It’s International Day of Peace today.
But I want you to think about a place synonymous with war – not peace.
It’s one of those places to which you just don’t go – “hell on earth” as someone once said to me.
Sudan has witnessed some of the most horrific acts committed by humankind. Images of genocide and famine are beamed into televisions around the world, and this is what we think of when think of Sudan.
Only last week, demonstrators in Khartoum protested fiercely and furiously outside the US, UK and German embassies in order to express their anger at an American You Tube film which allegedly mocks Islam. In August, a Sudanese police man was shot dead by an armed gang and various government buildings in Darfur were attacked. Such violence serves to underline the dangers of operating in one of the world’s most volatile places.
In June 2012, I spent two weeks there, primarily to visit Practical Action’s work in Darfur.
On Saturday 23 June, the day of my 25th birthday, I met 9 year old Idris Abdullah. He was tending to his herd of goats as they drank from the water trough, and he was not holding a gun. He was one of the few children without one. The water point was engulfed by herds of thirsty goats and cows and camels, but I could not stop staring at the innocent children gripping guns.
This is the reality of life in Darfur.
Although the conflict, which was primarily an ethnic clash, ended in 2006, the official peace is fragile. Spikes of intense fighting between rebel groups, warring tribes and military forces continue to wreak havoc on the people who make their homes here. I met and spoke with so many women, children and men who must live under the ominous shadow of violence.
One mother, Amel Mahmoud Osman, said to me “We always have the fear that something will happen, but in order to survive we have no choice but to overcome it. We pray to God for safety.” And then she recalled watching pregnant women “bleed their babies away” during the heights of the terror of war.
Another young woman, Sara Abubker Ahmed, remembered the day her friend was blown up by a government bomb: “I still smell the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.”
The words of another young person, Yassir Oman Musa, will haunt me always. “It’s tragic, but everyone in Darfur has a story of loss to tell.”
Yassir’s acceptance of the futility of war is, of course, understandable, but it filled me with a sort of righteous rage. Why should anyone – even if you live in Darfur – have to accept a world dominated by violence?
Practical Action refuses to accept such a world. We have worked in Sudan, and in Darfur, for the last 25 years and continue to work there, employing a team of national staff to help vulnerable and marginalised communities to survive and thrive, against the odds. Working in partnership with local people, we endeavour to provide small-scale, sustainable and appropriate solutions to the daily problems caused by a rapidly changing climate and the chaos of war. We use simple techniques to help communities improve their own food security by planting community forests and improving access to and quality of water through harvesting rainwater.
But as sustainable development work is nearly impossible in the face of conflict, we are also striving to achieve a lasting local peace between traditionally warring neighbours. We use a host of approaches including facilitating mediation meetings, raising awareness about land ownership and demarcation of boundaries, and even producing educational community theatre.
Our efforts to build peace in these fragmented communities are innovative, unique, and most importantly, showing signs of success. Indeed, Yassir told me joyfully “for the first time ever we are hopeful of lasting peace.”
We have a chance to change the story of Darfur for good, to enable Amel, Sara, Yassir and so many others like them to move from war and suffering to peace and prosperity. But the work cannot be completed without further support.
By supporting Practical Action this International Day of Peace, you could give the people of Darfur a chance for a stable, peaceful and secure future, for the first time ever. Children like Idris Abdullah can look after their animals in peace, free of those weapons which are too adult, too ugly for their innocent hands.