UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

Home is a shelter of straw and plastic

By Coco McCabe

For nearly two years, home for Omar Bukhari Ahmed, his two wives, and their nine children has been a small shelter made of straw and plastic sheeting in the Shangil Tobai camp for displaced people in North Darfur, Sudan.

The camp is only about nine miles from their village of Abu Hamra, which once was home to about 500 families. But after Janjaweed militia tore through the community burning dwellings and looting, Omar's family fled, as nearly two million other Darfur residents have done since conflict erupted in the region in 2003.

Omar's family was among the lucky ones. They survived the attack, but lost many of their belongings, including about 110 sheep. They arrived at Shangil Tobai with just a donkey, a bed, and a few clothes. There, they have joined nearly 20,000 other people, many of them from surrounding villages, who have squeezed into Shangil Tobai and a neighboring camp, Shadad, seeking safety from the violence that has shattered their communities.

Oxfam is helping about 400,000 displaced people scattered in camps like Shangil Tobai. The agency is supplying them with clean water and sanitation facilities as well as with essential household goods like soap and water containers. At Shangil Tobai, families have received two cooking pots, a cup, a bowl, a bucket, two jerry cans, a sleeping mat, and blankets.

But while people's basic needs are being met and Omar's youngest children are in school, there is little to fill the lives of camp residents at Shangil Tobai. In their two years at the camp, Omar's family has had no opportunity to earn an income, nor have they been able to plant their fields or harvest a crop. At the end of each month, there is rarely enough food left from the rations provided by international aid groups to feed everyone in the family sufficiently. And it has been nearly two years since any of them have eaten meat—a regular part of their diet back at Abu Hamra.

Danger circles the camp. Leaving its security to collect firewood for cooking is necessary—but risky. In recent weeks, raiders on camels attacked a small group on the edge of the camp, killing three people and stealing their animals. People are increasingly worried that such attacks will take place within the camps themselves.

Omar and his family long to go home, but they find it hard to envision any improvement in their situation in the near future. Talks aimed at a political solution that would bring long-term security to the region have progressed only haltingly.

"We miss our homes. We miss our village, our furniture, our animals, and also our privacy," said Omar. But until a political settlement is reached—and safety for civilians is guaranteed—it is simply too dangerous for Omar and his family to leave Shangil Tobai.