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UNHCR mobile teams seek out vulnerable people in Darfur


UNHCR mobile teams seek out vulnerable people in Darfur

UNHCR teams travel around Sudan's troubled Darfur region in search of vulnerable people - including the elderly, raped women and unaccompanied children - who need the protection of UN and other aid agencies.
25 May 2005
UNHCR staff listen to the problems of displaced people in West Darfur's Abu Sroug village.

ABU SROUG, Sudan, May 25 (UNHCR) - The people of this desperately poor West Darfur village did not celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed last month with their traditional Islamic fanfare. The men felt it was too risky to stay together in the mosque reading the Koran all night, or to slaughter a cow in the morning for the ritual village feast.

As morning dawned, instead of a joyous meal with dancing and drumming, some 30 gun-wielding members of the Janjaweed Arab militia - already infamous for driving more than 2 million Dafuris from their homes - rode into town on camels and horses to terrorize men, women and children on the pretext of searching for a stolen camel.

"It's just an excuse," said Haroun Adam Abdalla, the town's Arabic teacher. "They came purposefully because it's a holiday. If they found people celebrating, they would attack them," despite the fact that the Janjaweed are Muslims just like their victims. Everyone in the village just froze in silence until the Janjaweed rode away without harming anyone this time.

"I feel unhappy," said Haroun a few hours after the daunting display by the Janjaweed, who control the countryside of western Sudan's Darfur region and are accused of killing up to 400,000 people "Today is supposed to be a day of celebration, but it is the opposite. We are living in fear."

It's the type of story Maeve Murphy hears all too often as she travels around West Darfur for the UN refugee agency, looking for particularly vulnerable civilians who need the protection of UN and other aid agencies.

A community services officer, Murphy searches out elderly people, women on their own, raped women, and children who've lost their parents, and arranges help for them - either from UNHCR, or from other UN agencies or non-governmental aid agencies. In the past few months, the UNHCR office in El Geneina, capital of West Darfur, where Murphy works, has undertaken more than 100 missions to seek out those most in need in a desperately cruel part of the world.

On this day, not much of a holiday after all, people displaced from villages around Abu Sroug sit on the ground in the shade of huge trees and pour out their woes to Murphy. Abu Sroug, two years ago a town of 5,000 people, has seen its population more than triple as people driven from their villages sought relative safety here. Now they're facing a lack of food and water, and even adequate shelter.

The story of the cancelled religious feast particularly concerns Murphy. "All the social structures these people once had have disappeared," she says.

By destroying village life and forcing nearly 2 million people into instant slums on the outskirts of Darfur's bigger cities, the Janjaweed have re-engineered society in this troubled region, one the size of France.

Not only have they accelerated a process of urbanization that is taking place all over Africa, they have destroyed much of the culture and traditional rites of the displaced people - people who identify them as African tribes, in contrast to the "Arab" nomads who are persecuting them.

"We are concerned about a whole range of social problems," says Murphy. "Marriages are not taking place because families cannot afford dowries. There are whole villages where no one got married in the last year. Because of wide-scale rape, babies are being born without fathers and without documents."

Both the elderly and their younger protégés lament that older people are losing their honoured place in society, unable to guide their families or hold traditional ceremonies where they pass on their wisdom and culture. A few elderly women, unable to cope with life in camps for displaced people, have gone home to abandoned villages where they face a precarious future - and perhaps a solitary death.

"It's quite a concern," says Murphy. "Who can provide food for these elderly? Who looks after them?"

On her recent trip to Darfur, Acting High Commissioner Wendy Chamberlin underlined the importance of the work of UNHCR mobile protection teams like Murphy's.

"They go out of the camps, go out of the population centres, get out into the desert and drive along the dusty wadis (dry riverbeds) to find isolated groups of refugees who have returned from Chad, and IDPs (internally displaced people) who have very little to survive on, and to bring them the kind of help they need for their survival," Chamberlin said.

She said she was "haunted" by the desperate plight of Darfur's people, at "how thin the margin of survival is for these people and how important the work of the UN refugee agency is."

Despite the fact that violence continues in Darfur, "there are encouraging signs that in some areas the situation is getting better," says Laurens Jolles, head of UNHCR's operations in Darfur. "Some people are embarking on small reconciliation efforts with neighbouring villages to agree on how to live together and how to solve problems before they get out of control.

Displaced women in Abu Sroug make flat baskets for threshing grain. This handicraft is one of the few parts of their culture they have been able to hold onto amid the Darfur conflict.

"People are also slowly starting to travel more on the roads between villages where previously you saw no one," Jolles continued. "There are also people who - despite their experiences - are returning to the villages they came from. Some are looking forward to receiving seeds so they can plant before the rains come in the next month or so. In addition, humanitarian agencies are starting to look at what can be done in the villages people fled, rather than just assisting them in the places they have sought refuge."

In Abu Sroug, though, in the school where he teaches Arabic and math, Haroun Adam Abdalla has yet to see any such improvements. He ticks off a list of traditional ceremonies that have been lost in the tumult of the last two years - funerals, 40-day mourning periods, elaborate weddings and honeymoons.

"Gradually so many of these habits are going because we cannot help it," he says simply. "Now people are afraid to come together for ceremonies. It's too dangerous."

By Kitty McKinsey in Abu Sroug, Sudan