SOUTH DARFUR, Sudan, 4 May 2007 - In the village of Yara, one finds a surprisingly different aspect of Darfur. In a region that has been portrayed as ripped apart by ethnic differences and tribal tensions, residents of the local Fur tribe and Arab nomadic families live side by side, working together on improvements to their community.
Relative stability here in Yara has allowed people to focus on their own priorities - strengthening their community for the future.
The school has been rebuilt, as has the local clinic. And with one eye on future income for the villagers, a horticultural nursery has been established, growing lemon, papaya and mahogany trees. "Papaya has become fashionable amongst many people in Darfur - so this is going to be a cash crop for us," says Mohammed El-Hassan Awad, who has been chosen by the local villagers to manage the nursery project.
Health and education facilities
Opposite the bamboo shelter where the seedlings are growing, a neat compound houses the rehabilitated health clinic. Serving a population of some 16,000 in the whole district, the centre has become the only source of regular health care for miles around. A solar panel powers the vaccine-storage facility to enable regular immunization rounds.
A community health worker is based at the centre, along with one doctor and an assistant. A single midwife is available, although she lives over a kilometre away. Nonetheless, the health clinic has become a valuable asset to the people of Yara and surrounding villages.
Similarly, the school has become a colourful and noisy symbol of the village's efforts to turn its back on the conflict. More than 400 children aged 6 to 14 years, a quarter of them girls, spend five hours a day here in newly refurbished classrooms. A water point has been established at the gates to the school, while in one far corner of the compound large pits have been dug for latrines for the students.
Looking to the future
So what has enabled Yara to look to the future in such a positive way? Village elder Abdel Latif Eisa Haroun explains a little of the history.
"In 1999, UNICEF established the Child-Friendly Community Initiative here," he remembers. "That enabled the community to take part in planning local services, with some money and support coming from the project and local people making their own contribution - sometimes materials, or just physical labour."
The project, also known as CFCI, ran in Yara for two years until the conflict interrupted. Then in 2006 a new round of projects began, starting with the horticultural centre. Now the community is determined to maintain the momentum.
"The community wants to make this initiative work," says Mr. Haroun. "It's not a problem getting people to give time. We believe in the principle of collective labour for certain projects. A day or two given now will lead to long term benefits that will last for years."
Passion for learning
Sitting in the Grade 8 mathematics class at the Yara school are Hamdan and Hamid, both 13. Their parents are nomadic sheep herders. They are of Arab origin, a minority group in this community. Yet their parents have left them in Yara for the last three years, supported by an older brother with guarantees of safety provided by the community elders.
The sole reason for this decision was to ensure that they completed their schooling.
"We used to have to walk a long way to get to the school," says Hamdan, "so our parents decided we should stay here. If we didn't come to school, we would just be looking after the sheep. We would have nowhere to go with our lives. By coming to school, we have a chance to do a lot more in life."
The boys miss their families, having last seen their parents three months ago. But they demonstrate a visible passion for learning - Hamid says it is the only thing he lives for right now. He wants to graduate to high school and, one day, become a doctor. Hamdan has set his sights on engineering. And their parents, traditional nomads all their lives, share those aspirations.
"We are seeing children from this school now going to university," he says. "We should not even be surprised by this. Every child in the village is coming to school; we have many Arab children with us here. Our village committee encourages them, and they feel safe with us. Families are making their own contributions, helping to pay for volunteer teachers who don't have a government salary."
'What brings people together?'
This is the very essence of CFCI. The contributions made by UNICEF, and by local non-governmental organizations, are matched by residents who see the opportunity to build a stronger community that will prosper in stability. The mix of inputs creates a sense of ownership and ultimately increases usage of the services.
More important, as the conflict in Darfur still affects some 4 million people, the initiative is keeping communities focused on the need for development, with children at the heart of the agenda.
"This programme works because it provides the right support for the right people, and we can create structures - like the school - that bring people together," explains Mr. Khalil. "When a community welcomes children from all families, and shows that everyone can get an education in safety, that type of gesture really brings people together."
At this, an elderly man adds: "You ask what brings people together? There are no disparities amongst people with nothing. We all share the same lack of things. That makes us equal."