Excellent article in this weekend’s NYTimes by a reporter who visited a refugee camp in Darfur. So good, I’m putting here, not even as a link.
THERE is a camp called Otash that grows bigger every day, even as some displaced people elsewhere in Darfur get to go home because their villages are now calm. Here, people fleeing the war keep arriving by the truckload, 200 per truck, all of them standing up to maximize space, packed in like corn.
They come from all parts of Darfur, for word is out that there is food and water and safety here. This was one of the first camps and now it has about 60,000 people.
A drive through the camp, which is on the outskirts of the city of Nyala, is like a journey through the entire Darfur tragedy, in which we see the stages of the conflict laid out spatially, one after another.
We begin at the oldest part of the camp, where the huts are made of mud brick and lined up in neat rows, almost like little streets. Some houses have fences and even small yards where a few crops struggle in the crunchy soil. These folks came in early 2004, when Darfur had not yet pricked the Western conscience and the horse-riding outlaws known as janjaweed were killing and raping at will.
The refugees from these raids decided to stay and build themselves a village that resembled home. Most people here are dressed in clean clothes. The colors are amazing: women in yellows and pinks and electric blues, the fabric of their veils thin and friendly to the wind, like sails. The men wear white turbans and long white shirts. Some of their garments are paper-white, incongruously clean.
The next section of the camp feels not quite as permanent. It is essentially a shantytown, stinking of garbage and waste water that pools in slimy ditches. The homes here are ungainly things made from straw and plastic tarps and scraps of cardboard. You can tell the people here are still hedging. They are not taking the time to put together a proper house because they are thinking this is all temporary, this life can’t last, soon we’ll go back home.
You can’t blame them. Darfur is a world of mixed signals, with people moving in both directions, from villages to camps and from camps back to villages, depending on the security in their area. But even those who have returned say they are still scared. I see a girl here towing a kite that is a black and white plastic bag tied to a string.
Then we drive through a strange area, a field of very small shelters, little bubbles no more than two feet off the ground that look like humped shells, made of plastic bags and twigs, barely big enough for curled-up children. No one is around, leading camp residents to suspect that perfectly able residents from town sneak into the camp and put up these minimal shelters to pass as displaced people so they can get free food and sell it in the market. Or maybe that explanation is just camp politics. There seems to be a lot of that, too.
And then we pull into the last area, the place for the new arrivals, a meadow of sorts that marks the edge of the camp where the shanties stop and the land opens up into sorghum fields that look metallic under the glinting sun. Here is where the camp keeps pushing, hungry for more land, for more people, for more suffering, pushing its boundaries beyond the capacity of the human heart.
These people are the victims of the latest violence, the violence that seems to be unstoppable, even though the world is well aware of the killing in Darfur.
Some new arrivals are busy, trying to build their shelters quickly to get their children out of the sun or covered up by nightfall. They are not too ambitious, often just planting four sticks in the ground and stretching a shawl between them.
Other new arrivals sit motionless, staring at their few possessions spilled out in the grass — their “luggage” as people here call it, an apt translation for the few things you can carry when running for your life. I can only guess what images of smoldering huts and horses’ hooves play behind their vacant eyes.
These people are the most lost. They have arrived. But they have nothing really to unpack.
The saddest sight I see is a young woman sitting by herself with her baby. She has not built her shelter yet. She has a few things — a battered plastic jerrycan, a charred pot blacker than charcoal, a small supply of dried okra and a mat. In my mind, I picture all of it bundled up and lashed down on top of a truck, along with 200 other bundles just like it.
Her husband has been killed, I am told, and she has come with the others, packed in like corn. She is not talking to anyone. And I have nothing to say, either, no questions to ask. I write nothing down. Everything is so heartbreakingly obvious that it hurts just to look.