Robert Booth in Darfur
Friday December 7, 2007
A dust cloud blew across the market of the Abu Chok refugee camp in Darfur as Ahmed Abdullah Ibrahim summed up his desperate situation. "It is unsafe for me to go back home and it's not safe here," he said, his face wrapped up against the desert winds in a white headscarf. "Even yesterday, we had people in the camp come to attack us. They came in and fired shots."
Ibrahim's dilemma is repeated at more than 100 similar camps across Darfur - a region of western Sudan as big as France - and it is one that is focusing renewed scrutiny of the international response to a crisis that has already claimed at least 200,000 lives and forced an estimated 2.5 million people to flee their homes.
The camp, which has 54,000 residents, is one of Darfur's largest. Malnutrition, malaria and typhoid are rife, while cases of diarrhoea are rising. Some observers feel that after a period of "low-level hostility", Darfur could be about to tip once more into widespread fighting between African rebel groups, government forces and their agents, the notorious Janjaweed, an Arab militia responsible for some of the most pitiless massacres and rapes of civilians.
Again, this puts him at odds with the UN. Across town at the organisation's office , they say there has been "no significant reduction" in the influx of refugees.
Abu Chok sprawls across the floor of a dried-up river. Some houses are made of low mud brick walls, but more are made of canvas and sticks. With winter temperatures of 4C (39F) approaching, they look flimsy. There is no protection around the camp, leaving it exposed to attacks. The only protection is from occasional units of local blue-uniformed government police in armed trucks at the perimeter. Children are everywhere; playing in piles of rubbish or loitering in large groups.
"I have been here for four years," said Idriss Muhammad, a tall man in long grubby robes. "I spend my days either here in the camp or walking to Fasher to try to find manual work."
When he gets to the government town, what he finds is a stark contrast to the camp. The market is stocked with piles of fresh radishes, tomatoes, sugar cane, goat meat and even camel meat, a delicacy. There is also a hospital in the town. Not so in Abu Chock.
"There is not enough food, and people don't have money" said a doctor in his small clinic at the camp. He has four medical assistants and on a busy day they see 300 patients in a surgery built from scaffolding and raffia. Many will never receive the treatment they need because, refugee or not, the hospital in town charges for investigations and treatments.
"If they are very ill, we tell them they must go to the hospital," he said. "If they don't have any money, they won't go and, yes, they will probably die."