Boredom, worry fill the days for many in Darfur camps

By Jane Beesley

In the camps of Darfur, boredom and worry shape the days for some women. And the contrasts between camp life and home remain stark.

"Here, in the camp, we are sitting with nothing to do," said a woman named Khadeja, her tedium heightened by memories of what she used to do. "In the village we were very active all the time—working on the farms, trading in the markets, herding animals. Here, there are no job opportunities. No income."

Without money, it's difficult for families to get everything they need.

"Everything here is for sale," said a man. "Back home it cost you nothing. You had it on the farm and if you had a surplus you could take it and exchange it for other things in the market."

At some of the camps, people are able to find jobs, but the pay is poor and the work can be exhausting. Kaltoum Ali Asad , a mother of eight children, occasionaly picks up a bit of work in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. It's right next to Abu Shouk camp, which has been her home for the past three years.

"Sometimes I'll walk to El Fasher town and find a job cleaning, sweeping, washing clothes," she says. "I'll get 75 cents for washing a dozen pieces of clothing, which takes all afternoon. There isn't much you can buy for 75 cents. Maybe a bundle of firewood."

In the past, gathering firewood was one of the chores that Asad devoted time to. But she has stopped because it is unsafe to leave the safety of the camp to collect it. Now, she buys her wood from the market and a bundle doesn't last very long—perhaps just enough to cook one meal, but no more.

"Food is another challenge," says Asad. "The children might go for a month without the food we think is valuable for them—fruits, vegetables, meat. Meat is very expensive: $5 for a kilo, and I don't have the money to buy it, and there are no adequate vegetables I can get as a substitute."

For children, who rise at dawn, household chores can consume a good part of the day, especially if one of them is wood gathering. They tell of walking for five hours, in groups of boys and girls up to 10 strong. Collecting grass to hawk in the markets is another task children assume, though a sale can take a long time. Preparing meals and washing are chores that fall to the girls, but both boys and girls fetch water. And if school is open, children attend classes between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

When darkness comes, everyone retires.

"We're too scared to go out when it's dark," says one girl. "We go to sleep."

Fourteen-year-old Mahmoud sums it up this way. "I've been here three years with my mother and father, six brothers and three sisters," he says. "We're not happy with the life here. I'd like to be living back in my village—like it used to be."