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Darfur: how a young woman escaped the violence

20-06-2007 Feature

Sousan is one of hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their homes by the violence in Sudan’s Darfur region. Displaced twice in order to survive, she told her story to the ICRC’s David Ito.

 Sousan (not her real name), now in her late 20s, grew up in a farming family at a small town in southern Darfur. One of 17 children, she got good grades at school and was offered a place at Khartoum university.  

    

 But there was no money to allow her to study. She helped out on the family farm and around the home until her marriage to a local man, who took her off to live at Esheraia, a nearby town.  

    

 Towards mid-2004, the conflict in Darfur spread closer to her region. Sousan was worried by the reports of attacks and killings, and stopped going to the fields. Fear set in, and the village prepared for the worst…  

    

Early one morning, I saw smoke rising from a nearby village. Houses were burning and news came that some people had been killed. The men from Esheraia and neighbouring settlements went to the burning village to protect the area. In that incident six people were killed, including a woman who was shot while untying a donkey for her kids to escape. 

 
That night, as we all settled together to eat and rest, my heart sank… fear was visible in everybody's faces. 
 

A few hours after our men had left, our own village was attacked. We – the women, children and elderly – ran and hid.

When our men returned, the attackers had left, having burnt and destroyed most of the village. Our house had not been completely ruined, and my husband was able to collect some sugar, oil and flour. When he and the others joined us I was so relieved to see him alive.

We all spent the night outdoors. Despite the strong and dusty winds, it was not cold. We shared some of our food with the rest of our group. It was a worrying night: we did not know what would happen to us next – but we knew that things could get worse. Few of us managed to get any sleep.

 The next day, the group set off for Umalkhirat, her native village. She was excited at the thought of seeing her family again – but, two months later, Umalkhirat was attacked and destroyed in a surprise raid.  

    

We were all terrified. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves heading towards Gereida – more than 500 people, walking in groups of 20 to 30. The women, children and the elderly walked in front with the animals while the men guarded us from behind.

We travelled as far as possible the first day, wanting to get away from the danger area. That night, as we all settled together to eat and rest, I looked around and my heart sank: we were so many and so unprepared for this. Fear was visible in everybody's faces.

Those who had been unable to bring anything were so grateful to be given food. That is something I like about my people, we always share, especially when things are scarce.

That night we settled under the trees. But I stayed awa ke until morning; the fear in my heart could not let me sleep. What if we were attacked in the night? What if I were separated from my family and husband? What if something bad happened to one of us? These were questions I could not answer… it was too frightening to think about.

 The dishevelled group arrived in Gereida the next day. While the town looked similar to places Sousan had left behind, she was struck by the number of huts covered in white plastic, which were home to other IDPs – people displaced by the violence. She had never imagined people could live in such conditions and was horrified at the idea of having to do so. They again spent another night outdoors…  

   
  ©ICRC/B.Heger/sd-e-00849    
 
  Gereida, internally displaced persons camp. Displaced persons who have been living in the camp for a long time have built temporary shelters.    
     

The next day, the Red Cross – the ICRC – came to see us and asked about our situation and what we had brought with us; that was easy since we had almost nothing. When they left we had no idea what they would give us, or when.

Later, we received food and essential household items like jerrycans, cooking pots, and so on. But until then, life was very difficult. My husband had some money and was able to buy food in the market but we had to ration it because we did not know long it would be before we received help or find jobs.

Cooking was difficult because we had no pots – we ended up borrowing from other families, which made eating hours quite irregular.

Fetching water for cooking, drinking, and washing was also difficult since all water points were far from where we had settled. We were all soon filthy and smelly. The most difficult part for me was hygiene. Without latrines around our settlement, the women had to wait until night-time to go to the toilet and wash far away, where no one could see us.

 Using borrowed tools, Sousan and her family finished building their hut a month after they arrived in Gereida, covering it with plastic sheeting from the ICRC. And, despite her initial misgivings, Sousan was delighted with it.  

    

The help we got from ICRC meant that I was able to fetch water with my own jerrycans, which allowed us to cook and wash properly. After a couple of months latrines were built. Slowly, things were improving.

During the day, I used to go out to the fields to collect firewood, which I used for cooking – food for ourselves and also to sell in the market. This way, I managed to make some extra money to buy things that were not given out by the ICRC.

    

But as time passed, the security situation around Gereida got worse; some people were robbed or beaten while collecting firewood and grass so I stayed close to our hut.

    

 Sousan and her family were still living from hand to mouth. Then she heard that the ICRC was recruiting people. She applied and waited weeks for an answer. She began to give up hope – but one day, she was called for an interview…  

   
  ©ICRC/B.Heger/sd-e-00751    
 
  Gereida, internally displaced persons camp. Malnourished child receiving care at ICRC field clinic.    
     

To my surprise, I got a message soon afterwards saying that ICRC wanted to employ me as a nutrition monitor. I was overjoyed, knowing that this job would allow me to support my family and improve our living conditions.

I now have a baby and also take care of two children of my husband’s late brother. My husband works as a voluntary teacher at a school for displaced children in Gereida.

    

Some of the IDPs have been able to return to their home villages in recent months. Some have even been able to cultivate their fields. But my hometown is too far and it is still dangerous for us to go back.

Despite living better than most IDPs in the camp, we want to go back to our village as soon as the situation allows. We hope that will be soon, inch’ Allah…