Later I meet Aisha and Umsha, two sisters who help at the clinic. Eunice tries to give jobs in the clinics to refugees she feels can most benefit from the money she can pay. Earning a little money can make a huge difference. Getting firewood to cook with has become of the greatest dangers women and young girls face in Darfur. They risk rape when they venture outside the camps searching for wood. Women who earn a few dollars can purchase wood and even manage to get to the souk and buy vital supplemental food. The World Food program provides basic food for refugees in the camps, but this is very limited -- flour, soghrum and rice. The diet lacks iodized salt, meat, vegetables or fruit. Lack of iodine is causing huge and easily avoidable health problems.
I listen to Aisha and Umsha as they talk tearfully about their lives before the Janjaweed came and destroyed everything. Umsha clutches and works on a piece of cloth as if it is a security blanket. The two lived in a village with 500 people and were successful farmers. They owned donkeys, horses, chickens and goats. They grew millet, yams, tomatoes, onions and watermelon. They had enough extra food to sell at the souk. Aisha says, “We had a good life. I was full. I had everything I needed…now I am hungry. My children cry with hunger. Oh, what I would give for a piece of watermelon now….”
As we head back to the compound at the end of the working day, I press Eunice to talk about the political issues that a day like this reveals. She is (rightly) reticent to speak. She knows that any remarks that could be construed as “advocacy” could cost her and her organization the right to help these refugees. Although the Sudanese government actively encourages relief organizations, helping a country with a military dictatorship and a dubious human rights record is still a political tightrope. The living conditions of humanitarian workers in Sudan today are challenging. There is harassment, the constant threat of secret police activity, stray bullets as doctors and nurses head to work. There are absurd arrests on trumped up charges and even deaths.
At night, aid workers return to locked and guarded compounds with curfews and few ways to relax. Under Sharia law, there is no alcohol and, in Darfur, there are no hot baths. Workers can’t even jog to unwind as it is too dangerous. Yet people like Eunice remain committed, and the rituals of comfort, especially among women, are quite moving: beauty nights and badminton games, shared books and emails to loved ones elsewhere. A few weeks after I return home, I’ll get an email from another IMC worker in Darfur:
“Jane, today I made a huge discovery that will enrich so many lives -- a beauty parlor in Nyala!” These are small comforts for huge sacrifices.
The end of the working day is celebrated with a “donkey water” shower, and I have rarely experienced such bliss. Each morning, a donkey comes and delivers a container of slightly muddy-looking water to the compound. By some miracle of engineering, it is pumped to a couple of outdoor showers. At 4p.m., the water is actually hot from sitting in the sun all day, but I preferred to take a later slot and enjoy the cool water washing the heat and sweat away.
Our dinner in Darfur is a simple meal of salad, meat (usually goat) and rice, lentils or potato. I feel blessed and lucky to have the comparative abundance of these simple meals, especially the night we have watermelon. We go to bed early and I collapse into my cot, trying not to move until morning. It is so stifling in the rooms of the compound that even turning over in my cot produces a full-body sweat. It’s hard to think of home, family and all the privileges we take for granted in the West. I try to imagine the nightmares of Zainab and Aziz as they try to sleep in their hut. I doze off vowing to do something, anything, to help these people when (and if) I get safely back home. But at least tomorrow, in the meantime, I will bring a piece of watermelon to Aisha.