Darfur Diary 2: Dr Paula Farias - "The burnt villages seem like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle"

Friday July 4

The burnt villages ... from above, seem like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Geometric shapes which once used to be walls and houses, today turned into ghost villages.

The single-engine plane, which is carrying us, is getting closer to Al Fasher, capital of Northern Darfur. It is flying over a desert sprinkled with burnt villages that from above, seem like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Geometric shapes which once used to be walls and houses, today turned into ghost villages.

The structures hidden under hay roofs can be seen clearly now. And there will not be enough hay available at least until next autumn to repair the buildings, so it is likely that nobody will come back until then, if by then there is peace. In the desert one cannot survive without a roof sheltering you from a scorching sun.

Finally Al Fasher appears on the horizon and the Abu-Shouk displaced camp is like a sea of blue and white plastic sheeting where about 40,000 people crowd together trying to escape their fear.

The plane starts to fly down to the sandy town. Below, a world of sun and wind is waiting.

Saturday July 3

Whoever catches you will always accuse you of siding with the other warring party.

We are travelling north, to areas where nothing has been heard for months and where there might still be people left. We spend the whole day in the scorching sun.

On the way, we drive by a group of women going to the market with their donkeys carrying hay, just hay, as travelling with something more valuable can make you easy prey to robbery. This is why for months now they have not taken cattle or grain to the market. Nothing but hay.

It takes over six days to harvest and it is worth but a few dinars. This is war, rendering everything difficult. And why are women doing the work on their own? Here women do not smuggle, that is a man's job. And because men cannot go to the market. They would be accused of siding with the enemy. Whoever catches you will always accuse you of siding with the other warring party. And this is why the route is filled with women, travelling alone, with just bundles of hay on their donkeys, which will barely protect them from being attacked, or from feeling vulnerable in the midst of the sandy desert.

At midday we have an appointment with some guerrillas to negotiate permits that will allow us to go across a land exposed and prone to ambushes. We will have to keep strong hearts throughout this meeting.

They arrive in a Range Rover stolen a few days ago from a British NGO who were unaware or refused to be aware of the dangers on the road. Badly applied black paint tries to hide the logo of the unwary.

The group leader, a man in his fifties wearing a grey beard and an elegant bearing, smiles. And I wonder why guerrilla men always have smiling faces. A perfect English accent and his aristocratic behaviour give an anachronistic touch, which confuses us all. There is no problem, we will be allowed to cross, although, he says, we will probably find nobody in the villages, as they were all burnt a few months ago. People are in the 'wadis', dry river beds, where there are some palm trees and water is somewhat easier to come by.
We thank him for the information and set off towards the wadis.

When we arrive at the first wadi, the commander-in-chief is proven right. Nobody wants to go back to the villages. The Janjaweed are still attacking and people feel safer in the wadi. The rest of the day goes by without much ado.

Tuesday July 6

I listen to the explanation while I sweat out through all my pores.

Apparently the desert becomes covered in green after the rains, yet it is hard to believe. Anyway, the sun rises in Khartoum and there has been no rain so the desert will still be yellow and ochre, filled with light and sand.

We are travelling west amidst dead animals along the way. - "Killed by the Janjaweed?" I ask. "No, no, the rain," is the reply.

The rain? The first rains falling on the cattle which, with no reserves after a whole dry season in which food has been scarce, die, unable to cope with the cold of the night. I listen to the explanation while I sweat out through all my pores.

In the next village we find a herd, all dead and burnt. "The rain?" I ask. They laugh. "No, of course not, the Janjaweed now." I do not seem to grasp the patterns ruling this place.

Thursday July 8

I naively dare to ask why they have not gone to El Dur, where there is a health post and where there is an army unit and they will be safer. They keep silent while staring at me.

We go out on yet another sweep. There are three bottles of water now in my rucksack. Yesterday there was not enough water and the heat demanded more. Also some cheese that someone brought from Khartoum, as in the end, the journey always takes longer than expected.

