Putting faces to the people

26 February 2008 Comments

After a lot of effort our Sudanese MSF co worker was returned to us. He is safe and he appears to be functional. The staffs here were able to sleep soundly for the first time since he was missing. During the last several days my MSF - El Genena co-workers and I tried to respect the balance of being functional and being sensitive to the atrocities that have occurred in the communities north of us. Being angry, grieving, or attached to the situation is not always useful when planning an effective approach. As a nurse, I am able to begin every hospital shift as new, “forgetting” all the patients who have died in shifts past. In Sudan, people have taken the same approach to communities burnt and people killed by the hundreds. If people in Sudan functioned any differently there may be a vigil every day of the year- the memorials would take up more space then any piece of infrastructure. Unfortunately, what I have witnessed in the last week is just another awful memory for people in Darfur; life goes on.

In the case of Seleia, it is more then just another burnt community in the North. Although all my friends and coworkers arrived safely in Chad, they do not have a single item of material. They and their families exhausted themselves by walking through the night and day without water or food to seek refuge in Chad- where they really are not welcome at all. We are able to have contact with them by satellite phone and communication provided by MSF-CH operating in Chad. They received their paycheck there, and will start to build their lives with such fundamental needs as attaining water, warmth and food.

Though my empathy goes out to my co workers and their children, there are so many other victims who are worse off. The UN / AMIS hybrid force (UNAMID) have been doing assessments in the Northern communities. Their team consisted of protection officers, human rights officers, child protection staff and a few other sectors. They reported the presents of elderly living in the burnt communities who were unable to seek refugee in the surrounding areas. Some women made their way back to help support their parents or grandparents. For these people their burnt houses are the least of their worries. Apparently, they hide in the outer area of the town to avoid the sustained violence and harassment of their attackers. Everyday there is shooting. At night they may be able to access their food which they buried underground before they escaped.

On February 14, 2008 the UN team assessed Seleia. I went to their debriefing and heard that Seleia had sustained the worst damage and attack than any other community in the northern corridor of West Darfur during the last few months. The community of over 15,000 was reduced to a small group with almost half of the village burnt. During the assessment the attackers continued to loot and harass the people who were still in the area. To my surprise, the Women’s Group in Seleia was still functioning and networking. Once again, women in Seleia have demonstrated their secrete strength which is incomprehensible to men and others in developed countries. The assessment team was able to leave food for about 500 people in hope to get access to the community again shortly. The 30 children left in the community received Plumpy Nut for therapeutic feeding. Although I abided to a functional-pragmatic philosophy in analyzing the situation I still get a knot in my stomach putting faces to the people living in misery.

One face that comes to mind is Hadja. She is the grandmother of Abu Romand, the health educator, and is the next-door neighbour to the MSF compound in Seleia. I do not know how old Hadja is, but she looks well over 80. She hobbles around with a stick, collecting firewood and herding all her grand children. Everyday she stands next to her donkey, does a few movements beyond the nature of physics, and then lands on the donkey to ride away. When she sees me laughing at the surprise gymnast move- she laughs too… a hardy old lady laugh. She is someone who has tonnes of life left in her - I hope people are making her as comfortable as she has made others feel.

As for the medical approach to the situation, it is very complicated. In Canada free medical care is a way of life. In Sudan, it may be reason enough to move back into a horrifically threatening environment. In addition, MSF may also provide a false sense of security by our presences alone if we were to return to Seleia soon. There are usually few clear answers when it comes to humanitarian aid interventions. In this case, the only clear fact is that both the population and the community structure are difficult to access.