Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 21 February 2006

Darfur, the place that shames us all


By Stephen McGinty, The Scotsman

Feb 20, 2006 — Twenty-one years of brutal civil war in Sudan, between the mainly Muslim north and the Animist and Christian south, lead to the terrible loss of one and a half million lives and saw a further four million people displaced. The situation in this unimaginably vast region, home to some 35 million, seems untameable. Just over a year ago, in January 2005, a comprehensive peace deal was signed, and yet the battles rage on in the western region of Darfur, as they have since 2003, between government forces and rebels who are demanding greater autonomy. The result of this persistent conflict? Tens of thousands more have been killed and another 1.5 million have abandoned their homes and fled in fear for their lives.

Following allegations of human rights abuses in the incendiary region of Darfur, Sudan last month withdrew its bid to be the next leader of the African Union. Many aid agencies have now withdrawn their workers from parts of Darfur. It was against this troubled backdrop that I visited Sudan with Paul Chitnis, chief executive of SCIAF, the international aid agency of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

Ours was a humanitarian visit: we wanted to see what we could of the increasingly tragic situation in Sudan first hand and to support the work of SCIAF and its partner agencies in the Darfur Emergency Response Operation.

We spent our first week in Juba in the south of the country, near the Border with Chad, and in Khartoum itself; the second week was spent in Darfur. Since I became a Cardinal in 2003, I have visited Rwanda and the Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria: I can honestly say, however, that Sudan is the poorest place I have ever seen, where 90 per cent of the population lives on less than dollars 1 per day.

Our visit took us to camps for internally displaced people, IDPs. These are quite distinct from the refugee camps, where people from outside the country are kept. In one such camp in Jebel Kujur, the people staying there were desperate to return home because of the appalling conditions in the camp and the activities of the "Lord Resistance Army", a particularly brutal rebel group. We saw and heard of abuses committed on them - ears and lips cut off, lips padlocked together, lashings on naked bodies and multiple rapes. Robert (not his real name) told us how his ears had been cut off close to his head, and how he struggled to speak through lips still scarred from the attempts to cut them off.

In Gabarona (the name means "forced out"), near Khartoum, we heard similar stories from people who were desperately trying to eke out an existence. John and Elizabeth were a couple who welcomed us into their cardboard house, where their three beautiful children - Michael, Joseph and Mary - played on the floor. They struggled to survive on GBP 1.50 per day.

During that week, we travelled across Darfur, frequently encountering IDP camps that were each as large as a Scottish town. On the UN helicopter flights or jeep journeys through the barren desert land, we saw the remains of burnt-out villages where cattle herds previously owned by the villagers were now being cared for by the Arab militias and treated as their own. Invariably, in the IDP camps, our agencies supported some form of water and health programmes, and assisted with children’s schooling. Special help in dealing with trauma was given to women and children - therapy carried out by trained counsellors whose "clients" were helped to relax while having their hair styled or feet painted. One of the therapists, Magdalena, told us that Darfur women were shy of reporting rape because marital infidelity is illegal in Sudan, and four witnesses are needed to substantiate any allegation of rape. If the witnesses are women, eight witnesses are required. She spoke of a general lack of confidence in the existing government and indicated that most felt the judicial system was in any case corrupt. In the camp schools, where the teachers themselves were internally displaced people, class size should have been limited to 80 pupils, but was often much higher, and with no modern teaching materials available. On speaking to the senior classes, aged 14 to 16, in Derege camp in Nyala, pupils told us about their high ambitions - to be doctors, engineers, pilots and so on. But these pupils could not leave primary school, despite their age, since they had no way of paying for the primary school leaving certificate that is a basic requirement. Consequently, they could not continue their studies. They were all young men and woman that any parent or teacher would have been proud of, and their hope in the face of such adversity was truly humbling.

The international community must not abandon this country and its people. Darfur has rightly been described as the "forgotten disaster". Aid agencies do outstanding work in their efforts to help. In one camp we were told: "There would be no life above ground without SCIAF and other agencies." But much more is needed. Addressing a Christian ecumenical gathering of some 2,000 people in Nyala, I described the Make Poverty History Rally in Edinburgh in July 2005. I told my Sudanese audience that this rally of over 250,000 people cried out to the leaders of the world’s richest nations for an end to poverty. That cry must be uttered again and again.

To be hungry and thirsty, denied education and proper medical facilities, raped, tortured, brutalised and sent home as a "postcard" to your own tribe by your tormentors is intolerable; to be totally and completely ignored by the rest of the world is shameful and unacceptable.

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