Increasingly, aid workers, volunteers and even peacekeepers use blogs to share their unique experiences and insights from conflict zones. Take the Darfur conflict in Sudan, for example. Sleepless in Sudan was one of the first blogs to highlight the untold suffering of innocent people in Darfur. Sleepless in Sudan, which was nominated in the 2006 “Bloggies” Weblog Award contest, was maintained by a female aid worker stationed in Darfur. For nine months, Sleepless in Sudan told stories of life in Darfur from the ground. In one post, she gave us insight into the state of the African Union peacekeepers:
On the ground, I've heard a lot worse. There is no fuel for [Africa Union] cars, never mind helicopters. Ammunition runs out (as it did during the attack that killed four Nigerian peacekeepers and two AU contractors in October). Soldiers routinely show up at aid agency compounds to ask if they can have some mosquito nets or even blankets. Civilian police officers walk around the camps unable to communicate with people because they have not yet sent them any translators. It's clear the Africa Union has not been able to do its job – and there is still no one actually protecting those who need it most.
However, on February 2, 2006, Sleepless in Sudan was closed:
It's somewhat bittersweet to write those words after having ranted and raved, moaned and marvelled, and generally obsessed about Darfur for so long. Of course, it's not that I have run out of things to rant about.
In this case, it's merely personal circumstance (an agreement with my employer to be re-deployed to another crisis after having completed my mission here in Darfur) that brings an abrupt end to my brief but passionate stint as an anonymous Darfur blogger.
Letting go is never easy – and I'm bemused to discover that leaving Darfur is filled with just as much stress, frustration and heartache as living here has been. This blog has provided relief to me not just in terms of self-therapy (at the end of the day, we all just want to have a good rant), but also through the virtual friendships, offers of support, and thoughtful comments that reached me every day through that shaky satellite connection.
Sudan Man works with the Mennonite Central Committee in Southern Sudan. He sees signs of peace in the improved state of local public transportation:
Anyway, another benefit of peace is that there is now public transport between towns in Sudan and neighboring countries! The rehabilitation of the Yei – Juba road and the road between NW Kenya and Juba has opened up trade between Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. Sudanese who've been living in Uganda and Kenya now have a reliable and relatively inexpensive way to travel to Sudan to visit relatives or to scout out whether they want to “officially” return to Sudan. Fresh fruits, vegetables, packaged and processed foods, beverages, building materials, and loads of consumer goods are now available in Juba and other Sudanese towns.
There are still risks though. Our trip to Yei was delayed due to demining activities along the way (not on the road, somewhere nearby) and this brought a reminder that, yes, landmines were used during the war and alot have been cleared but more work needs to be done. Also, there have been incidents of banditry, car hijacking, etc. carried out by “other armed groups” like LRA and random individuals. This hasn't happened on the road to Yei, but other roads to Uganda and Kenya are quite unsafe.
But it is great to know that buses are full, people are traveling and enjoying the opportunity to move back and forth for business and personal reasons.
Describing the sensation of watching the international media from within the conflict zone, Sudan Man reflects on “What is news?“:
What was the BIG NEWS on CNN International? Receiving the most air time was the BIG NEWS that some participants in the UK based Celebrity Big Brother reality television show made insensitive and possibly racist remarks towards the Bollywood (India's Hollywood) actress participant.
I couldn't believe that CNN International found this worthy of being one of the top stories several days in a row. Yes, there was strong reaction by Indians in the UK and elsewhere to what obviously were insentive and racist remarks. Is it news that there is racism in the world? I hardly think so.
We switched to Al Jazeera and found they were following real news – insightful programs on the Rwanda genocide and how China is influencing Africa; the challenges facing the new Somali government; an interview with the Eritrean president; Condi Rice's visit to Middle East and Germany.
I don't doubt the Big Brother story was popular with viewers, but it isn't news.
