A unique view from Darfur: Sleepless in Sudan

The news stories go by – the London bombings, the G-8/Live8 focus on Africa, the six month anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami – and Darfur remains. As it's become abundantly clear that the US won't have major involvement with the Darfur situation, it's less commmon to see news stories on Western Sudan in the mainstream press. After all, “Millions of Darfurians still living in camps, still dying slowly” doesn't make for much of a headline.

For folks interested in what's going on in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps in Darfur, the blog “Sleepless in Sudan” has become required reading. We know that “Sleepless” is an “Aid worker, female, 31, extremely single,” living and working in Darfurian IDP camps. We also know she's got a sharp eye, a still-functioning sense of outrage, and a gift for making real the horrible conditions hundreds of thousands of Darfurians are living under.

Sleepless's recent posts have been about the Kalma camp, which houses about 150,000 IDPs. The Sudanese government is interested in breaking up the camp, either for the legitimate reason that it's in danger of flooding (a recent post describes Khartoum as a “veritable African Venice”, with cabs and tuk-tuks stuck in an underwater traffic jam) or out of fear that rebels are training and regrouping within the camps.

The effort to migrate Kalma residents to a new, smaller camp at Al Salam has involved cutting off “black market” food – i.e., anything to supplement the basic foods the aid agencies are handing out and threatening to bulldoze the camp. According to Sleepless, a grand total of one person has relocated to Al Salam so far.

The reason is simple – concerns for security. Despite the fact that shootings occur every day in the camp and nearby towns, they're considered vastly safer than the villages the IDPs have fled, which are held by the Janjawid who initially chased the villagers out. This leads to situations like the one describeda sad meditation on mangos, posted about a week ago:

“Well, we always used to plant mangoes,” I'm told by one of the locals (who has himself been displaced by the fighting and lives with his family in one of the camps). “This season, I even took the risk of walking back to my field from the camp just to plant. But in the past few weeks it's been too dangerous to go outside of the camp with all these shooting and attacks against people like us. So I can't go and harvest anything, and now the new people from other tribes who've moved into my village and taken over my fields are selling me my own mangoes in the market.”

We all have to laugh – there is no other way to deal with the absurdity of the situation, even though I'm sure that's the last thing my colleague feels like doing when he is actually paying the man who hands him his mangoes in the market.

He just shakes his head. Then he laughs again. “You know, it is even worse for my cousin. He bought some mangoes from the people who are now farming his fields, and then as he was walking home along the outskirts of the camp, some bandits started pushing and harassing him. They took his money, and the mangoes too. So he has planted them once, paid for them once, and still he has no mangoes.”

We can't help but laugh again, but sadly, I have to admit that today's sweet mangoes leave me with a more bitter aftertaste than usual.

Alas, Sleepless's stories are often ones you can't laugh about. She's hearing reports of women being beaten and raped as they leave the camps to collect firewood. She raises the horrific possibility that these attacks are being perpetrated by the anti-Janjawid, anti-Khartoum rebels, in part to help keep aid dollars flowing to the area:

The discussion goes back and forth, but finally I establish that a lot of the men feel that the rebels are intentionally letting a small number of militias stay in the area to make sure the security incidents don't go away COMPLETELY.

“If there are no deaths, no rape, nothing, then you khawajas [foreigners] will not come here, they are saying. It's just a tactic that the rebels are using.”

Sleepless in Sudan is by no means an easy or comfortable read. But the author is taking a great deal of personal risk to tell us these stories and is clearly hoping that someone is listening.

(For more background on the situation in Darfur, you may want to read the New Republic's blog this week, which is featuring pieces by Professor Eric Reeves from Smith College, who is following the situation in Darfur very closely and has an excellent explanation of how the situation came about.)


  • Correction: We DO NOT know that “Sleepless” is an “Aid worker, female, 31, extremely single,” living and working in Darfurian IDP camps.

  • I discovered and bookmarked “Sleepless in Sudan” about 2 weeks ago. As you say Ethan her writing should be required reading for anyone wanting to really understand what life is like inside of the IDP camps of Darfur and Chad. It is very dangerous work to blog from within Sudan period, let alone from within the Darfur region.

    The sharing of information and experiences in Darfur by “Sleepless” must be respected and appreciated and not unfairly criticized or placed under suspicion. Somebody knows who she is and can verify that she is there and that includes the network administrators at Blogger who host her blog and probably the Khartoum regime’s secret police.

    Another interesting “Live Journal” from Sudan is the “Sudan Trek Diary” by Bill Lorenz of the IOM. GV readers can find this journal with photos over at the BBC News Online In Depth feature SUDAN: A NATION DIVIDED. 6000+ refugees returning by foot to their homes in the south of Sudan on a 400 Km trek through rough terrain, marauding militias and bandits, and anti-personnel landmines.

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