July 2, 2004
One hundred Sudanese dinars (30 cents) by foot, 200 by donkey: this is how much pro-government militias demand from those who forage for wood or grass beyond the periphery of Mornay camp, West Darfur. The amounts may seem small but in reality these pay-offs represent a fortune for people whose livelihoods have been completely destroyed. Not only do women and young girls face beatings and rapes if they can't pay, but even if they can. "One night an elderly woman and her granddaughter came to the clinic," said 31-year-old Dr. Sandrine Mons-Normand. "The grandmother screamed and held onto the girl trying to protect her. She was beaten. The girl was gang-raped."
Extortion and rape are a daily occurrence for the 80,000 displaced people living in Mornay, a town that lies 50 miles southeast of the city El Genina. The same militias surrounding them today forced them from their homes in massacres that took place between September 2003 and February 2004-a killing spree that left 1 in 20 dead and many of their villages and fields reduced to nothing but ash.
Under Mornay's midday sun, white-robed men sit in small groups beneath whatever shade exists-beneath a mim tree or in the shadow of a wall. Children run about kicking up clouds of dust. Every hundred yards, the carcass of a donkey lies contorted in the sand.
Women and young girls balance thick bundles of wood on their head as they walk through the fetid, trash-strewn paths of the camp. Their jalibias-billowing, colored head to ankle wraps-clash with the drab desert landscape while their air of dignity stands in stark contrast to the indignities they continue to endure.
"They try to find solutions, by leaving early or in large groups," Mons-Normand continued. "But the women I have treated weren't crying or revolted or saying how unjust this is. They just seemed so exhausted."
In late June, the rainy season began, with a driving downpour lasting all night. In usual times, the rains through August would be welcome-for filling the massive wadi, or dry riverbed, for freshly planted sorghum (a cultivated grain), or for respite from the constant sun. Today, though, it is just one more hardship to endure.
By morning, rivulets and pools of mud replaced the sun-baked ground. Many of the hastily made shelters don't have plastic sheeting for cover, leaving thousands of people unprotected from the storm.
"We have no beds and the water just rushed in," said 43-year-old Adam Abaka in front of the shack where he, his wife, and nine children live. "We had to stand up all night-me, my wife, my nine children." His village was attacked before dawn one day last September, and many of his friends were murdered before his eyes as he fled. The rains will exacerbate the severe health risks to people already weakened by violence and malnutrition. With only a few latrines and drastic shortages of water, much of the camp will turn into ponds of stagnant sewage. Roads will become impassable, further hampering already slow and irregular relief efforts.
"You can walk around and see where the water will flood," said Margaret Bell, a 43-year-old nurse from Australia. "Cholera is the biggest worry-without treatment you can die in several hours."
"We have already seen a few cases of shigella," added 36-year-old Dr. Greg Elder, the head of MSF programs in Mornay. "And if we don't see cholera it will be good luck, not good management. The mortality of these would be huge."
Even without these new risks, 200 people die in Mornay every month from easily treatable diseases like respiratory infections, watery diarrhea, and malaria. One in five children suffer from severe malnutrition, making them even more vulnerable. Shortly after the rains arrived, 2 children died in the intensive care tent at MSF's therapeutic feeding center. In the wake of high-level political visits to Khartoum, there has been talk of resettling the displaced to their home areas. Sudanese officials issue weekly statements carried in the Arabic and English language press. Authorities in Mornay have pressured camp elders and chiefs. No one in Mornay wants to return to devastated areas that are still prone to attacks.
People are clear that they would rather choose the safety of numbers in this overcrowded, unsanitary camp-with its concomitant risks of disease, starvation, and abuse-than go back to the shards of pottery and memories of murder that litter the blackened patches of earth they used to call home.
Twenty-year-old Katouma Ahmed fled to Mornay with her husband, four children and two donkeys six months ago after militias attacked a nearby village. When they briefly returned to their village three days later, nothing remained.
"How can I live there?" she asked.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)