Dust and Disease in the Desert
IN MARCH, Mark Lopes MPP 2003, a field officer on the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), flew to Darfur for a three-month rotation from his permanent assignment in Washington, DC. His job was to make sure that the assistance provided reached the people in need. During that time, he lived in El Geneina, a hot, dusty town in West Darfur, about 20 kilometers east of Chad. Working long hours and with travel limited for safety reasons, he decided to keep a journal of his experience. A few entries, which are strictly his opinions and impressions, are included here.
March 2005 First Impressions
Flying out to Darfur, I shook my head in disbelief as we flew out into what looks like one of the most unlivable terrains I have ever seen.
March 21, 2005 Photos that “Reflect Negatively”?
After three weeks, I have lost interest in taking pictures. While I’d love to record more of the images I take in, I find it distracting to think about a good picture while going through my day; there are thousands, and each one requires an explanation that I don’t have. In addition, confusing myself with a curious tourist looking for a good photo is one of the most unsettling feelings I have had since I arrived. While I hold a special permit authorizing me to take photographs in Darfur, it is illegal for me to photograph anything that may “reflect negatively on the government.” As you can imagine, that’s just about everything within 900 kilometers, in any direction.
March 23, 2005 Tragedy, Reflection
My colleague was shot in the face yesterday by an unknown gunman with a high-caliber weapon while traveling in a convoy in Darfur. She’s alive and doing well, but has lost her right eye and will need to undergo significant reconstructive surgery. I flew out to Darfur with her just three days ago. She changed planes in El Obeid, and I continued on to El Geneina. There are only six of us out here, so it could have easily been any of us. Why the convoy was shot is unclear — the banditry in Darfur is such that it is hard to decipher who is doing what and why. I came to Darfur partly because it was not Iraq or Afghanistan. In those countries, U.S. government officials have always been clear targets for violence. In Sudan, this was not the case. After this incident, this is no longer clear.
April 23, 2005 Airdrops
I’ve never seen a more striking visual example of relief aid than a Russian-made UN cargo plane dropping several hundred 50-kilogram bags of wheat from the sky and watching them burst open as they hit the dry, hard sand in Darfur. After the plane passes, local women are paid to hand-sift the wheat out of the dirt and re-bag it for distribution to the camps. An even more sobering sight are the families that have settled around the drop zone to sift through the dirt at night to find any remaining grains of wheat.
May 14, 2005 Emotionally Available?
I’ve been surprised with my ability to remain relatively disconnected emotionally from the intractable situation of most of the people around me. A few weeks ago, I flew to an extremely remote community where I helped assess the condition of 700 to 800 Sudanese villagers who recently walked the 20 kilometers back into Sudan after finding the conditions in Chad, where they fled during the conflict, even worse. Since they were too afraid to return to their original village, they squatted outside a larger village for protection. For the last three months, the women and children have been getting by on scraps of dusty food and droplets of dirty water, sitting in the sand in the blazing sun under a precarious shelter constructed of four or five small sticks and a few pieces of torn fabric. The men were said to be traveling around looking for work and bringing back food when they could. The children were nonresponsive and noticeably sick. It was the worst situation I have ever seen in my life. Nevertheless, after what seemed like an embarrassingly brief visit, I got back in my helicopter and flew to relative comfort with a startlingly numb disposition.
Maybe part of the reason rich countries are generally so inept at helping poor countries is because, even as individuals, we are often daunted by the challenge of responding with an appropriate level of humanity. No matter how bad things get, it’s always easier to fly away to relative comfort than it is to stay and really try to identify. While staying is often not the most effective way to address their needs, it seems like one of the few respectful things to do. The severity of the situation of those women and children merited a more aching reaction than I could provide. I remained defensively analytical. It’s hard enough to wrap my head around the quagmire the people of Darfur were in three years ago, before the current quagmire even began. Wrapping my heart around their daily struggle is another matter altogether, and something I’ll have to keep working on for the next trip.
To contact Lopes, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.