Surviving Darfur: Photographer on Life in the Camps

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 20, 2005

More than 17 million refugees and other displaced people fall under the humanitarian umbrella of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). To increase awareness of their plight, the UNHCR has established World Refugee Day, which is being observed today, June 20, in 116 countries.

In keeping with the occasion, the National Geographic Society is exhibiting the photographs of French-born Hélène Caux at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Caux is a photojournalist and humanitarian aid worker for the UNHCR. (See Darfur pictures by Caux.)

Titled "Surviving Darfur," the exhibition documents the unfolding African humanitarian crisis in Sudan and neighboring Chad.

Fighting broke out in the Darfur region of western Sudan in February 2003.

Two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, attacked government installations to draw attention to the neglect of their region. The Sudanese government responded by bombing villages and unleashing pro-government Arab militiamen known as the Janjaweed.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed or have died of starvation or disease. Atrocities attributed to the Janjaweed—including the burning and looting of villages and large-scale killings, torture, and rape—have forced more than 2.2 million people to flee their homes.

Caux first went to eastern Chad at the end of 2003 as an aid worker with UNHCR to help establish refugee camps. She tells National Geographic News of her experiences there and the motivations behind her riveting photographs.

You were part of the workforce that established the first refugee camp in Chad in mid-January 2004. What kinds of pressures and activities go into setting up a camp?

First you have to select a site, and in eastern Chad it's mainly connected with where there is water. That's a big issue because it's a very hostile and arid environment.

Then you have to bring all the tents, install the water pumps, the wells. Basically you have to bring everything by trucks. And it's very hard, considering that there are no roads—all sand roads.

The weather also puts [up] a lot of obstacles for us—sandstorms, the rainy season—so it's a very difficult activity.

At the same time we had these deadlines that we couldn't leave the refugees at the border, because they can be victims of attacks from the militia, the Janjaweed. The goal was to move them at least 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the border into camps where they could receive assistance and where they enjoyed more safety and had protection from the Janjaweed.

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