that came from.

1400: Afternoon spent in discussions with WFP staff over immediate priorities. New pockets of displaced people are being discovered all the time. The number in Kulbus, north of Al Junaynah on the border with Chad, has swollen from 6,000 to over 20,000 in the past two months alone.

1715: It is raining - absolutely chucking it down in perpendicular sheets. In a normal year it would be good news - the promise of new life. But heaven only knows how the thousands in the camps around town without proper shelter are surviving.

2145: In the absence of television, thank heavens for my satellite radio - live commentary on England versus Portugal in the Euro 2004 quarter-finals. Whoever coined the phrase "it's a small world" got it wrong. Tonight, miles from anywhere, the world feels bigger than ever.

:: Wednesday 23 June ::

0900: There are no shops in the Abu Shouk camp outside El Fasher, capital of North Darfur - only one or two lean-to constructions selling very basic products. Abu Shouk is home to over 40,000 victims of the Darfur war. Set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross, with neat rows of tarpaulin tents, it is one of the better camps. Even so, the scale of the need - and of the displacement of people - is overwhelming. Malnutrition rates amongst under-fives are already at alarming levels despite regular food distributions by WFP. Therapeutic and supplementary feeding is due to start next week.

Darfur refugee
Those who have made it to the camps are the lucky ones
1230: After a quick late breakfast of beans and local bread, shaped like a camel's foot, our three-car convoy sets out for Kutum, 98km to the north. Even in our desert-eating land-cruisers, the journey takes three hours. WFP trucks laden with food take an entire day to reach Kutum from El Fasher. And that's before the rains arrive to turn the road to muddy mayhem. Before we had even reached the trench that surrounds El Fasher to prevent rebel attacks, the road was already impassable in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Sudan's desert, with its golden sand streaked with red, broken only by the odd village, would be breathtaking were it not for the dark shadow of human rights abuses that hangs over it.

1545: We arrive at Kutum. It is set on the banks of a river that flows for a few days each year if the residents are lucky. Some irrigation is possible and small plots along the riverbank hold the promise of a healthy harvest. Like El Fasher, Kutum has been a magnet for those fleeing the militia attacks in North Darfur.

Over 10,000 people now live in the Kasab camp, a short distance out of town.

As we arrive, a well-organised distribution of WFP food by a partner charity, Germany's Agro Action, is taking place.

Long lines of women wait with their ration cards in hand. There is an almost total absence of young and middle-aged men.

One woman started to tell me what had happened.

"They killed half the men in my village when they attacked."

Other people gather round to back her up. "The Arabs came on horses and camels, and there were planes and helicopters as well. They killed 38 people."

As she spoke, a plane droned overhead and everyone looked to the sky, the look of fear on their faces.

I went to visit a small, inadequate shelter that had become home to a mother and her four children.

The eldest is clearly severely mentally ill. As we talked, she stopped to reach for a small plastic bowl filled with water and poured some of it into a cup.

It was all she had - but with the temperature at over 45C, she offered it to us. It was hard to know which way to look.

2100: Bed in the compound. The mattress is thin but it is not bad and at least it gets a bit cooler to sleep.

The BBC's Christen Thomsen
"The scale of the crisis is easy to see"

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