VRAI’s Rebirth – An Evening about Darfur

VRAI for Darfur – Peace Through Prosperity- The Village Reforestation and Advancement Initiative – Aid Still Required and Christie Communications – 11/7/09

Two months ago, we spent a weekend with a former UNHCR Chair on Darfur and two of her colleagues, experts in reforestation, agriculture, and humanitarian activities in Western Sudan. We spent Saturday brainstorming about how to create the most effective project to make a difference in this complex and beautiful region. On Sunday, we invited 20 friends of ASR to share our thoughts and learn from their questions.

In the following blog, ASR volunteer Eileen Kim speaks eloquently about what she learned.

On a chilly Saturday night in Santa Monica, we had a group of night in one house for dinner, dessert, and discussion. Of course we were talking about Darfur, but the picture being painted about the situation there is probably unlike anything that the news stations, books, and even major organizations and their spokespeople could ever grasp or respresent so transparently.

What surfaced onto the center stage of our conversation was the duality of success of various organizations and books on Darfur in bringing the issue at least to the point of recognition among the general populace, but simultaneously, using / misrepresenting the issue in dishonest manners to satisfy ulterior motives. Considering that, one begins to realize that there is one level of advocating an issue and being philanthropic that leads to a self-oriented gratification, and then there is a deeper level where philantropy not only begins but progresses in a continually selfless manner.

Although ASR and Christie Communications were uncertain about the possibility of bringing the VRAI project directly into Darfur, the former chair at the UN hearing on the Darfur crisis / California university professor and her two colleagues confirmed that it is indeed possible. They helped give us a more detailed, tangible picture of Darfur than could be received anywhere else, breaking the presuppositions that we, like many, have about the area and the conflict.

Many people may not realize that the region of Darfur actually consists of seven different climate zones and includes places of lush vegetation. Darfur is actually the principal supplier of oranges and potatoes to the whole of Sudan, for example. The people are nomads and farmers and so are no strangers to working the land to provide for themselves and maintain an income. Moreover, mealtimes are only twice a day – 10am and after sunset. Consequently, solar cookers programs which have been successful charitable projects for the area as they A) reduce attacks because women and girls do not have to leave the camps for firewood, and B) preserve of trees are not necessarily a comprehensive solution. They are not able to cook certain staple traditional foods, nor would the people be able to cook in th early morning hours or at night as is culturally customary. We learned that rape is increasing within the camps and that furthermore, the people leave camp for other reasons than firewood.

Since Sudan does not have an army, the government implements militias [the Janjaweed] or mercenaries and promise wealth or entitlements, specifically when people disagree with the government. The Janjaweed are equivalent to a security force and guards of the city, and given license to commit atrocities of rape, murder, and plundering, the Janjaweed are not fixed as solely from the Darfur area; they can come from outside countries as well such as Niger and Mali.

For the Janjaweed who are within Darfur, a component of them are disillusioned with the government, who they believe cheated them out of what had been promised to them, and our new colleagues believe that they are receptive to reconciliation and peace efforts.

We learned that humanitarian food distribution doesn’t always work the way we think. Frequently, people sell the food given by humanitarian aid in market places and use the money to buy the essentials that meet their unique needs. What is more, money for schools often goes into the building construction and not the teachers’ salaries, and for this reason, teachers lack the incentive to do an adequate job, and children lose out on getting an education.

From a current societal perspective in the camps, children are not listening to their parents, because the children lose respect for their parents as they watch them beg. Not only that, new sexual behavior is developing among the children as they deal with unfamiliar pressure, which the adults and authority figures in their community cannot explain nor are they equipped to resolve such issues.

Regarding land ownership and the refugee / Internally Displaced Person status [IDPs], the Sudanese government is adhering to a law that says if people leave their land for longer than 5 years, they will lose their land. It is in the Northern-based government’s interest to keep people within the camps. We learned that government payments have been made to people from overcrowded Egypt and other West African countries to inhabit the deserted Darfur villages, thereby preventing the former inhabitants from returning home.

Business and economic development in Darfur, such as exporting furniture made from local wood, is sputtering as business infrastructure is weak, in fact, pretty much non-existent. The wood cut in Darfur is transported only by governmental consent and the people get no return. 60 million trees have been cut down in the years since the conflict began, grossly adding to climate change, temperature change, and environmental degradation. The people themselves, particularly the women, are quite entrepreneurial, but the sad truth is that they get little support for their efforts.

The three-pronged key to helping Darfur came down to the three E’s: Environment, Education, and Economy. Because our goal is not to seek temporary solutions, but to look for long-term betterment of Sudan, from the protection of human rights to its sound political and economic functioning, our discussion led us to agree that what’s equally as important to address as desertification is marginalization in terms of educational deprivation and the lack of a sustainable livelihood and economic development. In addition, the idea is not to divide people as that would lead to further conflict, but it is to connect people through infrastructure. These visions really aligned with and further illuminated ASR’s belief in “peace through prosperity,” that when people are equipped with a means to be self-sustaining, the occurrence of conflict and deprivation are far less likely.

To fully encapsulate such an indelible night would be to water down the value it had to ASR. Seeing even a dining room full of people who were truly devoted to learning about what is going on and what solutions are being worked toward was truly inspiring and painted an image of what hope can actually look like, as hope is such a frail, trivialized image to much of today’s world, to those who feel so desperate for help and on the flipside, those who feel too powerless to help the desperate.

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