JEBEL MARRA, Sudan, 7 June 2005 - "I was happy in my previous life. We had a farm, cattle, water and a safe life," says Hawa, a middle-aged mother of five. Her home region, Jebel Marra, was once a paradise: abundant with fruit, popular with tourists and considered an important farming region for Darfur - and all of Sudan. Now the region, including Finna, an SLA (Sudanese Liberation Army)-controlled area in Jebel Marra, is described as dry and harsh and abundant with despair. UNICEF is the only humanitarian aid agency supporting Finna and its struggling residents, including Hawa.
There are more than 150,000 internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in the surrounding area, with most of the host community scattered throughout hilly areas as a defence strategy to avoid repeated attacks from the government helicopters. The lack of a ceasefire between the government and SLA has made for a fragile and tense situation, and children and women are particularly vulnerable.
After a three-kilometre walk through the rough, stony area of Finna, we arrived at one of three huts located 15 kilometres away from the town centre. Water, food, and other basic services and resources are unavailable to the inhabitants of this small community. Upon approaching the quiet village we were astonished to be greeted by a middle-aged woman, Hawa. She came out to welcome us - we did not expect to see anyone. We asked the timid woman, "Why are you staying here all alone?"
With a sad voice, she responded, "When you are driven from your home you can live anywhere. I lost everything: my husband, my child, Mobarak, my house and livestock. I do not have anything left to cry about. My only concern now is how I can protect the remaining members of my family." With tears in her eyes she looked back inside the hut to her small daughter, who started crying.
Several feet away, her other two surviving children could be seen lying on the ground, with only sand beneath them. Hawa sought protection in the hills of Finna because there seemed no end in sight to the fighting between the Sudanese government troops and SLA fighters.
"I was living in Kidneer village, two hours on foot from Finna when, in February 2004, at six o'clock in the morning, the Janjaweed militias attacked our village. We were not expecting the attack, since we are surrounded by hills and it's not easy for the Janjaweed to climb up. They took us by surprise. We heard the sound of machine guns and helicopters all around. I took my children and began running away as quickly as possible. Mobarak, my two-year-old, was on my shoulders and the other children followed me. Mobarak was shot at and he fell from my shoulders. I picked him up and because I was pregnant. I was exhausted and felt I could not continue. A few seconds later, I received a gun shot on my leg. I lost consciousness."
Three days later Hawa awoke and found herself in a Finna IDP camp where she currently lives with her remaining family and where she now can tell her story. She lets out a deep and heavy sigh and continues, "I was left with just myself and my four remaining children." Her husband and two-year-old were killed. "My children are still afraid when they see a stranger. They hide behind me without saying a word in the company of a stranger. What has happened to my family, I will never forget."
With vivid memory Hawa recalled, "When we were reunited the children didn't cry for one week; after that they were crying every day, especially at night. My health improved after some time and I started thinking about how I could take care of the children. Some of the neighbours and relatives gave me support to start my life again. I bought some items from the market to sell elsewhere. I divided the week into three days where I work to support my family. I spend one day in the valley to collect fruits to sell. The second day I sell the fruits in Finna market. On the third day, I go to the valley to collect water in the one jerry I own. We are surviving by the mercy of god. There is no relief and no support from any khwaja (foreigner)."
We asked Hawa why she didn't seek support at any of the other nearby IDP camps. She replied, "I don't know any place except Finna and Kidneer. I have relatives whom I can count on to protect my family if the Janjaweed attack all of us again."
This region is fraught with hardship, but UNICEF has been able to provide vital support to children and families. Thus far, a total of four health facilities have been established and supplied with essential drugs. Three polio vaccination campaigns have been completed and schools are now operating again with UNICEF-provided teaching and learning supplies.
UNICEF has also supported the training of school teachers and community members to provide psychosocial support for children. Five child-friendly centres have been established under the auspices of UNICEF and further efforts are being made to assist and protect the women and children of Finna who are so tragically affected by the Darfur conflict.
Aid is needed in many areas, be these under the control of the government or the SLA in Darfur. And because currently there are no other humanitarian partners on the ground, UNICEF is playing a unique and vital role in helping these people who are in such desperate need of basic health services, education, water and protection.