Hope for change keeps humanitarians going in Darfur

A peacekeeper with the United Nations Mission in Darfur stands next to a vehicle damaged by the ambush in South Darfur that killed seven peacekeepers and injured many others. Darfur is one of the most dangerous places for humanitarians on the ground. Photo by: Albert González Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

Last July 4, George Fedha was in distress.

He and some staff members are stuck inside the World Food Program’s guesthouse in Nyala, Sudan. Fighting between armed militias and government forces had erupted the night before and would not stop.

“Every moment, I was scared for my staff, but I’m also aware that I had to be in control of emotions and just make sure we make the right decisions,” Fedha, WFP head of operations in South and East Darfur, told Devex. “I was just hoping the situation gets better. And that we don’t suffer any casualties.”

Late that afternoon, U.N. peacekeepers were able to evacuate him and other WFP personnel, although some staff were left behind and were not extracted until the next day. A few days later, the U.N. agency was able to partially resume operations in Nyala, and eventually, the situation started to normalize again — although the tension remains.

The memory of that incident is still very fresh in Fedha’s memory, but not because it was something unexpected. Everyday, humanitarians must deal with insecurity in hotspots like Darfur, where just two weeks ago another group of WFP aid workers were ambushed and robbed of personal items and WFP supplies by gunmen.

“Insecurity here is a daily event. Of course, we are trying to reduce risks, but it’s happening everyday,” Dageng Liu, head of WFP’s programs in West and Central Darfur, told Devex.

Daily routine

Fedha and Liu normally start their day by briefing staff members on the day’s agenda and security situation. Then they visit food distribution sites, contact government authorities for access to a certain area, coordinate with other humanitarian groups, and wrap up with paperwork.

But both admit insecurity, matched with sometimes delayed response and lack of staff members with specific skills, make it very difficult to operate in Sudan.

This is very unlike North Korea, where not so much security but monitoring is the issue, explained Liu, who spent over two years in that country before being sent to Darfur.

“In North Korea, it is very peaceful. The challenge is monitoring food [and ensuring it reaches beneficiaries,” he noted.

Despite the challenges, Fedha and Liu are able to get by. Each has his own way of coping with the reality on the ground. Liu shares they don’t have much social life outside the WFP compound, particularly because it is difficult to move around the region. But they do try to play sports, such as football, and hold small parties every now and then. When the tension gets unbearable, they go out town for a while or to the beach.

But almost everyone who goes to Darfur knows that it’s not going to be in any way “comfortable,” according to Fedha: “When you choose to come to this place, you know what to expect.”

“You should have all [the] information. Study the dynamics of the place, the complexities of inter-tribal relationships and understand aspects of it, establish relationships with authorities and communities, be very close to [the] staff who know what’s really happening in the villages, and be aware of the security details.”

He added: “In a place like this, you really get to be close to each other [aid agencies]. At times, they are the ones that can give comfort when things get tough.”

Driving factor

Liu and Fedha have been working in Darfur for more than a year now. Sometimes they get frustrated, but neither has plans to leave, at least for now.

“It gives me big satisfaction [to be] able to help people … My mom said, you’re doing something good, and God or Buddha will help you,” explained Liu.

Sudan is Liu’s first deployment in Africa, while Fedha has worked there for several years and in some of the most volatile environments, like Somalia, Kenya or Uganda.

At times Fedha gets fed up, like other humanitarians, but whenever he finds some semblance of change, no matter how small, it gives him strength to continue: “We actually almost gave up in certain places, but when I’ve seen life changing, it outweighs the despair and frustration i had with daily operations.”

Finding a nice Italian restaurant in Somaliland again, or meeting people interested in going back to Mogadishu to start some trading work, are things that give him hope and energy to “keep going,” although he admits he now yearns for some form of quiet, where he can work in a normal duty station, get to sip some cappuccino, and enjoy the company of his family.

For Liu, meanwhile, Darfur presents an excellent opportunity to build resilience as an aid worker.

“My colleagues made me aware of Darfur’s challenges [before I came]. And they told me: If you can manage the Darfur operations, in the future, you can manage all major emergencies,” Liu said. “It’s like Darfur is a university, and I hope to graduate well with my assignment here.”

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.