A Darfur camp of mud bricks feels permanent

By Oxfam America

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The plain upon which Abu Shouk camp sits was already a dry place before tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in Darfur flocked there for safety. But the recent shortage of water on that hot and sandy expanse isn't so much a consequence of the environment as it is a result of a building boom rising on a sea of mud bricks, homemade with untold gallons of that precious resource.

As violence in this part of the remote region of western Sudan increases again, there is an expectation at Abu Shouk—and across Darfur—that no one will be heading back to their villages any time soon. In the face of that reality, the camp has undergone a slow transformation from a settlement of plastic-covered shelters hastily constructed with branches, to a community that has many of the trappings of permanence—and home.

"The camp now looks like a town," said Hind Adam Ali, an Oxfam public health promoter as she led visitors into the dense by neatly laid out settlement, divided into blocks with broad paths of sand, much like streets, running in between. Oxfam has been providing water, sanitation, and public health outreach to more than 50,000 people in the camp.

Close to the capital

Abu Shouk lies close to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur and the place where the first serious fighting of the on-going conflict erupted more than three years ago. Since the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement last May, fighting has actually intensified in this area and has again devastated many towns and villages north of El Fasher—the places that many of the people who have sought refuge in Abu Shouk originate from.

Increasingly, the camp has the feel of a sprawling capital neighborhood, within walking distance of El Fasher's main market and linked to the city by periodic family compounds that have recently sprouted on the plain between the camp and the capital.

By one estimate, 80 percent of Abu Shouk's shelters are now made of mud brick, and signs of that industry—the pocked ground from which the dirt is dug and mixed with water—dot the camp.

But the consequence of all that liquid-intensive building was that by the middle of July, the lines at the camp's pumps where people gather to fill their large plastic jerry cans with water to lug home for drinking and washing, were up to three hours long. At midsummer, only 23 of the camp's 33 hand pumps were producing any water. The other 10 had gone dry.

Housing isn't the only thing that is sucking up great volumes of water. Aid workers also say that camp residents, needing to provide for their families beyond the basics offered by aid groups, are collecting water at the camp and hauling it into the capital for sale.

The massive human need for water is simply outstripping the natural resources of the land, which is not meant to house so many thousands of people for such a long time.

"We've been talking to the leaders about it, but it's still going on," said Hind.

A brick works at Al Salaam

On the outskirts of Al Salaam, a newer camp established nearby to relieve some of the over-population at Abu Shouk, a brick works, masterminded by a gang of little boys, was also underway.

Despite the midday heat, one boy hardly noticed the visitors who appeared, so intent was he on shoveling dirt from the pit in which he stood. Jugs of water ringed some of the other pits. Another boy scooped fistfuls of mud into a sloppy heap onto which he stomped to squeeze out the extra water before packing the mud into a metal form, shaped like a rectangular bread pan. Set out in the sun, a row of the soggy bricks slowly dried. It would take two days before they would be done

Abdal Azim Tigani, 9 and caked in mud, announced that he had made 51 bricks which he planned to sell for 10 dinars—or 4 cents—each.

How many had he sold so far?

None, he replied, clearly content to be messing about in the cool mud on a hot day, and undaunted by the sales task ahead. But judging by the widespread use of the bricks throughout Abu Shouk, Abdal would have a ready market for his product.

Compound walls and creature comforts

At Abu Shouk, family plots once ringed with prickly branches now stand protected by thick walls. Many of the plots have morphed into mini-compounds with separate rooms for cooking, shelters for chickens, and stalls for donkeys—all made with mud bricks.

At one compound, the owner proudly showed off his satellite dish, tucked behind a curtain made from cut-up food sacks. The TV, he said, was stashed carefully in the bedroom of one of his wives, and electricity to power the high-tech production came from a neighbor who owned a generator. Every evening the whole neighborhood gathers around his screen to watch the news and keep up with the world outside Darfur. The biggest crowd, he added, was for this year's World Cup final.

Alleyways have formed between the compound walls, connecting to the broader "streets." Hurrying down one of them was Hawa Sulieman Ahmed, a member of one of the health committees Oxfam has organized at Abu Shouk to help promote good hygiene practices throughout the camp.

Coming upon Hind and her visitors, Hawa insisted on inviting the small crowd back to her "home,"—a small complex of tiny structures tucked behind a heavy mud wall with a metal door. When Hawa's family first arrived at the camp, a plastic sheet was their only shelter. Now, a dwelling of straw walls—paid for with the bricks they made and sold—houses a bed along with several mats and a carpet unfurled on the sandy ground. Recycled plastic grain sacks serve as the roof. In the corner of her compound, a stall for sponge-bathing and another housing a latrine, completed the makeshift creature comforts.

Permanence—but no peace

But despite appearances, Abu Shouk is no substitute for home. Time passes slowly, said Hawa, and she longs to see her family.

"When we are in our villages, we are so busy farming and doing other things, but here, there are no activities," she said. "And we're not happy because our family is separated. My mother is in one place, my sister is in another, and me here."

Mud bricks make a show of permanence. But what Hawa wants is something more important than that. Bidding farewell to the visitors, she asked them a final question: "Why is there no peace?"