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Darfur: planting the seeds of food security

05-08-2005 Feature

The ICRC is seeking to provide a lifeline to self-sufficiency for people in rural areas affected by the conflict in Darfur, encouraging them to stay in their villages where security allows. The ICRC's Julia Bassam reports from north Darfur.

A large silver disk hangs undecidedly over the dark silhouette of the distant hills. The snake the driver killed last night is still hanging, white and grey striped, over a bush behind my tent. The cooking pots are lying where we left them near the camp fire, spattered with sand and rinsed by the heavy night rain.

The silver disk shakes off its lunar disguise and asserts itself as a glowing, rising ball. It is going to be another hot day on the plains of North Darfur. 

Across the sandy scrubland we can see the thatched huts of Miskeen, where the villagers are preparing for a day's work in the fields. Yesterday we spent the whole afternoon with them, distributing food, seed and farming tools.

 Long trek to camps  

Last summer, their village was attacked and burned and their goats and sheep looted. The people fled to the hills, taking with them what little they had and could. Many remained in the hills for months, while others made the long trek to the camps set up for displaced persons in the provincial capital of Al Fashir, in search of food, water and shelter.

Now, 70 families have returned to Miskeen in time for the new planting season, despite fears for their safety. The land is not rich, but produces enough to cover a household's needs, leaving a small amount over for sale at the market.

The rains have come early this year, and what was an arid plain a few days ago is now covered with a thin green stubble, as the first timid blades of grass emerge through the sand. In one more week this land will be a carpet of green, and the dry river bed, lined by parched yet majestic trees, will again host torrents of water.

 Thousands of displaced

We take a slow three hours'drive through sand and scrub from the packed-earth highway that links the towns of Al Fashir and Nyala. A host of aid agencies provide food, water and medical care for the tens of thousands of displaced who are crammed into camps in and around the towns.

For those who decided to stay in their home villages, and those who have since returned, life is even more difficult, as they are left to their own resources: they must rebuild or repair their homes as best they can and prepare for the planting season, while they have few food reserves, seeds or livestock. If they are not supported at this critical moment, the exodus from rural areas to the camps will continue to increase.

Across Darfur, the ICRC is helping country dwellers make a fresh start by providing them with seeds and tools for the planting season, and food to tide them over until their own harvests are ready.

The distribution day itself is the culmination of a weeks-long, meticulous process during which ICRC teams visit village after village, assessing the needs and drawing up registration lists, in close cooperation with the community leaders or sheikhs.

 Dialogue with the warring parties  

Regular dialogue with all the parties to the conflict and clarification of the ICRC’s neutral, humanitarian role ensures that the organization can reach these remote areas across front-lines.

On distribution day, a convoy of some 20 trucks l aden with relief supplies sets off at day-break from the ICRC’s base in Al Fashir, on a tortuous journey past checkpoints, along sandy roads and over dry river beds, or wadis , to reach the villages in need.

On arrival, distribution points are set up just outside the village, if possible in the shade of a tree. The sheikh calls the people and the goods are unloaded. Volunteers are assigned various tasks, and the sharing-out process begins.

 Food for two months  

Lifeline Darfur 
Since the beginning of 2005, the ICRC has:
  • supplied water to urban areas and to six camps for displaced persons and repaired water networks in three towns (Kutum, Gereida and Al Junaina) – some 550,000 beneficiaries;
  • regularly distributed food to around 300,000 beneficiaries;
  • helped eight rural health centres, which have seen 40,000 patients;
  • run a flying surgical team to treat the wounded and sick across the front lines.

  •   However, the ICRC is aware that, while humanitarian organizations can provide stop-gap aid, it is the conflict parties themselves who must take the necessary measures to protect the life, dignity and livelihoods of the civilian population of Darfur.
© ICRC / Marco Jimenez / sd-e-00280 

At first, progress is slow and faltering. The women, attired in brightly coloured robes, wait patiently under a nearby tree until they are called forward, one at a time, to collect their due. In line with the ICRC's careful calculations, each family is given enough food to see them through the next two months.

The supplies include 24 kg of sorghum, 8 kg of lentils, 4 litres of oil and 600 grams of salt per member, as well as an 8 kg sack of millet seed, 4 kg of sorghum seed, some okra seed, and locally produced tools for weeding and harvesting.

Soon, the process gathers speed as the volunteers get used to their tasks and settle into a comfortable rhythm. By mid-afternoon the scene resembles a vibrant, colourful fair ground: the sheikh is calling out names from his list; groups of men sitting behind piles of sorghum are counting out weights and measures, while families discuss animatedly as they fasten new loads onto the backs of their donkeys.

 Sharing with newcomers  

An argument breaks out, as ten new families who arrived recently and are living in the nearby wadi are not on the registration list, and therefore will get nothing. A solution is found quickly, in discussion with the sheikh: at the end of the day, the village will share what it can with them.

It has been a long and tiring day for all. We have supplied 2,700 people from eight different villages with 111 tonnes of food, oil and seeds. Tomorrow morning another 20 trucks will be arriving from Al Fashir, with life-saving supplies for another eight villages.

It's time now to put the tents up. A burning orange sun slips gracefully behind the rounded, dark silhouette of the hills across the plain; another day in Darfur is over.