If a person has experienced a lot of suffering for a prolonged period, one may expect it to leave a mark. If there has not been effective outside assistance in bringing peace to one’s homeland, one might at least be cautious towards outsiders. Not so with the people we have met and seen so far. We have been warmly welcomed by every family we visit, and treated as though we were part of their community. Everyone has been kind: giving interviews, showing us around their homes, even creating quiet spaces in which to talk more intimately. The latter is no mean feat — almost the moment we arrive at the place where Darsalam, Sumaiya and others live, at least 15-20 kids appear and start walking with us, even following us into the compounds of people’s homes. From the looks of it, it is a very tight-knit community.
The kids are amazing at dispelling sorrow and despair, without even trying. As we are about to leave for the day, they gather about the car. As I walk to the car, they come to shake or hold my hand, smiling and saying good-bye. I try to hold everyone’s hand as I don’t want anyone to feel left out. It also makes me very happy. On our drive through the camp or back to home base, we pass many kids playing or just spending time outside. Almost all of them wave to us. At first I was not used to it, but now I wave back at everyone. How important and meaningful it is, the simple act of greeting one another and wishing each other well.
All this is in stark contrast to the reality of life in the camp. In past years, watching the i-ACT videos in the US, I sometimes found myself thinking that life in the camps looked “not so bad”. I now know that this is an utterly false impression; no doubt due to my ignorance, the resilience of the refugees, and the warmth they project.
Hamara (the lady in blue) has to sleep on the sand inside her tent, and it makes her sick. Sleeping on the sand must be a common practice, as we have seen far more people than beds. The inside of the tents we’ve visited was unbearably hot; they have no windows and are made of a fairly thick material which traps heat. The material is opaque and there are no transparent parts to let light through, so the tents are invariably quite dark inside. Everyone talks about needing more food, and needing better food. People may be getting rations equivalent to their daily calorie requirements, but this doesn’t account for quality nor variety of food. From what we’ve seen, they do not fare well in those regards. Imagine eating the same grain, mixed with millet, cooked with oil, for 4 years. The NGOs face huge challenges and constraints, sustaining hundreds of thousands of people in an environment that is not only as tough as it gets operationally, but also presents mortal danger. I’m sure they work very hard, but the fact of the matter is, this is no way for a human being to live for long periods of time.
There are also the less tangible things, which are just as vital to human life and inflict just as much suffering when not present. We ask people what their occupation was in Darfur. All we’ve asked were productively employed: farmers, teachers. In the refugee camp the majority are unemployed. Part of displacement is separation. Families are split up over distances that while relatively small in a modern, stable environment, can mean worlds apart where there is no communications infrastructure and where physical travel involves mortal danger.
Hamara asked us when we will bring peace to her country so she can return. “This year or next”, she asked. We, at that moment the representatives of the international community, had nothing much in way of a good answer. “We will take your message to the world and ask that peace be brought to Darfur.” I wonder how she felt.