Letters from Darfur: Laughter can be life-affirming

The town of Elfasher in North Darfur is one of a million scars and the whole world knows it. But in the middle of the night, when the clamour of military vans had died down and peacekeepers had returned to their bases, I heard the beautiful sound of a child laughing.

This became a life-affirming reminder that people are more than the sum total of their painful memories. And on that second night of my stay in the former war-torn town, I found I could sleep.

To get to Elfasher – once the epicentre of the Darfur crisis – one has to fly in through its small airport. It is shared by commuter planes, military jets and aircrafts of the numerous aid agencies that service North Darfur.

The commuting route is serviced by Sudan’s national carrier, Sudan Airlines, and it’s so shabby the plane tickets are handwritten and seats are unreserved. You sit as you enter.

In Elfasher, it’s hard to raise your head and not see a rocket-propelled grenade or some machine gun-carrying, camouflaged officer. The town is made up of the main town and the Abu Shuk camp, a former refugee camp that is now being turned into a permanent village. It is here that the many internally displaced people who survived the recent civil war live.

However, despite the relative stability that has returned to the area, many of the refugees have chosen not to return to their villages. The camp has become a place of new hopes. It provides better services than can be found in their villages. It has a school and primary health services. And United Nations Food distribution centres, which also provide the residence with clean water.

Those that do go back to their homes only do so to harvest their fields and then return with their produce to trade at Abu Shuk Camp, which now provides a trading opportunity. These are merchants and craftsmen, like Ishmael Muhammad, who plies a living as a dress maker.

But there’s still uncertainty about security around the camp. Though the governor of North Darfur Elfasher, Abdul Nabi, insisted that the camp is safe enough for me and the other South African journalists to enter, we were also sold a different story.

By a spook – a short mean man who chews snuff with sun glasses glued to his face, Al Tayib Mahmud Ahmed, who was hell-bent on preventing our entry into the camp.

“It’s dangerous,” he insisted. Then it changed to: “The people do not want to speak to you.” Al Tayib is part of an amorphous yet real presence.

Our fixer, Mustafa, who accompanied us from Khartoum, doesn’t quite know what Al Tayib’s position is but we can’t go into the camp without his consent, regardless of the state governor’s (provincial minister’s) orders. Thus illustrating a crucial lesson in power relations: the local gangster will always be closer to you than the big, short politician.

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