Darfur's Darkening Horizons

Caritas Report Tells of Widespread Misery

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NYALA, Sudan, DEC. 22, 2004 (ZENIT.org).- The grimness of life in the refugee camps of western Sudan is taking on epic proportions.

«Perhaps it is only from the air — from the window of a plane or from a helicopter used to ferry humanitarian personnel — that it is possible to grasp the sheer enormity of what has happened in Darfur during the last 18 months,» said Chris Herlinger, field communicator of Caritas Internationalis and of Action by Churches Together (ACT), in a message sent to ZENIT.

«It is only from such a vantage point that a visitor can fully see how communities now hosting tens of thousands of Darfur’s internally displaced — cities such as Nyala in South Darfur and Zalingei and Garsilla in West Darfur — have been inexorably altered, their boundaries now expanded by the rows of thousands of tents and clusters of encampments,» Herlinger reported.

The author of the testimony recently completed a three-week assignment in Darfur, Sudan, on behalf of ACT and Caritas. The two institutions have joined forces to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

«It is also from the air that the scale of devastation inflicted on small villages — either from outright destruction or abandonment — is perhaps best evinced,» Herlinger said.

«Few villages in Darfur seem to have been left untouched by unwanted spasms of violence or social upheaval that caused nearly 2 million people to leave their communities,» he said.

The field communicator continued: «Scale, of course, tells only part of the story; the consequences of events have to be judged when seen up close, and on a recent afternoon, one of those villages — Jebel Bela, just outside the city of Garsilla — was eerily quiet: its pathways silenced, its homes damaged and vacant, its surroundings stilled.

«Moments like this form a mosaic of sorts — and from nearly three weeks of travel, observation and interviews in Darfur as the year 2004 came to a close, a picture emerges of a region that remains, by turns, violent, fragile, traumatized — even a bit schizophrenic.»

Non-Arab African rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms seeking more power and resources from the Arab-dominated government in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The government responded by backing an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, which is accused of targeting civilians in a campaign of murder, rape and arson in Darfur. The United States accuses the Janjaweed of committing genocide.

In Darfur, women live in fear of sexual assaults and violence as they leave the refugee camps to collect firewood needed for fuel.

«There are very, very, very many cases of rape,» said a humanitarian worker working with women in the Garsilla area. «It’s still a very serious problem; it’s a problem on a daily basis.»

If women feel the most immediate threat, men in the camps — small farmers and villagers, in the main, accustomed to an active life marked by the seasonal rhythms of tending land, planting crops and raising cattle — are now virtual prisoners of boredom. They have literally nothing to do.

This double affliction — a combination of inactivity and fear, of lethargy and helplessness, of past trauma and future uncertainty — is taking its toll.

«The people in the camps are stuck between a past they don’t want to remember and a future they cannot see or even glimpse,» said Anne Lise Fossland, country director for the Norwegian Church Aid, one of the implementing partners of the ACT/Caritas program in Darfur.

The World Food Program said earlier this month the war in Darfur has made it difficult to reach some 360,000 people in need.

In recent days, reports of armed clashes throughout the region continued to mount — fueling concerns that whatever humanitarian progress has been made faced new threats and potential obstacles.

«The nutrition situation is very delicate and very fragile,» a nutritionist working in West Darfur said as just one example of ongoing problems. «It could turn back within weeks to the situation it was six to seven months ago.»

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