In the gray light just before dawn, 38-year-old Muna awakens to a heart-wrenching choice: Should she leave the relative safety of this camp for displaced people in the Wadi Salih region of West Darfur and venture into the surrounding plains to collect firewood for cooking and grass to feed her donkey?
If she does, there's a chance she will be beaten or raped. If she doesn't, she won't be able to cook breakfast for her children. Even the donkey might starve. Piles of rotting carcasses along one edge of the camp are a constant reminder that many other animals have perished.
Muna isn't her real name, but the difficult choices this mother of five has to make are very real. And so are the dangers she and countless other women face each day in Darfur. In some camps, women, children, and old men make up the majority of the population. Many of the younger men have been killed in attacks.
Not collecting firewood or fodder would have other consequences as well. The first provides cash to help Muna feed her family, and the second keeps her donkey healthy enough to haul water.
Muna and her children are among the hundreds of thousands of families in Darfur who receive monthly food distributions from the World Food Program. The staple grains, a protein-rich mix of corn and soy, and cooking oil are a welcome contribution, but Muna needs a few other ingredients to prepare even the most basic meal. She sells some of the firewood in the local market to earn a few extra dinars to buy onions, tomatoes, dried okra, or chilies to supplement her family's diet. Without the firewood, she would have to sell a portion of the food ration itself in order to buy the additional items. But the amount she receives each month is already barely enough to survive.
The donkey fodder is also very important, since Muna needs her donkey to carry water from the nearby well several times a day. When that well runs dry, as it often does this time of year, she must travel even farther to fetch water. This, too, can be a perilous journey that exposes her to potential violence.
But even the camp that Muna shares with 15,000 other displaced people isn't particularly safe. The straw walls of her small compound provide some privacy, but no real protection. Her "house" is just a shelter made of sticks and plastic sheeting. Sometimes armed men come into the camp at night. They shout and laugh and fire their guns into the air, terrorizing the population.
On the day an Oxfam team arrived for a field visit, the body of a camp resident had been found near the dry riverbed on one side of town. People said he had been beaten to death during the night. The previous week, a group of men from outside the camp visited a house not far from Muna's. They beat the man who lived in the house and raped his wife.
Beyond the perimeter of the camp where Muna lives, there are other groups of people who don't seem afraid at all. Nomadic tribes continue to roam freely in this area. Some of them ride horses and camels, and some of them carry guns. They keep watch over enormous herds of cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Their animals graze peacefully among the charred ruins of mud-brick huts in the many abandoned villages that dot the landscape.
Of course, not all nomadic tribes are affiliated with the notorious Janjaweed militias that continue to terrorize civilians throughout Darfur. But the contrast is striking: Most of the nomads the Oxfam team met in the Wadi Salih area were confident, reasonably well-fed and secure, while Muna and her neighbors are often sick and hungry, and live in constant fear.
Although people in Muna's camp can see their destroyed village in the distance, they insist that it is too dangerous to return. The armed groups prowling the countryside have effectively imprisoned the displaced Sudanese in the camp.
Retrospective mortality studies have shown that violence has been the leading cause of death in Darfur since the region plunged into conflict in February 2003. It is difficult to calculate exactly how many people have died, but one thing is dreadfully clear: The violence continues.
Every morning, in hundreds of camps and towns across Darfur, mothers like Muna get up to face yet another day filled with threats of robbery, murder, and rape. The fear is debilitating, but the options are few. After agonizing over the alternatives, Muna will go out to collect firewood and fodder. She can't afford not to.