Sunday, March 22, 2009

A `horror' story that had `em laughing

AT 8am on March 4 in Khartoum, televisions blared with an international news channel screaming "Horror In Darfur".
  It updated on the conflict there with a montage of a dazed toddler with flies in her eyes and a crowd scrambling for food dropped off a plane on a field.
  A Ugandan journalist watching the telecast slapped his knee and guffawed: "Oiyy! That was south Sudan!" His peers from other African countries broke into cynical smiles or shook their heads in disbelief.
  A stream of curses in Swahili, English and Arabic flowed into the hotel lobby, discrediting the popular news channel watched by millions world over.
  At 4pm on the same day, at the Afra shopping mall in Khartoum, sales assistant Aina stormed off after watching TV coverage of the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant of arrest on Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. Ethiopian co-worker Julius called out to her in Arabic: "Ma musykil (it was nothing). They can't do anything to him."
  Aina retorted: "What do you care, huh? This is my country!"
  Gobsmacked Julius knew, as a migrant, that his family back home depended on the salary he earned in Khartoum. A politically stable Sudan ensured comfort and food for him and thousands of others like him.
  Bashir was not without motive when his government flew in 70 journalists from Arab League countries, the African Union, Japan, China and Malaysia to witness the inauguration of Merowe Dam just a day before the ICC announcement.
  The foreign journalists were unwittingly thrown into a whirlpool of unfolding events and street protests, from Bashir's nationwide rally from the President's Palace to North Darfur, to a live 90-minute unedited nationwide broadcast of a press conference at which vice-president Ali Othman Muhammad Taha said the country had had enough of the Western media's "distortions" of the Darfur situation.
  The ICC was condemned as "a tool of the West" intent on removing the elected president and installing a puppet leader so as to have unlimited access to mineral-rich Sudan.
  Ali said Sudan would "stop at nothing to fend off the neo-colonialist exploit", with the support of its allies.
  In Khartoum's Friendship Hall, some 300 journalists, mostly from African and Middle Eastern countries, hurled torrents of questions while six interpreters translated the proceedings into English, French and Arabic.
  The air smelled of fear. All the questions could be summed up in one intense note: What is to become of us?
  Three days later, tens of thousands thronged the streets of Al-Fasher on foot, donkeys, horses and camels, and in vans, buses and trucks, to catch the president at the town's square.
  One the way back to the airport, the president made a stop at the camps of displaced people. The residents lined the streets to shake hands with him. Genocide? War Crimes? Would the victims offer politeness in exchange for atrocities committed by their own leader?
  Millenniums ago, Darfur was an important link between Africa and the Middle East. The arrival of Khalid Al-Walid's armies during the Ar-Rashidin Caliphate marked the dawn of Islam here.
  As the Darfur sultanate embraced the religion, Arabic became the official language and the Quran the essential academic and holy text. The Darfur sultans offered silk and gold kiswah (cloth) to cover the Ka'aba during Haj seasons, and trade flourished in the region.
  Darfur, an area about the size of France occupying a fifth of Sudan, had observed zakat and haj centuries before Parameswara repeated the shahadah in Malacca. To describe Darfur as lawless and tribal, therefore, was quite ignorant.
  Contrary to the common perception that the Darfur people were helpless, if not doomed, without the help of charity organisations, the region is actually self-sustaining. Three months of rain a year is enough to irrigate the fertile land to supply Sudan with grain, vegetables, fruit and livestock.
  The 250,000 displaced people living in Nyala and Al-Fasher camps are not immobile mannequins but human beings with the will and means to live. They get fresh unchlorinated water from the wells, as they had in their home villages, and the children had white teeth, taut skin and healthy nails.
  Darfur in conflict is "a big pot of money" to many, as a Tunisian journalist said: "People do charity to make themselves feel good."
  How much exactly poured into the funds of the 117 international charity organisations in Darfur since 2003?
  Multiple millions, perhaps, but why was the International Rescue Committee health centre so basic that it did not even have proper mud brick walls, let alone clean sheets?
  One of these organisations had admitted to Sudan's government that they had made a pact with the ICC to provide information and witnesses to prosecute the president. For this, they had apologised.
  Others had sold distorted images of Darfur people to raise more funds for their organisations.
  As we invited journalists watched the newscaster wrap up the "Horror In Darfur" broadcast, a Kenyan journalist remarked: "A minute more on Darfur, a minute less on Gaza."

