With some local help, Oxfam's Melinda Young dons a traditional Sudanese dress called a "tob". Credit: Oxfam
Melinda Young worked closely on Oxfam’s Darfur response

Five Years into the Darfur Conflict, Three Staffers Look Back

“When I left Darfur in mid-2005 people were optimistic that the conflict might end soon. It was a shock to come back 18 months later and find no progress.”
Melinda Young
Oxfam

Melinda Young – Senior Program Coordinator for Darfur

Melinda worked on Oxfam’s Darfur response from the beginning of 2004 until the middle of 2005, and returned again at the start of 2007.

“A woman came up to me in tears and described how her village had been attacked by militia and she had watched her child burn alive. That was four years ago, shortly after I arrived in Darfur, but I still remember it vividly today.

Then, the conflict was at its height with violent burning and looting of villages and mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The first time I went to Kalma camp in South Darfur it was just a piece of wasteland, with the earliest arrivals taking shelter under plastic bags and twigs. We went to assess the conditions there and we thought the area could shelter 27,000 people at most. Little did we imagine that Kalma would eventually provide refuge for over 100,000 people, or that over two million would in time live in such camps across Darfur. Nor did people expect the camps would still be here now. They were only expected to be short-term.

Oxfam’s initial response focused on providing water and sanitation. In a major humanitarian crisis, toilets are not always the first things that spring to people’s minds! But they are incredibly important. In the early days, women in the camps kept stopping me and telling me what they really needed were toilets. The women had nowhere private to go so they had to wait until dark—which exposed them to the risk of violence. We were also very worried that diseases such as cholera would spread quickly in the new, crowded camps without proper sanitation. The conditions in Kalma camp at that time were horrific.

One of my proudest moments in Darfur was in early 2004 when we constructed the first trench latrine in Kalma. It was like a festival, with young children watching bemused and amazed as their mothers joined in and helped dig the pits. Although the latrine was just a simple pit with some plastic slabs, we all knew it was such a big step towards making people safe.

When I left Darfur in mid-2005 people were optimistic that the conflict might end soon. It was a shock to come back 18 months later and find no progress. The conflict has changed, but not improved. There are fewer attacks on civilians now, but there is little left to attack. Many villages have already been burned : They can’t be destroyed twice. It is still far too dangerous for people to go home. Meanwhile, security for aid workers is much worse than it was before and it is getting harder and harder for us to operate.

Oxfam’s work in Darfur has changed enormously over the five years. At first, we were just trying to keep people alive another day by delivering aid as quickly as possible to people who had lost absolutely everything. But now, as the situation has changed and the conflict goes on, our work has had to change, too. If someone has had no access to their farmland for the last five years, how can they support their family? People do not expect to leave the camps anytime soon, so we are working more to provide them with livelihood opportunities to earn an income.

If there is an end to the conflict soon there will be enormous challenges to overcome. People are still clinging to their last hopes for peacekeepers who can protect them. But they have been hoping for this for the past five years and patience is running out.

Resolving the Darfur conflict will need to incorporate Darfuri traditions, but also look to the future. Traditional mechanisms such as compensation for the people who have had families killed and homes burned and looted, are crucial to any sustainable peace deal, yet are often overlooked and misunderstood by international mediators. But so much has changed now and we can’t just go back to how things were in Darfur before the conflict.

There are new challenges. Compared to 20 years ago, there are now far more people and animals competing for dwindling land and resources, and there is far less rainfall. Traditional nomadic lifestyles are under threat from the changing environment and urbanization, as many people now only feel safe near big towns. Darfur needs responsible and representative government to create new policies to deal with these changes. All this needs to be addressed if a solution is to be found.”

Hussaam Eddin Mirghani – Team Leader, Abu Shouk Camp, North Darfur

Hussaam started work with Oxfam in early 2004 and has been part of our Darfur response ever since, working in camps and villages throughout Darfur.

“I began working with Oxfam just as humanitarian organizations started scaling up the response to the enormous needs in the camps here. I had just graduated from university and my first job was drawing pictures for Oxfam to use in campaigns to educate people in camps about staying healthy. The pictures were used in camps all over Darfur, and since then I’ve worked for Oxfam in six different camps and towns.

One of my proudest achievements over these years was our fight against cholera in Gereida camp—the biggest in Darfur sheltering over 120,000 people. Most of them arrived during just a few months in 2006. The camp grew rapidly, conditions were very basic, and there were very few organizations working there. We worked with the other aid agencies and with the community itself. It was one huge effort, but together we succeeded and nobody died of cholera.

Now the conflict has been going so many years we have to be more innovative in our work. People have heard our health messages many times—we can’t just keep visiting homes and telling them the same thing over and over again. We have to find new ways to get our messages across—working with youth groups, teachers and religious leaders to educate people through music, drama, art, and at prayer sessions in the mosques.

The security problems have made things increasingly difficult over the years. It was hugely disappointing that after all our good work in Gereida, we had to close our office there because of attacks on our staff members. We worked there in a very close team and we wanted to expand our work into the rural areas and villages nearby. It was terrible that we had to pull out—but the insecurity made it impossible to continue.”

Mahmoud Ali Mahmoud – Assistant Funding Coordinator for Darfur

Mahmoud joined Oxfam in North Darfur in early 2004 as a public health worker in Abu Shouk camp, before becoming assistant program manager of Oxfam’s work in Kebkabiya. He now works in close liaison with all our field offices throughout the region.

“When we started work in Abu Shouk camp, it was like a desert. There were no water sources, no food, nothing. We dug wells and latrines and set up sanitation systems, but most of the people arriving from the villages didn’t know how to use the latrines. We had to teach them. After just a few months they quickly learned and there was a big improvement in the camp.

It has been great to see the community learning and taking responsibility. At first there were lots of Oxfam staffers: The community just didn’t know what to do and they needed us to show them. Now we have fewer staff in the camp, as communities participate much more and are now able to manage their own facilities.

Abu Shouk today is totally different from then. It is much more organized, and people have much more water and assistance. As the conflict goes on, people’s security is still a huge issue, but many of their other concerns have changed over the five years. Earlier, people were focused on how to get food and water. Their aim was just to survive another day. Now people are thinking longer term—how to give their kids an education, how to build houses, and how to earn an income. We are constantly developing our programs to meet these needs and make sure that our work really benefits people.

There have been so many achievements to be proud of over the past five years. Most of all, I am proud of how Oxfam is perceived by local communities throughout Darfur. They know there is no political agenda to our work, and that we try and work with whichever communities need assistance—no matter what their tribe. My biggest regret is that the great work we have done in remote villages around Kebkabiya has been so limited because of the security situation, which makes it too dangerous for us to leave the town. I hope things improve so we can work in more villages again as well as in the camps.”

Story by Oxfam America, April 2008.

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Darfur Crisis