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Darfur Camps Harsh, But Sustain Life

In Darfur's sprawling camps for displaced people, Darfuris who have been driven from their homes by conflict try to maintain some semblance of a normal life. Harsh conditions at the Abu Shouk camp, outside of El Fasher in northern Darfur, are dispiriting, but many feel lucky to be living there. Although their home villages have been destroyed, the residents feel safe.

It seems there is little to celebrate in El Fasher. Thousands of displaced people eke out a tenuous existence in IDP camps, and a recent upsurge in violence in the troubled area threatens to plunge the region into anarchy.

But the children at this makeshift nursery school are happy. Their teacher, Fatouma Hassan explains why.

It is not that bad here, she says. It could be worse. She is not paid for her work in the nursery, she says, and that makes it difficult. But the life in the camp is 50-50. It is not like her village. There is never enough water. But she is safe here. And until she can return home, she will try to be happy here.

Many Darfuris share Fatouma's attitude. Abu Shouk houses 50,000 displaced Darfuris in tattered shacks of cloth and sticks, and a stone's throw away, 30,000 more live in Al Salam camp.

Life in the camps is difficult. Children and adults are dirty, ill, and shell-shocked after witnessing brutality that tore them away from their families. They complain that there is no money and no meat. And yet, they say it is better here than in the villages where they fled from an onslaught by the Arab militias called janjaweed.

Fatima Mohamed remembers when the janjaweed came to her village.

The janjaweed came at night, she says. They killed all of the men. They killed all of the older boys. Then they dumped stones in the wells so that we could not drink from them again. They burned the village so we could not stay there, she says.

When asked what happened to the women, Fatima grows silent and will say no more. The United Nations and other aid agencies have said that the janjaweed commonly use rape as a tool to shame and silence women.

Residents of Abu Shouk camp want nothing more than to return to their villages. But they are safer here than they were at home.

Deputy Camp Coordinator Abu El Gasim says Abu Shouk is better than most camps. The residents have regular food. He says there was a school, but the teachers stopped coming because they were given no transport allowance by the Sudan government.

The camp has managed to avoid recent violent incursions by janjaweed that have occurred at other camps in the region.

Despite his optimism, Mr. El Gasim says the government of Sudan is still terrorizing displaced people. Government soldiers, he says, come to the camp with fleets of trucks and tanks and yell at frightened residents.

"Usually, every day now they are coming and patrolling inside the camp in army cars," he said. "They go inside the camp and move around. And when they find some people staying outside their houses they shout at them and send them back home."

Mr. El Gasim says camp residents are frightened and confused. They cannot understand what threat they pose to the government.

These are tense times in Darfur. Rebel factions that rose against the Khartoum government two-and-one-half years ago have splintered. The janjaweed remain at large, and the Sudanese government stands accused of colluding with the militias.

The African Union has had four of its peacekeepers murdered and international observers warn the area may descend further into chaos.

At the camp's western edge a football game is in progress. Young boys shout, run and laugh, maneuvering for control of a tattered ball. They are far from the watching eyes of their parents.

In Abu Shouk, for now, that is alright. The boys are not at home, but here they are safe.