Tuning in daily for a small dose of relief

When last did you hear a good-news story coming out of Darfur? For that matter, have you ever heard a good-news story from there?

Well, I’ve got one. In the South Darfur city of Nyala, there is a small group of Sudanese men and women who risks life and limb each day to deliver humanitarian information over the radio to the millions of displaced persons in the region.

They work for the BBC World Service Trust, a humanitarian arm of the world’s best-known broadcaster, and every day they broadcast a 30-minute programme on shortwave to western Sudan as well as parts of Chad and the Central African Republic.

In a conflict hot spot that is the focus of international media attention, this programme is the only one that targets the people concerned. The Darfur Lifeline project is emergency radio at its best. Twice a day, at 8am and 8pm, thousands of people hold their cheap Nigerian-made radios close to their ears and hear about the crisis that is affecting their lives.

A team of 13 Sudanese producers and researchers from all parts of the country start their day early to produce the programme, which is titled Salam ila Darfur, or ”Peace/Greetings to Darfur”. They spend their time talking to internally displaced people living in the camps, health workers, local and international NGOs and even the military to find out what information is needed on the ground to keep the displaced informed and reduce their suffering just a little.

Putting the programme together is not easy. The journalists need permission from the Sudanese government’s humanitarian affairs committee to go just about anywhere. And they get it. Even NGOs that tend to shy away from the media make exceptions for the Darfur Lifeline team. NGOs are mostly suspicious of the media and feel that media attention can jeopardise their work in sensitive areas by threatening often difficult relationships with local authorities.

Yacoub Ismael, the director of Oxfam’s regional office in South Darfur, says his organisation makes an exception to the ”no talking to the media rule” for Darfur Lifeline. There is widespread acceptance within humanitarian circles that their work strengthens and complements their programmes.

Surprisingly, perhaps, on the occasions when programming content is criticised by the displaced population, it usually follows a broadcast about the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), which is viewed by most in Darfur as dead in the water. The DPA was signed in Abuja by the Sudanese government and one rebel group led by Minni Minawi, who has since joined the government.

Most of the main anti-government groups have rejected the agreement. This has not gone unnoticed by the displaced people. Darfur Lifeline producers say that people become aggressive when questioned about the DPA. They simply do not believe that the wealth and power-sharing promised in the agreement will happen — and there is certainly no indication on the ground that it is.

Conditions in the camps are gruelling. Darfur borders the Sahara, so the climate is harsh and water availability a constant problem. Close to half the people in Darfur have had to flee their homes since the conflict began in 2003.

In many cases, the displaced face a host of new security problems in the camps. Rival ethnic groups live cheek by jowl and fight for dominance and control of the small amounts of ”wealth” distributed by the aid community. Access to food, water, blankets and medicine represents a new kind of power. When human dignity is all but lost, it is not surprising that new warlords develop out of something as innocuous as youth groups. Some of these camps contain well over 100 000 people and, as they are new, there is a power vacuum. It does not take long before anybody with a bit of charisma and a following recognises the power associated with having control over something as basic as food distribution.

Most people in Darfur — a region the size of France — are at the mercy of forces over which they have virtually no control. Many of these forces are trying to kill them. The task of collecting firewood for cooking and warmth is life-threatening, because it takes women away from the relative security of the camp. The African Union military peacekeeping mission sends out occasional patrols to accompany the women. But they are few and far between and, when attacked, the patrols retreat to their own camps.

Information is one of the few tools Darfuris can use to take back some of the control they lost when their villages were burnt to the ground by Sudanese government forces and their allies, the terror-inspiring, mounted Janjaweed warriors.

Information on where it is safe to collect firewood, where food is being distributed, where displaced children can go to learn to read, where lost friends and relatives can be found, how to avoid or treat the numerous contagious diseases that sweep the camps because of a complete breakdown in social services and infrastructure — this is what the Darfur Lifeline team puts on air every day.

When the security situation permits it, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) conducts vaccination campaigns throughout Darfur on a regular basis. Their Nyala office makes no bones about the value of the BBC radio programmes. ”Our immunisation coverage in the camps doubled after the BBC broadcasts,” said Unicef’s Nagui Kodsi.

The Sudanese government operates its own radio service in Darfur, yet it is almost impossible to find anybody who believes a word produced by the state broadcaster.Besides, journalists working for the government are not allowed into the camps. The divide is so wide that Kodsi says he has attended health ministry meetings during which the government of Sudan has admitted it relies on the BBC to send messages to its own displaced people.

This may be one of the reasons why the service is tolerated. It is not easy to gather information in Darfur. Most foreign journalists have had their requests for permits to travel in the region turned down by the Sudanese authorities.

The main reason the programming carries on is simply because it is humanitarian and not political. The Nyala-based team does a fine balancing act so as not to attract too much attention from Khartoum, which is many hundreds of kilometres away to the east.

Officially, they are not journalists but humanitarian workers. But one has rarely seen journalists as committed to their craft as this brave little group broadcasting from hell.

Salam ila Darfur broadcasts on shortwave from transmitters in Cyprus at 5am (GMT) on 5965kHz and 7150kHz and at 5pm (GMT) on 9760kHz and 17595kHz.

David Smith is a Johannesburg-based media consultant specialising in setting up emergency radio projects in zones of conflict. This article was produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting

‘Darfur: the politics of naming’ ,Page 23 ‘All quiet on Darfur’, Page 33

Report dashes hopes of improvement in Darfur

This week, a high-level mission of the United Nations Human Rights Council released its report on the situation in Darfur. Although the members of the mission were unable to travel to Darfur after the Sudanese government repeatedly denied them visas, they did visit camps for Sudanese refugees in neighbouring Chad.

According to their report, arbitrary arrests and detentions by government security forces in Darfur continue, especially of Sudanese individuals associated with international organisations, those sharing the predominant ethnicity of various Darfur rebel groups, and those who display opposition political views.

Ongoing attacks in Darfur have displaced an additional 25 000 people since January this year.

Attacks on humanitarian workers by government and armed militia have increased over the past year, dramatically decreasing humanitarian access to the region.

The provision in the Darfur Peace Agreement for the government’s disarmament of the Janjaweed and other militia has not been implemented. Witnesses in Darfur confirm that government forces and the militia continue to jointly perpetrate attacks on civilians and that the government continues to arm the Janjaweed. Rebel forces in Darfur also continue to target civilians ­– in some cases raping and torturing them — and attacks on humanitarian convoys have been reported.

The UN mission has recommended that ”a large, robust and broadly mandated, well-resourced UN/AU peacekeeping/protection force must be deployed across the territory of Darfur” to meet the urgent need for more effective protection of the civilian population. It also recommended renewed negotiations between all parties and increased humanitarian assistance. — Mail & Guardian reporter

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