Kalma Camp and Tiwal village, South Darfur: As the Sudanese sun begins its gentle ascent above the 100,000 souls living in Africa's largest camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), a strange gathering begins to take shape near the arid sandy edge of this straw huts and trench latrines.
Colorfully clad women, old and young, almost all barefoot, some with babies hoisted with cloth onto their backs, everyone of them grasping an axe or scythe of sorts, slowly emerge from the inside of the camp's belly and form a mass of gentle and dignified faces filled with expectation. With time, men and women on donkeys, some drawing behind them creaking carts, join them and stand peacefully to one side.
One of the NRC cars, working in Kalma Camp, located 17 kilometres from Nyala, the regional capital of South Darfur, joins the group amidst a flurry of allah ya barak fik's and masha'allah's, the tell-tale sign of Sudanese citizens engaged in the seemingly endless cycle of greeting and counter-greeting. The humanitarian workers express their relief that "the message" has got through to the camp's fearful residents.
As the women becomes restless, eager to make their way into the steppe to the north of their temporary home, another 4 vehicles packed with men in a kaleidoscopic array of military uniforms approach the group. But there are no nerves or worried faces to be seen amongst the women. Only relief.
At the same time, 120 kilometres to the south women and children are also beginning their day, brushing the dirt from their clothes as they rise from their place of nightly respite under trees and bushes and as they light their wood fires to prepare tea for their children.
For one week, 7000 Sudanese citizens have been in hiding in the bush surrounding their village of Tiwal, burnt to the ground in its entirety on 18 December by up to 1,000 members of a semi nomadic Arab tribe on horses and camels. This happened exactly one year after the village was last attacked and two and a half years after attacks on civilians carried out by Arab militia, the so-called Janjaweed, first began in Darfur.
This time six men were killed. In the attack the previous year, 17 men died. On both occasions many of the dead were mutilated: ears and gentiles were cut off. With resigned and tired eyes Tiwal's inhabitants tell members of a helpless humanitarian convoy accessing, as always, the area days after the event that they are not safe: "we want to be taken to Kalma".
And in Kalma, 120 kilometres to the north the relief in the women's faces turns to activity as 500 of Kalma's IDPs, some originally from areas close to Tiwal, begin a convoy that is to take them 8 kilometres to the foot of the hills to the north of the camp. The four vehicles, which belong to the military and civilian branches of the African Union's (AU) Mission in Sudan, flank the IDPs as they head out into the majestic steppe of South Darfur.
This is Kalma's first successful "firewood patrol", bringing together the AU, Sudanese police officers (whose actions the AU is charged with monitoring throughout Darfur) and Kalma's IDPs. Ever since they arrived in the camp, these IDPs have been subjected to murder, rape, assault, threats of violence and theft of their property. Only 4 days earlier two men collecting wood were stabbed and shot to death.
And they have had no choice: in order to cook their food or to supplement the minimal assistance received from the international humanitarian community with some additional income, they are forced to gather wood and grass in the camp's surroundings,
Turning to the NRC car, one of the old men smiles and says "what you have done today is a great thing". Within earshot sit Sudanese police officers on the back of AU vehicles, officers who in Kalma, like in all of Darfur, have utterly failed in securing the displaced inhabitants of Darfur's camps against daily attacks by Arab nomads and at times by the police themselves.
The man accelerates to join his fellow IDPs as they leave the miserable camp environment and enter into a breathtaking landscape of windswept grass and steppe that no doubt reminds them painfully of the peace and beauty of the land and homes from which they have been displaced.
Back in Tiwal, the owners of the pots, pans, grain and clothes that lie strewn across the bush and which were spared from the flames due to a 24 hour warning received that Tiwal was about to be attacked, lament that what has been done for them since the attack 12 months before is far from a "great thing". Insecurity remains to be the hallmarks of life for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens across Darfur in 2006.
Returning to the camp after their first firewood patrol, Kalma's IDPs are smiling and relieved. For the first time in months, they have gone to the north of the camp and have not been killed, attacked, raped or beaten. Today in Kalma, Christmas Eve, the AU, the Sudanese police and the humanitarian community have jointly ensured their security and have given them some hope for tomorrow. But how many more military patrols and humanitarian convoys will it take before meaningful solutions are found for the people of Kalma, Tiwal and all of Darfur?