Acronyms of misery

By Coco McCabe
New arrivals at Abu Shouk camp, Darfur.

They use words I've never heard before and dizzying strings of acronyms: Operationalize and OCHA/UNJLC, AirOps and NFIs, prioritization and the VMU of the IOM. I keep a cheat sheet in one of my notebooks to help me decipher the detached terminology international aid workers rattle off so casually. What does it all mean?

It's aid-speak for human misery—a way to talk about the horrors of war without being dragged into depression by the graphic details of burned villages, poisoned wells, hunger, sickness, and the sweeping homelessness that now characterizes Darfur.

But there is one acronym I have no trouble remembering: IDP. Spelled out, it's still abstract—internally displaced person—but its meaning becomes achingly clear at Zam Zam and Abu Shouk, at Tawila and Kebkabiya. It's here, in these camps and villages, that some of the 1.4 million newly homeless people-the IDPs of Darfur-now squat in the dust under shelters of plastic, brambles, and bits of cloth.

They are different from the refugees who have chosen to leave Sudan and hunt for safety in another country. Internally displaced people are just that: People who have stayed home, but have no homes.

Who are they?

One of them is the mother of twins. She is resting on a mat on the ground in the oven-like heat of a large tent erected by Action Contre La Faim, one of the many international aid agencies that have rushed food, water, shelter, and medical care into Darfur in recent months. This is a therapeutic feeding center, a place where severely malnourished children receive enriched milk and food on a slow but steady path to recovery. Today, 63 children are receiving various levels of care.

Propped on this mother's lap is a 10-month-old boy, his face thin, his eyes large and staring. She manages a smile: at least he's sitting up. Stretched out next to her is her other son. The flesh has shrunk from his narrow limbs. He lies absolutely still while flies crawl about his eyes. No one shoos them away.

It's quiet in this tent. There are no crying children here because there is no energy to spare. Every breath is directed instinctively toward one end: staying alive. But Mathieu Joyeux, the nutrionist who has been supervising the center for the last four months, isn't sure that this baby boy will survive.

"It's difficult," he says. "They have no food, no money."

Those words echo as I wander down row after row of haphazard shelters at Abu Shouk. The massive camp undulates in the heat waves that rise from the broad plain on which it sits. Just a few months ago, this was empty desert. Now, 49,000 people live here.

Out of the sand, a tent city rises

Abu Shouk is a logistics miracle-a tent city that sprouted from the dust with all the enormous water and sanitation needs any urban area would have, but without an inch of piping or drop of water to serve even one resident. Oxfam alone built 2,000 latrines here in two months. Shelters are organized by blocks. There are frequent watering points and a clothes-washing area. Medical facilities dot the camp.

But for all its orderliness, Abu Shouk can't mask the reality of its residents: They're here because violence, and the ensuing chaos, destroyed their lives. A makeshift camp is no substitute for home.

"Take this," calls a man squatting in the shade of his porous shelter, his arms outstretched. He has seen me snapping pictures of "homes" for the homeless pieced together with sticks, thatch, and rags. I'm startled because he has spoken in English. This is clearly an educated man.

He is dressed in western clothing—a white shirt, dark pants, loafers. On a low stool sits a teen-aged boy, a book open on his lap. A woman busies herself around the ashes of a small cooking fire.

"I want a job," says the man, his voice both pleading and commanding. "Can't you help me?"

The majority of the people in the camps seem to be women and children. Many of their husbands and fathers have been killed. Somehow, this man has been spared, but what kind of future does he face? He's jobless and squeezed with his family into a thatched hut so low none of them can stand up straight. They're dependent on aid agencies for everything: water, food, health care. But what about work-one of the most vital components of well-being? What will it take to restore the lost livelihoods of so many people?

I snap the man's picture. But that's all I can do—add his story to the endless chapter on the ruined lives of Darfur.

"Unbelievable," says Sally Field, a few minutes later, as she shakes her head at the next sight we come to. One of Oxfam's public-health promoters, she has guided us to the outskirts of Abu Shouk—or what had been the outskirts. A new band of shelters, more rickety than any we have seen yet, rings the border. "The camp keeps growing," she says.

It's a refrain I hear over and over.

Newcomers make do with cardboard

"All these people with cardboard, they are new arrivals," says Patrick Okoth, Oxfam's public health promotion team leader in North Darfur. He is pointing to a string of shelters whose flimsy walls are made from dismantled boxes. What will happen if the wind picks up, I wonder?

We have come to Dalih, a camp just outside the town of Tawila. Here, too, the population of homeless people is expanding.

"This place is getting bigger and bigger," says Okoth. "We have no idea how many there are. They keep on filtering in in the last month. In one week, we get about 20 or so families. Some are coming because of the lack of food. Their crops failed."

The rainy season has ended. And while it brought its share of misery for homeless people who sat through the night with sacks over their heads in a vain attempt to keep dry, more rain might have been welcome. The fields remain thirsty. The millet, so vital to the local diet, looks sparse and dried out.

The sun is relentless. Here, with so few building materials available, people have made shelters from brambles through which the sun—and the rain when it comes—easily penetrate. They remind me of birds' nests—fragile, temporary, and crowded.

Outside of one shelter, a woman gestures to one of my colleagues. She has something she is desperate to show him. He follows her around the corner and finds her son lying beside the shelter, weak and sick. He is about 10. She has no way to get the boy help. The clinic at the camp has been shut and the next nearest facility is about a mile away. How can she get him there?

There is no easy answer, and in the rush of misery that greets us as we make our way through the camp—people don't have enough food or water, and two children have died the day before—I forget about the sick boy's plight.

But I can't forget it now. One of my own sons is not much older. It's only through crazy luck that we live here in the United States, well fed, housed comfortably, and with doctors available on the other end of a phone line whenever we want to call. Could I bear seeing a son lie limp with no one to help, a faceless statistic in a casualty count of IDPs?

No. Never.

And neither could that other mother in Dalih.

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