Life as a Displaced Person in a Sudanese Camp

Khor Omer is a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the El De'ain county of South Darfur, a state in the western region of the Sudan. It is a hot dusty place comprising rudimentary shelters for about 20,000 people who fled the violence of Sudan's long-running civil war. It in no way resembles the neat layout of tents that most people associate with a refugee camp. IDPs are the responsibility of their own government and don't have access to the international protection afforded to refugees. Nor does assistance to IDPs attract the kind of funds that refugee programmes do.

The only tents in Khor Omer are those used by the few international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working there to support their work with the IDPs in the harsh desert climate of Sudan. The camp is inaccessible by road from the state capital, Nyala, and can only be reached by helicopter. It is also difficult for journalists to access and thus of little interest to NGOs driven by the need to raise funds through high profi le operations. The World Food Programme (WFP) is present as is IOM and a limited number of NGOs.

At the far end of the camp, Rachel (not her real name) squats and pokes at the smoking fire outside her shelter in a desultory manner as if trying to find answers to difficult questions in the tiny flames. On top of the fire sits a blackened aluminium pot in which bubbles a thin sorghum porridge.

The shelter is not much more than a metre high made in the local style of bent sticks driven into the ground and covered in a mixture of branches, grasses and discarded plastic bags. The discarded plastic bags which have become an icon of 21st century Africa are ripped and torn and fl ap in the breeze. Their red blue and yellow stripes add a macabre air of carnival to the scene of relentless poverty that is the Khor Omer IDP camp. The day is hot and windy and the plastic bags rustle insistently in the breeze.

Rachel arrived at Khor Omer almost two months ago with her three children from another camp at Beleil, about 18 km to the southeast Nyala and north from where she is now. Her recent arrival means her shelter is on the outside of the main IDP gathering and lacks the security of the more established shelters nearer the centre. The covering of the shelter provides some respite from the hot sun of the early afternoon but there will be no protection from the heavy rains between May and October.

Two of her three children take advantage of the shade having spent the morning sifting the sand in the shelter in an attempt to eradicate the local black beetles which have a mildly poisonous bite and cause painful infected swellings. Her third child, a boy of about a year, tugs at a distended breast in a listless and disinterested manner while she continues poking the fire.

Rachel was born sometime in the mid-80s in a satellite village just to the south of Mareil-Bai in Northern Bahr el Ghazal province and before she could walk, was forced to flee with her parents to avoid the inter-ethnic fighting of that time between an Islamic government, their proxies and largely Christian tribes including Rachel's own Dinka.

Rachel's father had been proud of his herd of around 30 cattle and had been considered quite prosperous. But the cattle were looted by pro-government forces that overran his village and the family was left with nothing. Nevertheless, he took the decision to make the nearly 500-km walk north to relative safety in South Darfur. Rachel does not remember the walk nor the brother who died on the journey. She does not know her age - she's in her
mid-twenties but looks much older. And she doesn't know her birthday either. With no parents alive, there is no one to ask.

Many Dinka made some sort of a life in South Darfur after the first flight of the mid-eighties. They had a traditional relationship with the farmers and landowners of a comparatively rich South Darfur for whom they provided agricultural labour. But when violence broke out in Darfur in 2003, they had to flee again, once more losing all they owned. Whilst not directly involved in the violence, the African Christian Dinka became a target of ethnic hatred
from all sides and fled from rural areas to towns such as Nyala, which became the main concentration of Dinka in the state.

Some fled to Beleil, which lies next to the railway. In recent months, the numbers in Beleil camp have fluctuated as more Dinka seek refuge from inter-tribal fighting while others move on. The fighting between government and rebel forces and between different tribes and factions of the immature Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the consequent violence against the civilian population is the worst since the Darfur conflict first broke out in 2003.

Many like Rachel, once a resident of Beleil, have decided to return home. Whilst they know that whatever infrastructure of their home state of Bahr el Ghazal there was has been entirely shattered by the conflict they
once escaped, many prefer the safety away from the increasing violence in Darfur.

Rachel's story as a single mother and head of a household comprising three children is not untypical. In the beginning, after her husband died, life was possible. She was young, strong and able to walk large distances to gather firewood to sell to charcoal burners or other IDPs.