New Straits Times, March 22, 2009

The dust never settles in Darfur

SUDAN is making attempts to get its economy moving to make a difference in the lives of its citizens and the thousands displaced by the Darfur conflict. SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI was in Sudan for the opening of the RM6.6 billion Merowe High Dam across the Nile at the same time the International Criminal Court was seeking to arrest the country's head of state.

  The dust never really settled in Darfur. It was part of the climate, but when it did, the sunflowers in the tiny garden of a mud house in Abu Shouk camp swayed regally under a cloudless azure sky.
  Khadijah Ibrahim, 54, tended to her prized sunflowers in the little compound of her house, while Al-Fateh Hassan, the youngest son of her husband's second wife, played among the towering flowers.
  Tucked within the maze of narrow passages where 50,000 displaced people now live, Khadijah had long accepted that this was her life now, and she would not waste her time thinking otherwise.
  When war broke out in Darfur six years ago, the camp housed about 83,000 people from the villages surrounding Al-Fasher, the capital of north Darfur, including Tawila, Kakabiya, Kuttum and Jebel Marak, bordering west Darfur.
  Many have returned to their villages in the past year, but others have chosen to rebuild their lives here. The mechanics run workshops, the teachers teach, the professionals go where the projects take them.
  But it's the farmers who miss their land the most. Adjusting has not been easy for Khadijah's husband, Hassan Abdal Bakhur, 70. "I have nothing to do here," he said.
  Hassan was from Tawila, some 130km from Al-Fasher. He used to have 17 goats and five donkeys and cultivated grain, vegetables and tobacco on his land, but all was lost to the "mountain robbers".
  ("Robbers, not rebels," he stressed.)
  Since time immemorial, Hassan said, the "mountain robbers", or Jenjawid, have pillaged and robbed the people of Darfur, but they had always lacked weapons. Tawila became a killing field when the robbers acquired guns and waged war on both villagers and government forces.
  Hassan now lives in Abu Shouk camp with his wives Khadijah and Hawa Ishak Mukmin, 38, and their 19 children and 23 grandchildren. His children all survived the fighting, Hassan reasoned, because they had evacuated the village early.
  "The village is a lot safer now," Hassan said. "Hopefully, the
government will chase away the robbers for good."
  Two of his sons had returned to Tawila to work on the family's land.
"Better to work and get money than wait for help," Hassan said, referring to the special food allowance given by the government and aid agencies.
  Since the Sudan government's recent expulsion of international aid agencies, allegedly for spying, the primary healthcare centre at the camp had lost its volunteer doctors.
  Insaf Ibrahim, 25, who used to work with the International Rescue Committee as house visitor at the camp, said the gap should be filled immediately by the Health Ministry. "It is vital to maintain the people's health in the camp," she said.
  In such a concentrated population, any outbreak of disease could easily reach epidemic proportions and be difficult to control - but Insaf is most concerned with basic hygiene. Her job requires her to visit camp residents to talk to them about health and basic cleanliness.
  Insaf's own kitchen was basic but immaculately clean: a cotton dustcloth spread over plates and glasses; pots and pans and cooking utensils lining the wall; the wood stove without ash.
  Insaf's wages from the IRC weren't much, but when the organisation left, she lost crucial income for her household.
  Her husband, Muhamad Musa Abu Bakar, 30, teaches English at a secondary school in Al-Fasher. He is critical of the charity workers who he believes came to camps with hidden agendas. "Some of them tried to exchange our Quran with the Bible by offering us money," he said.
  "It was insulting. If they were sincere in their efforts to help us, they would not have asked us to convert to another religion."
  His anger was shared by Ibrahim Al Khaled Sheikh Adid, the director of the camp's Interning Displaced People programme, who said residents had complained of missionary activities by certain aid organisations.
  "We have evidence that some of them distributed Bibles as part of their charity work," Ibrahim said. "Darfur is 100 per cent Muslim and their act was clearly insensitive and insolent to the people in the camp."
  Al-Fasher Hospital director Dr Nor Aldeen Mobarak El Noor said Sudan's health ministry had recently dispatched doctors to the camps. There are three hospitals, four clinics and a specialist centre in Al-Fasher, providing health services to the three camps, Abu Shouk, Assalam and Zam Zam.
  "Within a year," Nor Aldeen said, "the government plans to completely take over the health centre from all international charity organisations in the camps."
  More than 4,300 babies were delivered in Abu Shouk last year, with only 300 cases referred to the hospital, and 15 stillborn.
  Mohamed Al Said Khayyam, a medical assistant at Abu Shouk Primary Healthcare Centre, said there had been significant improvements in the general health due to increased awareness of hygiene, but the growing amount of rubbish in the area, especially around the marketplace, was creating another health hazard.
  Outside their homes, children untouched by fear of disease or strangers played freely. Some chased the donkeys carting fresh water from the hand-pumped wells in the camp.
  Troops were still on alert outside the camps, but on the streets, life was abuzz: peddlers trading handwoven baskets, kettles on the boil at the tea stalls, cobblers stitching snakeskin into loafers, electronic shops stocking digital cameras and other gadgets.
  It has been months since Al-Fasher or Nyala in south Darfur were attacked by armed bandits. As the sunflowers swayed in the desert under the baking sun, Khadijah remained hopeful that one day, she would return to her village.
  For now, she was content to watch her tiny garden grow.

