“We are all Darfur” has echoed throughout the whole country during Sudan’s uprising, in support of peaceful reconciliation in the beautiful western region of Sudan, tragically torn down by years of war. Innocent civilians have endlessly struggled between refugee camps and the outskirts of cities, trying to escape the brutal situation of their homelands. Now the global pandemic came along and added yet another item to the long list of Sudan’s issues. Andariya’s team visited Abu-Shok and Al-Salam camps, two refugee camps in Al Fashir – Northern Darfur, as part of the Covid-19 awareness-raising campaign in partnership with Internews. The contrast between camps and cities when it comes to awareness is predictably huge, but let’s take a look at some of the insights shared by youth and how they attempt to tackle these issues.
Abu-Shok camp. Photo credits: Nohad Khalid
Does Covid-19 exist in Al Fashir?
When it comes to theories and beliefs, the situation in Al Fashir’s refugee camps is similar to that of the country in general. To a large number of people, COVID-19 is merely a case of politicians playing their cards right. Most people in camps believe that the transitional government has utterly failed to provide basic services for citizens. To them, the economic situation is extremely deteriorating to the point where it would make sense for them (the government) to enforce lock-downs and impose this whole ‘stay at home’ mindset within people; so as to ensure less awareness of their failure. Public health workers and activists are often accused of conspiring with the government and politicians or choosing that line of work only for its perks and good pay.
Abu-Shok camp. Photo credits: Nohad Khalid
On top of that, the virus is nowhere to be seen in Al Fashir, so people are increasingly skeptical of its existence because they barely observe COVID-19 cases or hear about them within their direct circles. And of course, regular testing is almost nonexistent. For these reasons, the whole Coronavirus fuss seems like media propaganda. During the first wave, people believed that the virus hasn’t really affected us, as opposed to the second wave which has indeed changed the situation a bit in regards to the existence of the virus in Sudan, especially after the death of Alsadiq Al-Mahdi and other relatively famous public figures. But even after the obvious exacerbation of the outbreak, a lot of people in Al Fashir still believe that the virus is only limited to Khartoum. They think that the lifestyle in rural areas – with all its farming and agriculture – requires vigorous physical effort under the sun, which makes it impossible for the virus to survive. This is usually compared to life in the capital, where people are trapped in closed spaces with their air conditioners and lazy manner.
Refugee Camps vs. Cities in Darfur
To be able to thoroughly understand the spread of misinformation, we need to have some background about the communities that occupy these camps and study the different ways awareness can be spread. A youth activist from Al-Salam camp shared some insight into the effect of war on the division of communities and the way they receive new information:
“We all know that displacement has affected the lives of a lot of people in Darfur, but what people tend to forget when venturing towards humanitarian work and awareness-raising is that these camps are occupied by huge numbers of people coming from different communities (and tribes), and they happen to be gathered in one place. A direct result would be that there is a conspicuous contrast between different neighborhood blocks in terms of culture, education, traditions, and beliefs. People in villages generally don’t pay attention to the government and law, the real power is in the hands of chieftains, sheikhs, and mayors with varying levels of authority, and they carried this culture with them even after displacement.
Source: Caritas Internationalis
The previous regime took advantage of the ignorance of people and ‘fake’ authority given to these figures; ‘Divide and conquer’ was the policy implemented and easily maintained within Darfur and specifically among people from conflict-affected regions. Now communities in these camps are used to being in a state of constant panic, basically a ‘survival of the fittest’ kind of situation. The government used to provide services only for certain groups that comply with their rules. Their main interest was the recruitment of men in their militias, and in return, they provide better living conditions. These tribes then have access to weapons which naturally transforms them into the governing entities of these camps. We weren’t able to go out without being interrogated or terrorized, if they don’t like your attitude or the way you look, they can easily just shoot you. This has historically stratified camps, some tribes are peaceful while others are violent. To this day, the individuals in administrative divisions and local governments are responsible for everything, so all meetings, campaigns, workshops, or other awareness-raising events are only attended by the youth they choose, who usually happen to be their relatives or members of their respective political parties.
Most of us young people are against poor representation in such events, we believe in diversity and that all communities should at least get the chance to participate, but unfortunately it is hard to mobilize and organize due to the deeply rooted issues I just mentioned. The new transitional government endorses official resistance committees, but since refugee camps are considered temporary, we don’t actually have such committees, but rather a youth coalition in the name of Al-Salam Camp, which is not really recognized by the government so we are essentially not benefiting from the recent political change. It is true that the damage done by the ousted regime perseveres, but I believe that with more unity and awareness we could overcome our differences for the greater good of our people.”
How can we improve awareness-raising activities?
Younger generations are evidently more aware and conscious of the pandemic; this is a natural result of their exposure to the internet and social media. This generation gap hinders the process of awareness-raising since older people usually stick to their traditions and don’t really welcome new information. The communities in refugee camps are highly diverse regarding education and culture, consequently, tackling such issues should be done in accordance with these differences. For instance, some communities would not accept information from outsiders, while others believe that foreigners (from outside of Darfur or Sudan) are more enlightened and would therefore have valid knowledge and information.
Al-Salam camp. Photo credits: Nohad Khalid
A large number of young people have noted that the best way to spread awareness is through developing a direct reach, such as canvassing around neighborhoods (door knocking) and having more personalized approaches by portraying real-life COVID-19 cases and experiences. They believe that NGOs and public health workers should take into account that their speech is more effective when it is simple and easy to grasp, sometimes it would be better to communicate in local languages, and hence the inclusion of local youth in awareness-raising campaigns is necessary to ensure better background knowledge and appropriate communication with the targeted communities.