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A journey across Darfur imparts a critical lesson

By Nick Anderson

Armed men in trucks and the rattle of gunfire: Those are the sights and sounds I can't shake after my trip to Darfur. They erupt from the pages of my journal and come back again in my dreams at night. They are the frightening reality that people in this troubled region of western Sudan must live with daily.

I went to Darfur as a youth ambassador for Oxfam America—to learn about the lives of young people trapped in camps and overcrowded towns by the conflict that has riddled the region since early 2003. Some of them had spoken to me with passion about the need for security in a place where allegiances shift regularly and lawlessness rules. Whenever I heard gunshots shatter the air, their words came back to me with a whole new urgency. This was what they had been talking about. I felt their fear.

Growing up in a quiet hill town in western Massachusetts, I was not prepared for the level of violence that clouds the lives of people in Darfur. And after speaking to youths in camps and villages, it was clear to me that the first priority for the region must be a cease-fire. The world's politicians must do more to make those responsible for the conflict stop attacking civilians.

My journey had started in Khartoum, Sudan's sprawling capital, which lies at the intersection of the White and Blue Niles. I had acclimated myself to Sudanese culture with the help of exceptional individuals such as Saleh Majid, Oxfam America's program coordinator in Sudan, and Ahmed Hamad, Oxfam's driver. I had the opportunity to visit Saleh's community, Omdurman, and represent the United States in a game of soccer with the local boys. I did not stand a chance!

Ahmed exposed me to Sudanese culture by taking me to eat at Sudanese restaurants, showing me around the capital, and teaching me the Arabic names for everything. One day, he took me to the banks of the Nile River outside of Khartoum where locals come to picnic and wash their cars in the Nile. Some of Ahmed's friends explained with gusto that, "The situation in Darfur is normal!"

However, once I finally made it to Darfur, I discovered that the needs of youths there were far more serious than I had expected based on those Khartoum conversations. With Saleh, I traveled to areas such as El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. Nearby, three camps filled with thatch huts and plastic-roofed shelters serve as home for nearly 200,000 displaced people. In the Abu Shouk camp, the youths who I had the opportunity to speak to asked for the tools to be able to rebuild their communities. They wanted things like better education at the secondary school level, vocational training rather than strictly intellectual education, and places for youths to convene so they could socialize and exchange ideas. In Darfur, people my age—the region's next generation of leaders—are terribly frustrated by their lack of representation. All community decisions are made by elders, known as umdas, and many of the youths feel that the ideas of these older leaders are outdated.

At Abu Shouk, I formed a special bond with the young man who helped me as an interpreter—a man just a few years older than me whose family had fled their village and was now living in the camp. His name was Ahmed Yousif. He told me about his own journey to the camp—about the theft of his family's livestock and his horse—and about the education he had received in El Fasher. Ahmed was one of the lucky ones in Darfur: He had graduated from the local university. I was overwhelmed by his strength and stunned—not for the first time—at the capacity of the human spirit to endure hardship.

Traveling with Saleh deeper into Darfur, we visited the town of Kebkabiya—a place made mostly of the traditional, round, thatch huts that I had seen so often in Darfur, as well as some brick and wood structures. The town is surrounded by rolling plains and jagged mountains that turn from green to dusty red, depending on the season. After the crisis in Darfur erupted more than four years ago, about 60,000 people from the surrounding area fled from their villages to seek safety in Kebkabiya. Oxfam is working in the area to provide for the needs of the community.

I talked to boys and girls from a secondary school class in Kebkabiya who, after asking first for increased security and a ceasefire, requested such simple things as shovels to fill in standing pools of water in their school yard that serve as breeding grounds to mosquitoes that can carry malaria. Many of the young men and women complained that they could not afford to go to school, that there were very few books, and that they had to pay fees to purchase the few that are available. Transportation to and from school is difficult due to seasonal streams, called wadis, that often block roads.

However, all of the youths that I spoke to in Darfur shared a common resilience and belief that they were capable of lifting themselves out of the poverty and despair that has now fallen across the region. Provided they have a forum to share ideas and be heard by the umdas, as well as basic tools such as vocational training and continued humanitarian support, the next generation of men and women in Darfur are confident they will be able to build their communities back stronger and better than before the crisis began.