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Darfur: getting the message across

28-11-2006 Feature

In Sudan the ICRC is constantly organizing events for weapon-bearers and non-combatants alike in order to explain what its role is in the country and to gain their cooperation. ICRC delegate Jean-Yves Clémenzo describes one such event for displaced people in Zalingei, in Western Darfur.

The displaced people in Khamsa Dagaig camp (the name means " five minutes " , since it's near the centre of town) live in huts covered with plastic sheeting. Sheikh Adam helps run the camp, which has 14,000 residents. Like so many others, he left his village in 2003 and fled to Zalingei, a crossroads for trade in this enormous land.

The armed conflict that has racked Darfur for over three years has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Despite a peace agreement signed in May 2006, large numbers of people are still living in camps, too frightened to return to their villages. Sheikh Adam hopes that the ICRC's presentations will be of use to the camp residents.

  ©ICRC/J.-Y. Clémenzo    
  The civilian population is not very familiar with the ICRC and the services it provides. Presentations in the Fur language help fill the gaps.    

 A film in Fur  

Over 150 people are sitting cross-legged in a room. Most are sheikhs responsible for different sectors of the camp and for groups of young men. The presentation begins with a projection of images of Darfur accompanied by Sudanese music. Faces turn with rapt attention to the screen; smiles appear.

Rafiullah Qureshi, a delegate from Pakistan, is in charge of today's presentation. He begins by describing the effects of the war on Darfur's population and the ICRC's work to help people suffering those effects. Then a first for the ICRC: one of its films dubbed into the Fur language. Sheikh Adam has never before seen a film in his mother tongue. " If people know there is a film in their language, they will come to see it. There are a lot of people here who don't speak Arabic. "

Arabic is Sudan's official language and is used for written texts, whereas Fur is a purely oral language. And Mr Qureshi knows that a film in the local language is easier to understand and lends credibility to any message you are trying to convey.

Another delegate explains about Red Cross mes sages, brief personal messages to relatives from made unreachable by armed conflict. The audience listens with close attention, glad to know that the ICRC is working in isolated places and in so many ways to maintain family links. Since the beginning of 2006, they learn, the ICRC and the Sudanese Red Crescent have facilitated the sending of over 20,000 such messages in Darfur. Tracing work by the two organizations has made it possible to reunite children with their parents. A member of the audience asks how the ICRC manages to restore contact between detainees and their families. He is told that in the course of its tracing work the ICRC acquires information that makes it possible to trace people who have been arrested and put them back in touch with their families by means of Red Cross messages.

  ©ICRC / Boris Heger / sd-e-01041    
  As a means of gaining access to all those in need, the ICRC strives to explain to the warring parties that its work in Darfur is neutral and impartial.    
    The next day, Mr Qureshi and his colleagues make the same presentation to a group of 100 women. Once again, the film in the Fur language goes over very well. At the end of the presentation a woman approaches a delegate to help her contact a loved one to find out where he is and how he is doing.

 Convincing those who bear weapons  

The next day's audience – a group of combatants – promises to be more of a challenge. " We're trying to cultivate an attitude of respect toward humanitarian organizations, " Mr Qureshi says. " We want to be accepted better so we can gain access to the people who need us. " Humanitarian workers have too often been the target of security incidents, he explains. Some of these have been quite serious, and in any case they prevent people in dire need of aid from getting it.