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Sudan: caring for the vulnerable in Darfur

24-11-2004 Feature

Australian Red Cross nurse Maree Dunn is no stranger to working in isolated rural areas. When she is not carrying out international assignments for the Australian Red Cross, the 49 year-old native of Wauchope works as a public health nurse and midwife in Aboriginal communities in Australia's Northern Territory. Her current assignment took her from her homeland to Gereida, a remote town in Sudan's Southern Darfur.

Maree came to Sudan as part of a joint Australian and British Red Cross project, which provides assistance to some 30,000 internally displaced persons who have found refuge in the area near Gereida. The insecurity prevailing in the war-torn region and repeated attacks on isolated settlements led the villagers to abandon their crops and homes for the relative safety of a larger town.
Gereida's population has doubled in a matter of weeks, the town's 30,000 habitants sharing their meagre resources with the newcomers as best as they could. However, the extra demand on water, food and shelter quickly exceeded the local capacity and called for external support.

Darfur. Feeding centre in a refugee camp.   © ICRC 
In July, the ICRC had received reports of the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the area and appealed to participating National Societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to support it in its response. Given the magnitude of the needs, the different components of the Movement adopted an integrated approach strategy, through which participating national societies would implement programmes within the larger framework of the ICRC's operations.
Thus the Australian and British Red Cross Societies quickly deployed a team to Southern Sudan to respond to the situation in Gereida. A primary health care centre was built from scratch within a few days, while the water and sanitation team constructed a water distribution system within the camp.
" The living conditions were pretty harsh at the beginning " , Maree recalls with a smile. " We used to live in the office and had to sleep in mosquito domes in the parking lot. The priority was to get the operation up and running, not to make ourselves comfortable " .

She explains how the medical team is implementing a training programme for community health workers and local volunteers from the Sudanese Red Crescent Society to ensure early detection and treatment of health problems in the camp's population. As she speaks, she carefully inserts a tube into the nose of fifteen-month old Bebr, a severely malnourished and dehydrated baby. He is too weak to cry or even resist the unpleasant, but lifesaving intervention. As she talks about the recent vaccination campaigns against measles and polio carried out in partnership with the local health ministry, she is slowly feeding the toddler with oral rehydration salts.
" The involvement of local partners is essential in ensuring long-term sustainability. By building up the villagers'capacity to prevent the outbreak of communicable diseases through improved hygiene practices, we reduce substantially the need for outside intervention and treatment " .
The most common ailments treated at the centre are diarrhoea, malaria and upper respiratory tract diseases, which are common when large populations have to live under conditions such as those found in a camp. Close to a third of the children seen at the clinic also suffer from malnutrition.
Since the local hospital operates on a cost recovery basis, this means that the poor often cannot afford medical treatment. Neither does it have a child feeding programme. For Bebr, the Red Cross clinic meant the difference between life and death. Already, he is showing signs of improvement, as his body responds to the vital fluids.
To support Gereida's local population in its efforts to accommodate the influx of displaced poeple, the Red Cross extended its medical services to residents as well as the displaced. It also supports the local hospital with medicine, material, training and the rehabilitation of infrastructure.
In the next few weeks, the team's engineer will also improve the municipal water distribution network. The additional strain on the existing system could lead to a water shortage during the dry season, exacerbating tensions between the two groups.
Even if the security situation were to improve in the near future, the hard times are far from over for the people of Darfur. The ICRC's economic security experts estimate that, even if the conditions for a safe return were to be realised in the near future, the villagers would need external food assistance until the end of 2005, after the next regular harvest.
In the meantime, Maree Dunn and the other members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will continue to care for the likes of little Bebr and his family.