New Straits Times, March 22, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sudanese: Leave us alone

THE street demonstrators here are rather press-savvy when it comes to getting their message across. Perhaps they have been conditioned by the foreign press to pose for the cameras.
  At the Al-Jamia Street, where nearly a million Sudanese had gathered to listen to President Omar al-Bashir's speech on Thursday noon, all one needed to do was point the lens at the crowd.
  They would pose however you wanted them to - chanting slogans, throwing fists in the air, ripping flags, waving placards in foreign languages and even unsheathing daggers in stabbing motion just to get the shutters clicking and the cameras rolling.
  Otherwise, the protesters would walk on with a smile, carrying banners or pictures of their president.
  In between quips that he was not Michael Jackson, Michael Osa of South Sudan disagreed with the International Criminal Court for issuing the warrant of arrest to the president.
  "Leave us alone. We will have peace."
  Hisham Amin spat out at ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo: "You talk about justice? Where's justice in Gaza and Iraq? Bring those people who killed the babies there to justice, then only will we believe in yourcause."
  Zahrah Sambur of Sudanese Women's Association said: "Take this message to the world: We Muslims and Christians are of one nation and one president. Sudan is a free nation. We are not afraid of you."
  She was referring to the court and Western countries, which most Sudanese believe had fuelled the conflicts in the country.
  The move by the ICC not only stoked anger among Sudanese but the trepidation and fear are also felt in neighbouring countries, especially Kenya and Uganda.
  Sudan's economic and political stability would directly impact Uganda in terms of exports, job opportunities and education, said Issa Chyrarira, an executive director with non-governmental organisation Media for Peace and Religious Tolerance.
  "The more Sudan has, the more we will benefit. But if South Sudan is in chaos, chances are our people will be involved in the factions. Historically, Sudanese and Ugandan rebels are known to be supportive of one another. It is vital to keep the peace in Sudan."
  Issa believed that no leader in his right mind would kill his own people, so the allegations against Bashir were politically motivated.
  "Would they arrest (former US president George W.) Bush for Iraq, even when the United States is not a signatory to the court?"
  Richard Karema, a foreign editor with Nairobi Standard, a Kenyan national daily, feared the ICC move would set a precedent.
  He said if ICC, a legal institution of which Sudan is not a signatory, could issue a warrant of arrest against a sitting president, then other African nations were also vulnerable to this legal process. "They could simply bulldoze any country they want."
  Karema said the ICC, in a way, had asked signatory countries to hand over the president if he was in their country.
  "The court wanted us to turn in our own neighbour. What next? More upheaval in Africa?
  "It was a fight over control of resources. They wanted the oil and
minerals in Sudan using all the means they can, including the ICC and manipulation of the media."
  With the global economic meltdown and the changing weather affecting agricultural output, the last thing any country in Africa would want is war.
  "It could tear the continent to shreds," added Karema.