IOM in Darfur

IOM has been present in Sudan since the early 80s expanding its activities to Darfur in 2004. Its activities comprise the following:

Registration. IOM has provided technical support for the registration of more than 2 million vulnerable people in Darfur, mostly internally displaced people. Registration enables ration cards to be issued enabling vulnerable people to access food and non-food items that are essential to their survival. The registration database also provides a wealth of statistical data that will assist
substantially in planning the return of displaced people to their former homes. It will also enable humanitarian agencies to provide assistance and protection during and following the return process.

Return in Darfur. The current situation in Darfur is not considered conducive for the return of displaced people except for the Dinka population in South Darfur who are moving from Darfur to Northern Bahr el Ghazal. IOM's current role is to support the spontaneous return of the Dinka and also to assist the formal return of a limited number in this return season (February to May). In
the meantime, IOM has established itself as the lead actor for returns for North and South Darfur and leads the planning process in anticipation of the situation becoming more conducive to return within Darfur in the future.

Preventing forced returns. In August 2004, IOM signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Sudanese government whereby Khartoum devolved a large element of its sovereignty to IOM in the matter of returning and relocating people within Darfur. As a result of IOM's verifi cation and monitoring activities under the MoU, forced returns of displaced people was entirely eliminated in North and South Darfur. The MoU is a unique tool for the protection of internally displaced people, nothing like it exists anywhere else in the world.

Material assistance and capacity building. IOM provided the majority of non-food items that were distributed in Darfur in 2005. IOM also provides capacity building to local Sudanese entities in addition to coordinating camp managers in North and South Darfur so as to avoid duplications and gaps in the provision of assistance. Other assistance includes IOM engineers carrying out substantial flood prevention work in Abu Shouk and Kalma camps as well as the building of more than 1,000 latrines.


But a year and a half ago, while gathering firewood by herself some kilometres away from Beleil, she came across three men dressed in uniforms and carrying guns. They taunted her and said she become their "wife". When she refused, they beat her. Two of the men raped her and the third sexually assaulted her with his gun, causing her to bleed extensively. Although badly hurt, Rachel managed to get back to her shelter and children in Beleil. She had no idea who the men were or who they were fighting for.

Apart from the horror of the encounter, Rachel's ability to earn money was severely depleted. She was injured but terrified to seek medical assistance as she would have to explain the encounter and thus deal with the shame once the physical injuries had healed. These included a livid scar running from her mouth across her cheek. And then she discovered she was pregnant with her younger son.

The other tragedy is Rachel's encounter wasn't unique. The women in the camp have largely stopped seeking firewood and thus lost the dollar that a day's firewood collecting could earn. The only ones to profit are the militias and
other proxies who now sell firewood in the camp and employ the women on minimal wages - even by Beleil standards - in the backbreaking work of manufacturing bricks.

There have been periodic distributions of food in the camp and Rachel once received some metal pots and a plastic sheet. She also had blankets but life had become much harder. The plastic sheet had long gone to raise cash for
medicines for one of her children. Rachel had seen people in white cars driving into the camps and the sheikhs had been talking of return to her homeland. Some said there was nothing there, but others said there would be food and maybe a small plot of land to grow things.

It was then that Rachel decided to return to a homeland that she did not remember, did not really know where it was and with which she had very few connections. She went to the railway station close to the camp almost everyday and this was how she met a nazir (chief) of the train to El De'ain, halfway to Bahr el Ghazal, but still in South Darfur. The nazir had established a business by providing accommodation in the freight cars of the train for Dinka returning home. The "fare" is about 1,500 Sudanese dinars (US$7). Rachel did not have it. But if she wanted to board the train, there was only one thing left she had to offer to obtain a favour. There was no thought as to how she was going to complete the rest of the journey. It was enough to make a start.

Once Rachel reached El De'ain, she walked with her three children to the Khor Omer camp some 10 km to the south of the small railway town. Now she is planning the second leg of her journey, which could be by truck but would cost 1,500 dinars. Or she could walk which would take between 20 and 25 days. But instead, Rachel has decided to wait after hearing that the Hawaja (white faces) might provide transport for her and her family and the meagre belongings scattered around the shelter, free of charge.

If Rachel does not leave Khor Omer by the beginning of May, the opportunity to return to her homeland this year will be lost. Seasonal rains make the route from South Darfur to Bahr el Ghazal over the River Kiir that flows close to the border between the two provinces impassable from mid-May to early February. It's another hurdle to overcome on the long journey home, but what choice does Rachel have?