The young boy from Kassab Camp is unnamed, unidentified except by the name of his camp. He drowned last week, and notice came only in the form of a brief announcement from Radio Dabanga, which has sources throughout Darfur:
“A boy died by drowning in Kassab Camp in North Darfur on Saturday. Several houses collapsed in the camp after heavy rains that fell on the region. A source said that dozens of displaced families are in the open after the loss of their homes.” (September 6, 2010, http://www.radiodabanga.org/node/3669 )
Without this notice from one of the world’s more obscure news sources, the boy’s anonymity would have been complete—joining the hundreds of thousands who have perished in similar anonymity over the past eight years. And perhaps I should be more concerned about the “dozens of displaced families”—potentially hundreds of civilians—exposed in North Darfur during the very height of the rainy season, facing ominously high malnutrition rates. But there are times when I find the world’s inability to look with any particularity at the human suffering and destruction in Darfur a cause for rage, for a desperate urge to make this suffering and destruction into a recognizable, an undeniable, an inescapably disturbing portrait. So I will construct an all too plausible history for this boy from Kassab Camp, and his place in Darfur’s ongoing agony.
I’ll call him Ahmed, and he is twelve years old; he has been in Kassab for the past six years. He arrived in summer 2004, at the height of the genocidal violence, having seen his village destroyed and losing most of his family. His ten-year-old sister and mother were gang-raped by the Janjaweed in front of all the village men, including his father, who was later killed. His mother survives, but has been nearly disabled by the trauma of the gang-raping and loss of her husband; his sister died a painful death from the fistula that developed following the tearing of her vagina and anus. His younger brother was killed in the attack; he is not sure whether his older brothers are alive or dead. His nights are haunted by dreams of violence he cannot understand or escape.
He has had few, perhaps no educational opportunities, and recreational resources are nonexistent; the minimal psycho-social services for his mother disappeared when Khartoum expelled thirteen humanitarian organizations in March 2009. He has been increasingly hungry as the UN World Food Program cuts rations to half the minimum kilocalorie diet; malnutrition is rising in North Darfur and food has become too expensive for him or his mother to purchase. She is unable to work, and Ahmed has been too young to compete for the few jobs available in or near the camp. Daily life before his death was defined by hunger, a lack of properly maintained latrines, inadequate shelter against this summer’s slashing rains (August and September are the two rainiest months of the season), and fear. At times he has suffered from an unbearable loneliness and sadness.
His vision of the future is no more than a version of the past six years. As part of this vision, Ahmed is all too aware of the marauding presence of the Janjaweed militia, who have made travel outside Kassab too dangerous (they have military quarters just a few kilometers away), and the protection nominally provided by the UN peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) is widely regarded as a grim joke within the camp. Continual low-level conflict among the equally deprived camp residents is a source of continual anxiety for Ahmed. A renewed military offensive begun earlier this year by Khartoum and the Janjaweed in nearby Jebel Marra has created many more displaced persons; and Kassab, already inadequate to the needs of its more than 30,000 residents, has become dangerously overcrowded. A camp leader told Radio Dabanga in early June of this year that, “People [in Kassab] suffer from food shortages and water shortages with the influx of new migrants to the camp.” Things have only grown worse in the past three months.
Ahmed also senses a growing fear that Kassab itself may be attacked at some point, as Khartoum ratchets up plans to dismantle the camps and forcibly return displaced persons to villages without security, or to as yet unconstructed “new villages.” Indeed, two years ago Nicholas Kristof posted a dispatch from a visitor to Kassab:
“As I write this, Kassab camp (North Darfur) home to 25,000 unarmed civilians and the location of Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s center, is under attack by Janjaweed forces. I spent time in the camp and know many people there. What do we do? Rebel forces are too distant and under-equipped to defend Kassab. UNAMID has only a small presence there. Who will be dead tomorrow?” (http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/29/darfur-camp-attacked/ )
“Who will be dead tomorrow?” The question, even unarticulated, has haunted Ahmed as he watches his mother’s mental health deteriorate and people he has known die from one cause or another.
In March 2007, the UN’s most senior humanitarian official, John Holmes, attempted to visit Kassab. As the BBC journalist traveling with him reported:
“The UN’s new emergency relief coordinator John Holmes has been turned away from a camp in Darfur for those fleeing the Sudanese conflict. The UN envoy was refused entry by Sudanese soldiers to Kassab camp in northern Darfur, says the BBC’s Karen Allen, who is travelling with him. In the past six months the BBC has reported on mass rapes of women and young girls at the camp…. Within hours of arriving in Darfur, Mr Holmes was stopped at a checkpoint. His convoy was sent back and television groups covering the visit had their video tapes confiscated, our correspondent says.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6491549.stm )
Ahmed perhaps heard rumors of an important foreigner who might help Kassab, and perhaps bring protection, help for his mother, and more food and clean water. The bitter anger of the camps residents at the impotence of the African Union force (which would become the UN/African Union force [UNAMID] on January 1, 2008) would have been palpable, if largely incomprehensible.
Even more incomprehensible to Ahmed are the questions continually posed by his elders: “Where is the international community?” “Where is a real UN peacekeeping force?” “Why have we been abandoned?” Ahmed knows virtually nothing of the world that has so resolutely refused to see him or end the suffering of his people.
So the ignorance is mutual: the world that knows nothing of Ahmed or his death has created only the most tenuous presence in his own life. He can’t feel gratitude for the humanitarian assistance that alone has stood between him and death; although unable to say as much, his life barely seems worth living. When the heavy rains washed away his no doubt inadequate shelter, his last thoughts before drowning were not of the help that did not arrive, they were not even of his family. I imagine them simply as the confused, terrified culmination of six years of suffering and deprivation that he had come to believe was his lot in life.
For all the Ahmeds who remain, or who have already perished, this assessment is all too true.
[Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide]