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Darfur: striving to ensure the food supply

25-11-2005 Feature

One of the worst problems faced by civilians affected by the conflict in Darfur is the disruption to agricultural production and the resulting food shortages. The ICRC continues to monitor the situation carefully and intervenes with emergency assistance where necessary.

 Ian Byram took up his position as Relief Delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in South Darfur in February 2005. Here he shares some of his experiences with the communities he works with and their feelings as harvest-time approaches in Darfur. Ian is seconded to the ICRC by the British Red Cross Society.  

  ©ICRC/V. Miranda/sd-e-00414    
  Fetching wood: a woman from the displaced persons camp at Kassab.    
    It is eight months since I first arrived in Darfur and people are looking forward to harvest time. 

Unfortunately, environmental challenges such as the lack of rainfall and the insects that may damage the crops have been compounded since the beginning of the conflict by the problem of access. People are often too afraid to enter their fields, either because the situation remains dangerous or because of lingering fears caused by past experiences. 

Without access people do not have sufficient means to eat and if the conflict has not already driven them from their homes to the camps in urban areas, continuing insecurity may eventually force them to leave.

Even when people manage to remain in their villages the quality of their lives inevitably decreases. Movements are severely restricted due to the conflict. This prevents people taking goods to market, denying them economic opportunities. The possibilities to barter goods are much fewer and maintaining ties with family and friends becomes more challenging without the impetus of the market.

In 2005 we have been travelling to remote and rural areas, often providing assistance where other organizations have no access. We distribute food, seeds and tools and essential items such as plastic sheeting for shelter, jerry cans for carrying water, soap and blankets.

It is not simply a question of going to an area to distribute food - before this can happen an assessment of needs has to be m ade and lists prepared to ensure that the priority requirements are being addressed.

During this period, I have had the opportunity to get to know people in their villages, to talk about how they are living now compared to before the conflict, and what we can do together to improve their lives. Also, because people are inevitably intrigued about where I come from, we compare and contrast our lives and the places from where we come.

What remains constant is the hospitality and generosity of the people, whether it be taking the time to answer what must often seem strange questions or at the end of the day preparing a meal for us from their scant food supplies.

  ©ICRC/U. Meissner/sd-e-00184    
  A woman from the displaced persons camp at Kassab.    

Now that the harvest is approaching, and because there will be crops available in the short-term, we are currently coming to the end of the food distribution cycle and focusing on improving our understanding of the impact our efforts have had.

A couple of weeks ago, in the evening, as we were breaking the Ramadan fast, I was speaking to the Sheikh of a village in an area called Um Sauna, a place we have been assisting since May. While talking about the harvest and the agricultural season so far he remarked that without the assistance that the ICRC had brought, the harvest would have been a lot less. More people would have sold their meagre assets and people would not be thinking about returning to their homes. Indeed, they may not even have returned at all.

Earlier, when talking to a group of women about how they felt the situation was changing, one of them said that this year, during the most difficult month of September, prior to the harvest and when few other income-generating opportunities exist, there had been far fewer sick children than they had expected. This was because the children had been able to eat enough she said.

This is important feedback for us because our aim is not just to provide emergency food supplies but to do it in such a way that allows people the time and space to concentrate on farming.

The problems facing the people of South Darfur are far from over. In the past weeks, there has been an unfortunate increase in insecurity in this volatile conflict area and it remains to be seen what consequences this will have on their food resources as well as on their resolve to remain in their home villages.

The people of Darfur will continue to need our help to restore their livelihoods without the need for external assistance – to resume the life they knew before the conflict.

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