Sudanese Knight makes a very interesting observation about aid workers vis-à-vis journalists in conflict zones:
I am currently working in Humanitarian Aid, in Sudan. I wish I could say more, but it's better to be anonymous: you never quite know who might be reading, and what might be construed as controversial. As journalists’ access to places like Darfur is highly restricted, aid workers are one of the few international groups who know what's really going on, on the ground. However, I don't want to add to the idea that aid workers are merely spies here … reporting on what is going on. That doesn't make our job any easier, which in turn means we can't assist the people we are here to help, and so our presence becomes useless. Like journalists, our access can be severely restricted. Though I want to tell the world about some of the problems here, there is a fine line to tread. That's not my job.
But at home, smiles and polite greetings can turn to the universal familiar bickering, and guns are quietly hidden in obvious places. In the market, they are purposefully brandished in public places – from in front, you are greeted with a big smile, from behind, a big Kalashnikov slung across the back. This week, following CPA stipulations, the government started demobilising one of the local militias. House to house searches left big crosses on those that have been given the all clear, or disempowered of their weapons. To noisily remind us all of these not so hidden dangers, this afternoon (before the shopping trip) between mangoes and rain falling, other bangs and crashes made me run to my vantage point looking out over the wall. Everyone had stopped to watch. On the other side of the market smoke rose and explosions popped red as stored munitions disempowered themselves (and their owners) in one fell accidental swoop. Or so it was generally agreed. More news tomorrow.
Humanitarian aid volunteer, Aaron Stewart, is optimistic about the future for South Sudan:
Since 1955 Sudan has experienced just eight years of real peace. In the face conflict spanning over 50 years there are times when I ask myself just what it is that I think I'm doing here. Sometimes there is a temptation to get lost in details and figures, the information is overwhelmingly difficult to swallow as a whole and I can feel doubt and hopelessness creeping in on the edges of my thoughts. This is where I am glad that I work for an organization that is about the individual even in the midst of so much suffering. I meet people that would weigh the success of their career on how many boreholes were drilled or how many people were vaccinated against meningitis.
To me the most important thing is not the quantifiable number of things that were done but that they were done at all. Lives are being saved here in South Sudan and lots of people are doing good work that they believe in, this is all that matters to me. It doesn't matter that whether is 1 or 1,000, when I've served someone in a small way I'm afforded the opportunity to be a part of the work that God is doing here on earth. It's a privilege and an adventure that I am glad to be on.
Stewart's optimism, however, is contrasted by the feelings of hopelessness described recently by South Sudan Stories:
I woke up this morning feeling hopeless. I’m not sure why today, but for some reason I am overwhelmed by the difficulties ahead for Sudan especially the way my work is going. When I think of everything that the country has gone through and the difficulties still ahead it makes me feel like I am wasting my time and lots of money here.
Maybe that is always the difficulty of development work- having a sustainable real impact without wasting resources. The government of the South is still in a nascent state and is unable to do many of the things that they a government should do and then NGOs end up doing it. Government employees are not receiving their salaries, the system is over-inflated with too many employees, and there are allegations of corruption going around. I understand that the work that the local government has to do to rebuild the country is enormous! Imagine trying to rebuild a legal system, army and police system, property rights, access to health care, water, education, solve tribal conflicts, etc, etc with very limited resources and surrounded by people with guns who have more power than you do. In trying to help them do their job we end up fighting with the local authorities because they are working towards their political interests rather than the interests of the people.
“At 9am today, my day began with a sit-in at UNICEF where I situated myself in their guard/waiting room and refused to move until someone met with me and straightened out all the issues that they seem to have a special tendency to perpetuate,” writes Kelsey Hope, describing her sit-in at UNICEF:
Then, when they agreed to let me in I launched into, what can only be described as, a tirade. I began with a calm explanation detailing their uselessness, ineffectiveness, ineptitude; added to that the reasons why I think that it is futile to partner with them; building to a crescendo with my step-by-step plan to persuade every one of their donors in Darfur to withdraw their support; and concluding with my plan for a hunger strike in solidarity with the children that are starving in our field site due to their internal bureaucracy.