We drive past El Dur. On the outskirts of the village there is an Army camp. They apparently were sent to the area to fight the guerrilla and protect the civilians from the Janjaweed. The truth is that a timetable has had to be set to go to the well separating the times the women and the military go in search of water, lest the latter should feel too 'protective'- so to speak.

A few kilometres away, there is a wadi full of people who have not received any food or support whatsoever for months. The village, on top of the hill, is burnt, of course, as are so many others. I sit under an acacia tree and I am soon joined by a group of curious women, and I seize the opportunity to ask a few questions. The same usual questions: Are there malnourished children? Have there been more dead than usual in the past months? Is there malaria? and so on Nothing seems to be working: They have no food; children die of diarrhoea and malaria, and measles too; the Janjaweed attack a couple of times a week.

And I naively dare to ask why they have not gone to El Dur, where there is a health post and where there is an army unit and they will be safer. They keep silent while staring at me.

Sunday July 10

On our arrival at Abdel Shakor, we are welcomed by a cemetery - a handful of stones marking the bodies. Someone says, "fresh graves, hot ashes".

We are awakened by shooting and a 'habub', a sand storm. The horizon vanishes and building and cars lose their contours while the whole world turns into blinding dust. The guy keeping watch posted behind a rock does not know whether you are friend or foe - or someone in between like us- and so he can be easily startled and prompted to pull the trigger with a nervous finger. Travelling in these conditions is also risky, just as it is for those travelling on foot or for the woman with a donkey carrying hay.

On our arrival at Abdel Shakor, we are welcomed by a cemetery - a handful of stones marking the bodies. Someone says, "fresh graves, hot ashes". As it seems, the village was attacked a few days ago. A woman explains what happened. Helicopters came thundering from the sky and the Janjaweed on horses, burning and slaughtering. Her husband and two children were killed. She still has two more children but no way to leave as their donkey was also killed. She hides her fear and waits. I offer her some dates while examining a baby born yesterday wrapped in cotton that a woman is showing me. And I know I should not say this but to me he already looks like a guerrilla fighter.

A helicopter can be heard in the distance and everybody runs for their lives and hide. It flies past though. Maybe the presence of international vehicles has made them change plans. Maybe they were only parading. Whatever the case, the guerrilla-face baby starts crying.

When we are about to leave another woman brings a child with a gunshot in his leg. It is infected. It happened a few days ago, the say, while point at the sky, probably explaining about the helicopters. I don't know what to tell her. We put the child and the mother in the vehicle to take him to town with us. His father is not coming, of course; he doesn't want to be accused of siding with the enemy.

When we go back to Khartoum, the sand storm is over and it starts drizzling. Perhaps tomorrow the desert will truly be green.

Wednesday July 14

He did not know this war was not a game. Maybe nobody explained it to him before.

A training field for one of the warring parties is located behind the Afhara hill. Someone from there is looking for us. Someone has been wounded and we are told to follow them. The fighter happens to be a 12 year-old boy, who got wounded during training, while playing the war game and his gun went off. He did not know this war was not a game. Maybe nobody explained it to him before.

Friday July 16

A whole year waiting and depending on external aid is still ahead of them.

We have opened a feeding centre in Zam Zam, a camp south of Al
Fasher, where 15,000 displaced people live. In just a few days the centre is packed. Hundreds of tiny children gathered together needing water, milk, and medicines to overcome their misfortune.

A battalion of Sudanese nurses diligently help us to measure them, weigh them and give them medication. But their number grows by the day. Crops are lost as people have not been able to harvest due to the attacks and now their only chance is to get food through the distributions conducted by the World Food Programme. A whole year waiting and depending on external aid is still ahead of them.

The sun is setting in Zam-Zam, and our fears are rising. Tea, 'Shisha' (a water pipe), and talking in whispers and vernacular languages that sounds like lullabies in the middle of a starless night. And night falls over a Zam Zam, which is awaiting many things, and among them that tomorrow may bring rain again to cover desert in green, at least for just a while.