April 18, 2007: Perspective
By Emily Holland ’01
Emily Holland ’01 works for the International Rescue Committee, and recently returned from seven weeks in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Sunlight streams into the thatched-roof meeting space where 50 youth leaders from the Abu Shok displaced-persons camp in Darfur have gathered. The young men and veiled women sit on colorful floor mats on opposite sides of the room.
Sanitation is the reason we have convened. Boxes of inexpensive combs, toothpaste, and soap are distributed, and staff members of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) explain the importance of using them. These youth leaders — 14 to 25 years old — were chosen by communities to work with the IRC and try to improve life for Abu Shok’s 4,000 displaced young people. They live in pup tents and squalid cardboard lean-tos, and hygiene promotion is critical. After the meeting, the young people will deliver hygiene supplies and messages about clean living to their peers.
Of course, sanitation is not the largest of the problems they face. “Prison without a release date” is how I’ve heard life in the camps described. Food is scarce; jobs, virtually nonexistent. Relentless militia attacks around and even inside the camps perpetuate a culture of fear. Some of these young people have lived in Abu Shok for three years.
The youth leaders wonder why I’m here, and I explain that I have come to write and produce films and articles that bring attention to their daily struggles. Although I’ve documented the IRC’s work in several African countries, this is my first experience in a conflict setting. Young and voiceless, the Darfuris are eager for their story to be told.
Darfur’s volatile security situation dictates that I exercise extreme caution in what I say. I can’t use the word “rape” or inquire directly about the political situation. All names and biographical details will have to be changed. If I don’t, grave harm can come to these young people or to the IRC staff who work here. Despite the restrictions, I look at the situation positively: Many journalists can’t even enter this troubled region.
What is life like here? I ask through a translator.
A rail-thin young man wearing a dirty shirt and trousers raises his hand: “There is not enough food. No education. No security.”
“Especially for women,” adds a young woman in a yellow veil with badly scarred arms. (I have just come from an IRC women’s center in West Darfur and learned that rape — a term I won’t be able to use here — is both rampant and grossly underreported in Darfur. For younger women like those sitting in front of me, it’s especially devastating: After being abducted, gang-raped, or forced into sexual slavery, a girl is considered damaged goods.)
I return to my interview. How many of you are in school?
Fifteen of the 50 raise their hands. “It takes too long to walk to schools in the village,” a young man explains. I notice that he isn’t wearing any shoes. “Also, the roads are very dangerous,” he adds. (I recall multiple accounts of road assaults involving knives and guns.)
What do those who are not in school do each day? I ask. A man gestures with listless hands. “They sit around. They have nothing to do.” I nod and remember the sorry symphony of images I witnessed driving into Abu Shok that morning: a group of women hauling bundles of firewood on their heads; the occasional child beating a weary donkey; most of the camp residents sitting idle.
I pose a final question: What do you want young people around the world to know about your situation?
“We want them to know about our activities and our problems,” one leader says. “We want them to support us. We want to be able to talk freely,” says another.
I turn and notice a woman in a bright pink veil snapping her fingers in the traditional African way to get my attention.
“The individuals presented to people from outside Darfur are not necessarily from the camps,” she says. “We want youth from all over the world to see what life is like here — to hear the real story.”
Listen to us, she is saying. The room erupts with applause.
I leave the meeting feeling energized. In the last year, I have visited schools, hospitals, and trauma centers that the IRC runs in Kenya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In January, I visited Rwanda to document the IRC’s efforts to rebuild that country’s institutions and to interview survivors and perpetrators of the genocide.
As a former CNN television news producer, I’ve seen how humanitarian outreach can succumb to parochialism and compassion fatigue. How best can I call attention to the Darfur crisis and enlist the public as lay humanitarian activists? Which stories — stories of unfathomable loss that remind people of their global obligation or those of resurrection that appeal to their inherent optimism — bring the best results?
Whose story do I tell?
For two months I have spoken with glazed-eyed women whose homes have been torched, villages razed, husbands killed, and children lost in the chaos of flight. I’ve investigated water systems designed to prevent cholera outbreaks and accompanied IRC paralegals working to spread legal information to those living in a human-rights vacuum. I’ve traveled on rickety Cessna planes, walked quickly past pickups with tripod-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, and wondered about the ominous gunshots and low-flying planes overhead at night.
The suffering is enormous, the fear draining, and the individual stories of men, women, and children affected by the Darfur conflict harrowing on the deepest level. Still, I encounter hope, bravery, and optimism and among those with little reason to maintain such attitudes.
Sexually traumatized women now are learning English and how to bead and sew to earn a living. Children who until recently had refused to be touched now climb on my back for piggyback rides.
“Salam,” the displaced Darfuri demand over and over again. They seek only salam — peace — and to return home. Even to ashes? Yes, even so.