I arrived in hot and dusty North Darfur in the air-conditioned comfort of a United Nations propeller plane. It's one of the few efficient ways to get to this remote region of western Sudan where the single highway that could connect it to Khartoum, the country's capital nearly 1,000 miles away, has a name that smacks of mockery.
It's called the West Salvation Road, and it remains unfinished. In Darfur, where nearly two years of violence have left close to one-third of the region's six million people homeless, salvation is just a dream. The rutted dirt roads that link the villages offer little hope that deliverance will come any time soon.
Darfur is not an easy place to navigate no matter what mode of transportation you choose. Heat, banditry, mud and dust, armed attacks, even little boys throwing stones—all of it conspires to make travel across Darfur slow and exhausting.
In parts of the south, up to 40 inches of rain can fall in a year, leaving sections of roads deep in sloppy silt. When it's dry, the fine sand piles in drifts across the roads, swallowing vehicles to their axles. Sometimes, the only way to get where you want to go is to put on your shoes and walk.
It was the shoes that kept catching my eye at Abu Shouk, and other temporary camps where tens of thousands of homeless people now wait out endless days. Mostly, they were slip-on sandals, leaving the wearers' heels to crack in the hot sand and their toes to cake with dust.
Were these the shoes that carried some people across sizzling plains and dried-out riverbeds on their long trek to safety? Many of the people fleeing their torched homes left on foot—and walked for days.
I look down at my boots, glad for the thick leather and lug soles insulating my feet. Could I have trekked the desert in flip-flops?
The only walking I've done is to the market—just once—a half-hour trudge through waves of red sand lapping over one of the few, and very busy, paved roads in El Fasher. Dodging the slower but heavily burdened donkeys, tiny blue and white taxis rattle past in a steady stream. Their interiors are packed with more passengers than it seems could possibly fit. But fit they do, and they don't look unhappy about it. It's better than walking.
Mostly, aid workers in this capital of North Darfur don't walk. They drive, or, more properly, are driven. It's hot, and offices and guesthouses are spread out across a city that some say numbers 200,000 people while others say is twice that. In a place without street names or house numbers, residents must be hard to count.
Driving in Darfur takes skill and patience. It helps to have a sturdy truck since miles of dirt tracks and sharp rocks take their toll on even the toughest vehicles. Breakdowns and mishaps are common. A flat tire and a smashed rear window—courtesy of a little boy tossing a stone—punctuate the round-trip expedition of an Oxfam convoy to Tawila, a town nearly two hours from El Fasher.
The better drivers know how to plow through the sandy drifts to firmer ground. Others simply get stuck, every wheel of their towering transport trucks sunk in the sand. For these drivers, patience is paramount. It could be a long time before they dig out again.
At Zam Zam station, a small trading post of thatched stalls near one of the camps for homeless people, a collection of trucks headed toward Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, has pulled off to the side of the road. Piled high with jerry cans, sacks, plastic chairs, and wooden pallets—all powdered with dust—the trucks look like they're here to stay. Banditry plagues South Darfur and the speculation is that the trucks, with their valuable cargo, dare not make the journey—yet.
So, the drivers wait, catching up on their sleep in the midday heat. One has pulled out a bed strapped to the back of his cab. Others tinker with a giant gear pried loose from the underbelly of a truck. Two watermelons cool in the shade behind one of the wheels.
Endurance, I think, must be a prized virtue among those in the Darfur driving profession.
In this poor and undeveloped place, the four-legged conveyances that compete stubbornly for street space seem more reliable than the four-wheeled variety. Donkeys don't get flats. They don't guzzle gas or require painstaking repairs or expensive new parts. All they need is food and water.
But at Kebkabiya, thousands of these precious donkeys suffered a grim fate last summer. They died of starvation, their carcasses littering the streets.
The donkeys belonged to some of the 60,000 homeless people who have streamed into Kebkabiya after being driven from their villages by the ongoing violence. It wasn't easy for people to leave the town to gather the grasses their donkeys desperately needed. In June, July, and August, the sturdy animals began to die—2,800 of them.
"It was a very big problem," recalls Esther Kabahuma, one of Oxfam's public health promoters. There were so many carcasses around that people began shoving them into the nearby riverbed to get rid of them.
"This town was stinking," adds Kabahuma.
Somehow, linking that word—stinking—to these dependable beasts sums up the sad truth of Darfur: What was good has gone bad. Even the completion of the West Salvation Road might not be enough to bring back the old Darfur.