The front door of the building is creaking with the wind, the donkeys are upset and hewhawing continuously and the dogs haven’t stopped barking since we got here four nights ago. But these aren’t the reasons why I am wide awake after a really long day in camps, little food and not very much sleep. It’s their faces and their stories. For the past four days, we have woken up, bumped our way to Kounoungo, and now this morning Mile, sat with refugees and listened to them. We have shared, either through video or our stories, your emotions and dedications with the refugees here. I have watched happy and excited smiles turn to more serious expressions as we ask them more about their homes and what happened. I have seen their tears and the hope that lies in their eyes as they ask us questions like, “Why has nothing happened? Why all the broken promises? Why hasn’t the security council done anything?”
It is the very harshness of this reality that makes me feel comfortable retreating with the children. I have always been the “aunt” that will babysit on the spear of the moment, even if I am trying to get work done, just to be around the energy of the youth. To laugh and play and sing and run and forget about all the broken parts of humanity, to just for a moment, be carefree. I tried to step out of this place of retreat today and talk to more women. To stay with their story, leave more moments of silence. I am still not comfortable holding a camera during a conversation or even being on camera for that matter.
Today felt very different from the days in Kounoungo and hopefully through this entry, you too will be able to feel it.
We are eight cars in the convoy this morning and of course we are last, ready to be picked off in case of a raid, or much more likely the car that misses the day in the camp if one of the vehicles ahead of us gets stuck crossing a dry wadi. We are in a flood plain so there are more trees and the “road” feels slightly more flat than the one to Kounoungo. I finally see up close the large bushes speckled red with white butterflies dodging in and around the thorns – ah, they are flowers, not berries, I can see for the first time!
We climb to the top of the small hill at the entrance to the camp. With 14,000 people, roughly the same size as Kounoungo, this camp looks much bigger, spread wide over 2 kilometers, and has a more permanent feeling. In this camp I continue to refer to the Darfurians as villagers, refugees has begun to feel a bit uneasy with me – like almost a continuation of the dehumanization of their people. Especially with such permanent structures.
We see almost no adults this morning as we wind between mud walls and homes. We cross the market and I come across to beautiful women, one carrying a new born and the other probably the age of Fatine from Kounoungo. Amira’s and her grandmother are on their way to register the new born. Without an official birth certificate, they do not receive an increase in food rations, which is already the case in speaking to several women. The grandmother, a midwife, wants only to return to Darfur. The second time today, but not the last the conversation goes like this:
“What do you do you in camp?”
Hands move away from her chest, palms flip up and her eyes get big, “Nothing, there is nothing to do.”
“What did you do in Darfur?”
“I was a midwife, I delivered babies. But can not here because they already have midwives. So I do nothing. Collect firewood. But it is very dangerous. Sometimes we get hit on the head, or raped.”
I am holding the camera, trying to focus in on her expressions, think of an additional question and empathize with her situation all at the same time. I put the camera down and begin to take photos of the now larger group of women who have gathered on their way to registration. This is my coping mechanism. I know they love to see themselves on the digital – and it makes me happy to see their joyful response – usually a shy smile and a hand covering their mouth. Next time, I think to myself, push your limits and stay with the interview. They wouldn’t be sharing if they didn’t want to.
In this same block we meet several others with the same story, most of them from the same village in Darfur. Two months it took them to walk here. We sit with Aziza and she offers us water mixed with something to make it sweet. I am paralyzed – what do I do? Gabriel is used to this and passes up the chance to drink it. She has so little and she has shared it with me. She asks me to drink it and smiles. I feel ashamed and rude not to drink her gift. To think that my health is above hers. I can’t remember turning down someone’s hospitality in the past. But I also have never been in a refugee camp. She smiles and asks why I am not drinking it, I skirt the issue as we rise to meet her neighbors, Omar and Leila, who also walked for two months with Aziza to get to camp.
Everyone in the car is quiet on the ride back to Mile. It is a long day for all – registration for all the aid workers and a lot of walking for us. One man who I met yesterday actually manages to doze off in the car – how I don’t know! Today is our last day in Guereda which means our last day in Kounoungo and Mile until we return in a few months. I feel like our work is not complete here. I want to go back tomorrow. I want to stay another day. I want to meet more women of the camp. I feel like we have not learned enough of their lives to share them. This solidifies my determination to return to our friends in Kounoungo and Mile. I make a promise to all those I have met, “I will not forget you. I will work tirelessly. I will return with pictures of your beautiful face so you can keep a copy. I will work for education and for the future of Darfur.”
The first part of today was spent mostly talking to the women of Mile. For the first time this trip we heard the stories of firewood. Aziza, a beautiful woman with a yellow scarf that occasional slipped from her head and silver hoop earrings, even motioned her hands to her head as she told us how dangerous it was to leave the camp. She has been here for four years. It took her 2 months to travel to this camp by foot, lorry, or sometimes by donkey. She wants to return home. We met a new mother, Amira, and her grandmother who delivered the baby here in the camps. They were part of the many who came with Aziza.
In this particular zone of the camp, there were so many who had arrived together. For four years.