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Sudan's Darfur Is Home to Tragedy, Optimism

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

After four years, there is no sign of a permanent peace in Darfur, Sudan. But there is a kind of optimism there that defies the headlines and the militias and even reason.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: At first sight, Darfur looks about as worn and shapeless as an old moth-eaten sweater. The desert stretches in every direction - sand, sand, and more sand, the dull golden brown of a lion's face, and little trees stand in places where water once flowed as reminders that one day it just might rain again in Darfur.

(Soundbite of crowd)

THOMPKINS: Fatma Azzam Mohammed(ph) doesn't know how old she is but she knows that she's old enough to have raised 10 children and buried five of them, and a husband. The fighting between black rebel forces and the government-backed Janjaweed militia has put her in the middle of the Kassab camp for internally displaced people in Northern Darfur.

Ms. FATMA AZZAM MOHAMMED: (Through translator) The Janjaweed is the one that killed my children. They killed them one by one. When they come, my children tried to run but (unintelligible) they used to kill them. Yeah. My children have just been killed. Just been killed one by one. Not at the same time.

THOMPKINS: Mohammed lives at Kassab with about 24,000 other displaced people who have similar stories to tell. She says that when there is peace in the region, she will return to her village and start again. But when asked whether she thinks there'll be peace in Darfur, she smiles the way a young girl with a secret would smile and says...

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) I think God is great. God is great. The peace will come.

THOMPKINS: So far only one rebel group has signed the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, and the fellow who signed has been trying to change it ever since. Rebel armies fighting government-sponsored Arab militias have splintered into any number of fighting forces. And even Arab militias are reportedly fighting among themselves. That leaves 200,000 people dead and two million people in the camps with two million sad stories to tell.

(Soundbite of children playing)

THOMPKINS: But that doesn't mean every day in Darfur is a bad day. On Thursday, when the new chief of the United Nations World Food Program visited the camp, the women ululated until they couldn't ululate any more. They seemed flattered that company had come to see them, and they shook hands and hugged Josette Sheeran as if she were a long-lost sister. For a moment, there was music and laughter in everyone's face.

Mr. PABLO RECALDE (Director, World Food Program, Western Darfur): It's very deceiving, because it changes within a moment.

THOMPKINS: Pablo Recalde heads the World Food Program's operation in Western Darfur, where the camps for the internally displaced are filled to capacity and more are coming. He says don't be fooled by relative calm in the camps. Instability on the border with Chad has fanned more violence, endangering residents and aide workers. Carjackings have been frequent, disruptive and downright scary.

Mr. RECALDE: I sleep with my radio and it's always there and I'm always dreading to hear the panic button. It gives you a stomach ache. It gives you migraines. It gives you insomnia. It basically provides you with all that - you know, those elements. And that is living with fear. That's what it does to you.

THOMPKINS: Bur Recalde and other aide workers from a variety of organizations here say they can't afford to dwell in the politics of the region, beyond knowing who controls the next road or the next checkpoint. The rest they leave in the hands of others.

Mr. RECALDE: I'm an eternal optimist. I will always be an optimist. We have always won, optimists, no matter what. But I think that we can certainly, certainly think eventually one day that Darfur is going to get out of its war, that Darfur is going to go forward.

THOMPKINS: In the meantime, people are doing what they always do - cooking, washing, and hanging out clothes to dry, scrounging for wood, pumping their plastic jerry cans full of water and raising children.

Perhaps that's the only great thing about the camps. There are a lot of children here. One day they may live to see a different life. But on this recent afternoon, most of them seem satisfied to know that their names would be on a tape that would be heard around the world - little reminders that one day peace might just reign again in Darfur.

Ms. FATMA NUSOV BRAGADIZA(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

THOMPKINS: And what's your name?

Ms. BRAGADIZA: Fatma Nusov Bragadiza.

THOMPKINS: And what's your name?

Mr. SHIAYA YUKEL ZAFATI(ph): Shiaya Yukel Zafati.

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, the Kassab camp of Darfur.

INSKEEP: And you can explore the roots of the conflict at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.