Realizing the dangers of writing about the life in Darfur while living there, some bloggers choose to write anonymously. South Sudan Stories’ describes herself as “a 29 year old female working for an International NGO in Sudan. I would say more about myself, but since Sudan can still be a little repressive on what you say I will wait until I leave the country to update my profile…” Similarly, Sleepless in Sudan offers few biographical details: “Aid worker, female, 31, extremely single. Would tell you more about myself, but don’t really want the Sudanese government to kick me out of the country for this…”
Blogs: essential tool for Darfur cyber-activists
Apart from aid workers in Darfur blogging from the ground, Darfur cyber-activists use blogs to share information, news and call people to action. We Blog for Darfur is “a reaction to the lack of coverage concerning the Darfur conflict by the mainstream media.”
Let’s spread awareness. Let’s not rely on the mainstream media. Let us get the word out and spread awareness on the blogosphere. Let us inform. Let us give a voice to our voiceless fellow human beings. Let us blog, blog and blog some more.
Together, we can make a difference.
Together, we blog for Darfur
Sudan: Passion of the Present is a place for sharing information on Darfur from mainstream media sources. The blog asks readers to help people of Darfur through net advocacy, hactivism, and netpeace. Sudan Watch and Coalition for Darfur also collect and redistribute Darfur-related news from mainstream media sources.
A number of blogs such as Save Darfur, Globe for Darfur, Darfur Wall, and STAND are examples of new media initiatives by Darfur-focused organizations. The STAND Advocate, for example, provides up-to-the-minute information about Darfur-related legislation.
“Take Action” is a common feature on most blogs about Darfur, particularly those maintained by activist organizations. In addition to providing information about Darfur, these blogs ask readers to take a number of actions such as donating to organizations, writing to representatives, joining public rallies, and reading further about the Darfur region and the conflict that has come to define it. STAND National Blog suggests reading Not on our Watch as a summer activity for Darfur activists:
Looking for some summer reading? Take Not On Our Watch to the beach with you! John Prendergast and Don Cheadle's new book on Darfur is a great way to stay engaged in Darfur activism over the summer. You won't be the only one reading – the book just made the New York Time Bestseller list this week! STAND even gets a shoutout in one of the chapters.
Italian Blogs for Darfur asks readers to sign their online appeal directed toward major TV stations in Italy:
300 thousand dead, 2 million homeless, 200 thousand refugees. A tragedy consumed over 3 years. But the dead in Darfur don’t make headlines. Sign the on-line appeal to ask RAI, Mediaset and La7 to give more TV space for information about Darfur and other humanitarian crises worldwide.
And Sleepless in Sudan answers what is perhaps the most important question for concerned readers based around the world: “What can I do to help the people of Darfur?”:
Find out more. The conflict in Darfur may be complex and the context somewhat daunting, but it's hard to help when you're ignorant about the issues involved. It's going to be a lot easier for you to help the people of Darfur if you try to understand the situation and use your knowledge to take certain actions (see the following points) or to influence others. No matter how good your intentions, uninformed opinions or arguments will not take you very far. Reading Darfur news (for example on Alertnet or Sudan Tribune) or the work of Darfur activitists and academics like Eric Reeves is a good start.
Give money. Yes, in some cases throwing money at a problem does help. Particularly if you are throwing it into the hands of a respectable and effective aid agency.
The UN HAS (Humanitarian Air Service) desperately needs some cash to ferry around the aid workers in their helicopters and planes, while the UN JLC (Joint Logistics Center) is running short on funds for things like plastic sheeting, blankets and soaps. Then of course, there's always us NGOs – and we always need money. You might have your own favourite organsition already, but if you don't it's hard to go wrong with some of most long-standing and reputable outfits like the ICRC, MSF, Oxfam or the IRC.
In addition to supporting the organisations who are providing relief on the ground, you might also want to support human rights and policy groups like Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group so they can continue to carry out research and advocacy work on Darfur – unlike the aid agencies working on the ground, these groups are not as restricted in what they can say about the situation, and they often make concrete suggestions on political solutions.
Other useful links to learn more about Darfur include, but are not limited to:
Sudan researcher and analyst
The Sudan Divestment Task Force
ENOUGH: The project to abolish genocide and mass atrocities
South Sudan Institute of Democracy and Peace
Facing Sudan: A documentary film
24 Hours for Darfur
Crisis Guide: Darfur