The haboob was blowing again. The desert wind began lightly, filling the air with the scent of dust. Local Chadians and Sudanese rushed about the tiny outdoor market, tying turbans around their heads and faces, readying themselves for the onslaught.
At first, the winds relieved the scorch of the southern Sahara sun and heat. Soon, though, the airborne sand became a blasting force, compelling even donkeys and goats to cower against its fury. I wrapped my scarf around my head and mouth, thankful for sunglasses covering my eyes, and sought cover in the nearest tent.
I greeted my Sudanese hosts politely. Their place of asylum was humble but welcoming. They smiled at my broken Arabic. I wrapped my scarf tight to hide my hair; my synthetic shirt was clinging inappropriately to my body, and I felt self-conscious. They served me tea and refused my offer of payment. When the wind subsided some, I raced back to the United Nations’ guesthouse to wait out the rest of the storm. Such was life in Bahai, eastern Chad, on the border of Darfur.
Darfur, in western Sudan, is about the size of Texas and is home to several racially mixed tribes of African peasants and nomadic herders who identify as Arabs. Both groups are Muslim.
In early 2003, frustrated by poverty and social neglect, rebel groups in Darfur launched an uprising against the government in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The government responded with a scorched-earth campaign, bombing villages by air and murdering civilians on the ground with the help of a government-sponsored Arab militia, the Janjaweed.
Most children live in refugee camps like this little girl. She does not attend school, has no shoes and wears tattered clothing. She works every day with her mother, gathering firewood, doing laundry, constructing mud walls and preparing food. She has no foreseeable future and no guaranteed source of security or food, yet she smile and laughs in joy.
The result has been what the U.N. has labeled the world’s largest present-day humanitarian crisis. For four years, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia have used rape, forced relocation, organized starvation and mass murder to kill more than 400,000 people and displace 2.5 million others. Thousands continue to die each month from violence and disease.
I traveled to Darfur in March 2006, approaching through Chad, in order to cross the eastern border with Sudanese rebel groups. I spent six weeks in eastern Chad and Darfur, visiting refugee camps, talking to aid workers and refugees, meeting with rebel leaders and touring a small part of Darfur. The situation was far beyond my initial comprehension.
Not only are the rebels fighting the Sudanese government in Darfur, but neighboring Chad is also fighting a proxy war with Sudan across that line in the sand we call a border. Chad is supporting the Darfur rebels. The Sudanese government, in turn, supports rebels in Chad who have been on a nine-month drive to take control of the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, attempting to overthrow the longtime despotic leader Idriss Deby.
Trapped in the middle are the people—millions of people.
A refugee camp of 40,000 people is a profound sight. Imagine the combined populations of Sausalito, Mill Valley, Larkspur and Corte Madera spread out among a sea of tents and sand roads stretching endlessly into the scalding environs of the Sahara. People there struggle to live through each day.
Children wait in lines for water, tend livestock or forage for miles around the camp in search of firewood. Women are bent over building mud walls around their tents for protection from the severity of elements as well as from unwelcome nighttime visitors who threaten them and their children. Rape is common. Men distribute food, teach in schools, and work in the medical clinic, desperate for a way to provide for their families.
The enormity of the desperation—and what would be needed to correct it—overwhelmed and depressed me. The waste of human potential and the cruelty of human beings to their own kind is staggering. Tears came easily and too often. I cried while listening to stories of the refugees, visiting piles of sun-bleached bones and touring abandoned schoolhouses whose walls were spattered with blood.
El Hadj, age 55, was a schoolteacher in Darfur until the violence began. His village was bombed at night by Sudanese government airplanes and he and his family were forced to flee. They fled for days through the desert until arriving on the border of Chad, where they lived from some time in a refugee camp; however, the conditions were very difficult and El Hadj could not stand the tedium of not working. He moved his family out of the camp into the small village of Bahai, where he now has a small shop and is working as a merchant. He hopes to return to his former life and resume teaching some day.
Despite all this horror, this suffering, this loss, this terrible trauma, the Sudanese people were strong, beautiful and determined to survive. They live without possessions, sleep in donated tents and subsist on sorghum and beans. Yet they are quick to offer their last morsel with a smile, a joke and a laugh. They maintain their individual dignity and their hope of returning one day to their homeland.
These proud, generous people would no longer exist without the help of the international community. We are their only chance at survival. That is the message I had to bring home. Beyond the politics and the power-hungry brokers, 2 million people are clinging to survival and they need our help.
After witnessing which groups made a difference, photojounalist Alissa Everett suggests contacting the
following nonprofits to help:
• Friends of the World Food Program, friendsofwfp.org
• Africare, africare.org
• Catholic Relief Services, crs.org
• Doctors Without Borders, doctorswithoutborders.org
• HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), hias.org
• IRC (International Rescue Committee), theirc.org
• Save the Children, savethechildren.org
• Save Darfur, savedarfur.org
• Human Rights Watch, hrw.org
• International Crisis Group, crisisgroup.org