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.

Now in eastern Chad there are 210,000 refugees, and in Darfur you havetwo million people who are displaced in camps and in other places. Sometimes what happens is, people leave their villages and go to a nearby town and they build up [an informal] camp.

What are the biggest problems facing the refugees living in the camps in Darfur and Chad?

The main issue right now—and it has been since the beginning of the crisis—is the security issue. As soon as people go outside the camp, especially women, they get attacked by armed groups, by the Janjaweed.

A lot of women have been abused and raped, and this happens when they leave the camp to collect wood. And it's really a crucial issue.

There's been a little bit of improvement with the presence of the African Union. [The African Union is a UN-like organization meant to promote democracy, human rights, and development. Other than Morocco, all African states are members of the union.] They've started projects to accompany women to collect wood—they escort them in the bush—but it's a tiny thing, really.

Darfur is a vast territory, as vast as France, and the African Union cannot cover everything. As long as you don't have a political decision to disarm the Janjaweed, to train the police to respect the rights of the people, security is not going to come back and people won't go back to their villages.

Describe the daily routine of a woman living in one of the camps.

What you have to know is that 80 percent of the refugees are women and children. So the women are really holding the family structure together.

A lot of the husbands have been killed or belong to the rebel groups, or they're taking care of the cattle.

It's a daily struggle for survival. People live in makeshift shelters, very close to each other, so they don't have space.

Besides cooking and washing, the main chore is to collect wood. Through the efforts of humanitarian agencies like the UNHCR and others, they have minimal assistance, in terms of food, medical assistance, water—but [the women] still try to make a minimum of income.

So [women] would go and collect wood, and that takes sometimes the whole day, because they walk two to three hours to the bush and then two or three hours to come back. And then [they] would try to sell the wood in the city or in the camp to try to have some additional income for [their] families.

For women not in an official camp, they also have to go and collect the water. They carry jerricans [containers that hold about 5 gallons, or 19 liters, of liquid]. ... And they do that several times a day. The work there is survival.

What would you hope people take away from this exhibit?

Awareness. It's been really hard … to attract the attention of people, of politicians. Because it's not such a visual crisis, in the sense that you never have thousands of people crossing the border in one group, like you did in Rwanda.

The border is 800 kilometers (500 miles) long, so they cross in little groups, but you still have 200,000 refugees in Chad and two million people displaced in Darfur.

My main goal with the pictures was to document human rights abuses and the catastrophic humanitarian situation. For me, it's a way of making people aware of what's happening in the world so they get out of their daily routine and try to maybe make a difference by joining the humanitarian organizations, funding the humanitarian organizations, by talking about what's happening in Darfur in schools.

I see my work in a way as a duty of history to document what has happened at a certain time so that people don't forget.

You were in Darfur just last week. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel on this crisis?

People were hoping to go back to their houses very quickly, and it's been now almost two years, so I think they're starting to lose a little bit of hope.

But at the same time, I've always been amazed at their courage and resilience and resistance, and their huge dignity in the face of this catastrophic situation.

The hope I could see is really on the faces of the children. Even though they live in very hard situations in the camps, life goes on. They try to go to school, they play, like all children, and I think all the refugees and displaced persons hope they can just pick up a normal life.

There are some people who have decided to go back spontaneously, because they want to check on their property, to check on their cattle. But most of the time they go during the day to their villages of origin, and then they go back to the camp at night, because they don't feel safe.

But for me, I think there has to be a political decision to bring security to Darfur if they want to see the end of the tunnel. The security issue is the key issue.

As long as the government doesn't make decisions to improve security to protect its own citizens, to disarm the Janjaweed, people are not going to go back.

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