The ninety-minute trip to Ed Daein in a twelve-seat UN helicopter follows wiggly railroad tracks surrounded by endless sand. Until three years ago, the child slave trade flourished in this part of Sudan.
Halfway to my destination, twelve freight cars are stopped on the tracks below us. Near them a boxcar is lying on its side halfway down the embankment. A sandstorm, Haboob they call it here, obliterated the tracks a few years ago. In the absence of viable roads, this “act of God” ended child slavery in the region.
But there are other curses. 104,000 poorly fed refugees from the War in Darfur, many of them babies, live in camps surrounding Ed Daein. Malnutrition has replaced slavery as the scourge of the defenseless. Medical Teams International loaned me to Tearfund to consult on their feeding programs for these waifs of the twenty-first century.
My first day in Ed Daein, Dr. Mozamil and I visit the Stabilization Center, an ICU for severely malnourished children. Located on the grounds of the local hospital, it is clean, bright, and airy. White metal-frame beds covered in turquoise sheets line the walls. Attached to the end of each bed is a clipboard detailing the baby’s progress. Mothers in bright-colored dresses, scarves draped over their heads, sit on the beds feeding their babies. In spite of the cheerful surroundings, sadness and resignation hang on their faces. Most of the babies look vacant and lifeless.
Tearfund’s five nurses, seven nutrition specialists, and gentle but competent Dr. Mozamil work here. They exude love. The children and the mothers need it. The war in Darfur impacts families more than any other armed conflict I have witnessed. Fleeing violence, avoiding rape by the Janjaweed, and scavenging for food has taken a toll. Famine, the bane of the Sahel and a huge problem even in peacetime, exacerbates the plight of mothers and children.
Sahel, meaning “edge,” is a transition zone. Like all things Africa, it is a war, a war between the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, and the jungles of Africa. The desert is winning, steadily moving southward. Meanwhile, diminished rainfall is claiming grazing lands. While men push herds and aggression southward, women struggle and children starve.
And so it is for little Nasr and his mother Alimah. Occupying the first bed on the far side of the sixteen-bed ward, two-year-old Nasr’s chart indicates he is doing better. His face says otherwise. A sad look, lips set in unhappiness, and staring eyes greet my daily visits. His mother attempts cheerfulness at the good news of his weight gain. Her tears betray her. Escaping in unguarded moments, they are waters of torment past and despair for the future.
From intravenous nutrition during his first days in the hospital when he vacillated between death and life, Nasr has graduated to Plumpy-Nut. It is the salvation of starving children. During the last four days, he has gained three ounces. He has a long way to go. Ribs protrude from a sternum pushed outward during his days near death. His upper arms are painfully skinny. Curly hair covers his disproportionately large head. The ends of his curls are blond, an indicator of severe malnutrition. I cringe when I see him for the first time.
And then there are the coinage marks along his lower ribcage. Faith healers at the El Ferdous camp rubbed coins in vertical lines. More than three dozen. It resulted in bleeding and scarring. When Nasr became worse and started gasping for breath, Alimah brought him to the Therapeutic Feeding Center at the camp. From there the staff drove him to town and the Stabilization Center.
Two days later, on the same road to town, an American NGO’s vehicle was carjacked at gunpoint. The humanitarian workers, shoved onto the road, had to walk to safety in 120-degree heat. As a result, the UN declared the roads to El Ferdous and Abumateriq Camps “no-go” zones, sealing the fate of children who need emergency care.
Nasr was born a plump baby, Alimah shares. At the traditional simaya naming ceremony on his seventh day of life, the family gathered in their ancestral village in the grandparents’ tent. Coming out of her tent for the first time since giving birth, Alimah faced east as her husband and the midwife said traditional prayers and performed rituals. Slaughtering a goat for the occasion, everyone enjoyed the celebration. They remarked what a healthy baby Nasr was.
In her vaguely told story, militia attacked and burned her village. Her husband joined the fighting and she fled. On the move ever since, many days went by without food and only scant water. Nasr was often sick with diarrheal disease. Alimah’s strength gradually waned too. When they could get millet paste they would get stronger, she said. Finally, they arrived at the El Ferdous Camp. But with so many newcomers, even there, food was scarce. And then, Nasr became ill.
Going from patient to patient with Dr. Mozamil all the stories have similar themes. Burning villages, violence, flight and famine. Rape is a constant fear, but never mentioned. The Muslim culture shuns a woman violated by rape. A life of shame awaits her.
A young mother, perhaps not yet a teenager, acts more like her baby’s older sister. She looks down in shame when we approach. She has suffered the full range of barbarism in her young life, the nurse tells us. The inflection of the voice and the expression on the nurse’s face hint at the worst imaginable. I do not press for details.
Yaya, the girl calls her eighteen months old baby. The baby’s upper arms are bone and skin, and her head dwarfs her body. But she is gaining weight. Each day the child-mother continues to bury her head on her chest when we examine Yaya. On my last day in Ed Daein, I put my hand on the young mother’s shoulder and say some reassuring words in English. She does not understand the words, but the tone and the sentiment register. Before Dr. Mozamil can translate, she lifts her face and looks up. Her pleading helpless look becomes my iconic image of Darfur’s misery.
Not all malnourished children recover. On my first day, new arrivals fill all sixteen ICU beds and the overflow beds on the porch. The last one admitted visited a traditional healer before coming. Afflicted with malaria and malnutrition, the child’s agonizing gasps remind me of the first child I saw in Mozambique. But, as before, the extreme measures we perform are not enough. The next morning the child passed away. Life is harsh here. From Habakkuk to Hemingway the unfairness of life has vexed mere mortals; it is clear, the answers lie with God. But man’s sinful nature contributes mightily.