When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast last month, the American public was privy to 'round-the-clock media coverage of the disaster, especially of stories relating to the extraordinarily difficult living conditions faced by those who had been unable to evacuate. Thousands of people were left without food or water for days; their homes and cities destroyed, they were left to fend for themselves, trapped in squalid conditions and at the mercy of roving gangs of well-armed criminals.
As it turned out, many of the more horrific stories were later found to be false. Yet for the people of Darfur, the horrors that befell the people of New Orleans have become a way of life.
For more than two years, nearly two million people have been relegated to displacement camps across Darfur, with limited access to food, water and medical attention. They live in makeshift tents that provide little shelter from the elements, and in constant fear of rape, looting and death at the hands of the Janjaweed militia.
An aid worker and blogger known only as Sleepless in Sudan, who has been working in Darfur for six months, has been kind enough to provide this assessment of the conditions in which the displaced are now living ("Sleepless" has chosen to remain anonymous in order to protect herself and the agency for which she works from the very real threat of retribution from the Sudanese government)
People are living inside temporary shelters, covering their branch or wooden huts (those who have been there longer have built mud brick ones) with plastic sheeting from the aid agencies, and even this has often already been torn apart by the rains. Everyone sleeps on the floor, sometimes in puddles - 10 people in a little shelter is not unusual, more is common.While the United States government was blamed for a poor response to the Katrina catastrophe, the government of Sudan is directly responsible for the catastrophe in Darfur. And whereas the state and federal government are now in the process of cleaning up, and will soon begin the process of rebuilding, the devastated Gulf Coast, the people of Darfur currently have no prospects of ever being able to leave the camps because insecurity is still rampant.
Now that the aid agencies are operating in many camps there is regular water supply, there are latrines, there are medical clinics and most importantly, there is a monthly food distribution of staple grains and things like oil - but this does not mean people have it easy. This season has brought many floods and people have lost their belongings or even shelters, huts and latrines sometimes collapsed in the rains, and the food is never enough (and people have to scramble for things like fresh vegetables themselves anyway, as these are not included in the distribution). Malnutrition inside the camps is still high.
Overall, I would say conditions are adequate for survival - though some camps (especially the ones further away from big cities) are a lot worse off than others (Abu Shouk, for example, has dozens of aid agencies, while places just a few hours outside of it have 1 or 2). Whether they are adequate for what you would consider a normal life is debatable - I would say absolutely not, and I have no doubts any American would find them a lot more "unacceptable" than New Orleans.
I suppose the worst part of living in the camps is having absolutely no idea how much longer you will be there (many people have already been there for 2 years) and also constantly having to worry that you will be attacked - Aro Sarow showed us that even large scale attacks and killings inside IDP camps are still a threat. In many camps - Kalma, Tawila, etc. - it is part of everyday life to hear shooting at night, and in nearly all of them it is still very dangerous to wander outside and carry out chores like collecting firewood. Knowing that you are constantly at risk of looting and assault is be an easy thing to live with.
In the last few weeks, there have been a series of attacks on villages and camps that have created several thousand new refugees. In addition, nearly 40 African Union troops and workers were kidnapped over the weekend and, in a separate incident, five members of the AU force were ambushed and killed. And even if a semblance of peace does ever come to the region, the people of Darfur have nothing to return to, as their villages and homes have been utterly destroyed while their land and possessions have been stolen.
The post-Hurricane nightmare faced by the victims of Katrina has been the reality in Darfur for more than two years - and will remain so for the foreseeable future.