New Straits Times, March 7, 2009

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Energy, wealth and peace to flow from Sudanese dam

THE 20,000-strong crowd of men in white robes, women in colourful wraps and children in Western clothes danced before the main platform on the Merowe desert in Sudan, in what looked like a massive rock concert under the baking sun.
  The Sudanese from the Nile state revelled in the fiery Arabic speech of President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, chanting in response: "The dam is our answer!"
  Set against the foreboding backdrop of a warrant of arrest on their leader from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the people seemed more concerned with being set free from poverty.
  Certainly, the desert dwellers - farmers who had lived on and worked this land since the Pharaohs - saw the US$2 billion (RM7 billion) Merowe Dam as a catalyst for change.
  One of them, economics graduate Sarah Omer, 29, had returned to her hometown in Merowe after completing her studies in Khartoum to work with one of the engineering companies at the dam, Lahmeyer International.
  Omer belongs to the Shaygia tribe. Her ancestors had once ruled northern Sudan and built pyramids along the Nile to mark their rule over Egypt for more than a century.
  The "Black Pharaohs", as they were dubbed by Western archaeologists, were in no way inferior to the Egyptians when it came to intellect and technology, and had built more pyramids along the Nile than their neighbours.
  Once a bustling kingdom, the area is today filled with mud-house villages.
  While most development is centralised in Khartoum, the dam project is like a window to a whole new world of piped water, electricity and roads for the people of the Merowe region.
  Sarah said: "When I was a child, the children from the villages had to come to Merowe to go to primary school. There were no schools in their village."
  Children as young as 10 had to live in a halfway house on their own, if they did not have relatives to stay with, returning to their villages on weekends.
  "There were also no hospitals. People used to die on their way to the hospital because the road was bad and the journey was rough. I often heard that pregnant women with birth complications would never arrive in time at the hospital. It was sad."
  Omer, who is reading for a Master in Business Administration at a local university, said it used to be a four-hour drive from Merowe to Hamdab, where the dam was built, but now it takes about 40 minutes.
  An aerial view of the Nile downstream towards the dam reveals a snaking green belt of palm trees and padi fields and other crops against an arid red desert.
  The river irrigates the banks, but nearer Merowe, improved irrigation has allowed agricultural activities to penetrate deeper into the more rural areas.
  Minister in the Federal Government Osama Abdullah, the executive director of the Sudan Dams Implementation Unit, said the government was confident that the dam would do much to eradicate poverty in Sudan.
  "The power supply will reach all parts of the country, including southern Sudan and Darfur, by April next year," Abdullah said in a press conference with journalists from Africa, Arabic nations, Japan, China and Malaysia, invited to cover the inauguration of the dam.
  He was confident that the power supply would generate wealth through improved output in agriculture and manufacturing. It would mean more jobs and higher incomes for the people, and, most importantly, it could help bring peace to Darfur and southern Sudan.
  Abdullah lashed out at Western countries that viewed Africa as a stock of raw resources to be yielded as and when they wished, "like turning on the tap water".
  He described the ICC move to indict Bashir as a "new form of white imperialism".
  More than 600 workers and professionals from Darfur have been hired to work on the dam project, which offers better remuneration than other jobs.
  Civil engineer Mohamed at-Tahir from Shairia in northern Darfur observed that the lack of natural resources was one of the underlying causes of the Darfur conflict.
  Tahir, whose village was ravaged by that conflict, leaving its families to languish in two refugee camps, remarked that wealth alone could not guarantee peace.
  "The people in Darfur came to work here because they need to rebuild their family lives in the villages.
  "We need education to get out of poverty and progress.Without it, peace in Darfur will remain elusive."
  Omer, who has occasionally unearthed archaeological artifacts in her backyard, was not bitter that half-a-million square kilometres of territory was being inundated by the dam, along with the legacy of the Black Pharaohs who had once ruled Egypt and fended off the Assyrian army three millenniums ago.
  "We had a civilisation, but now we need to survive. It is a loss we can
absorb, I think."