OMDURMAN ES SALAAM, Sudan - Peter Maeike's house is a patchwork of sugar sacks, plastic sheeting and cardboard stretched over a pole frame, so fragile that a strong breeze might lift it into the air.
It would not look out of place in Sudan's western Darfur region, where a
government-backed campaign against black African tribes has left up to 50,000
people dead and driven 1.5 million civilians out of their homes and into
sprawling relief camps in search of food, shelter and safety.
Like the thousands of displaced families in Darfur who have been lingering
for months in bleak camps unsure of their future, Maeike is waiting for the
day that peace and security will be restored in the south so he can go home.
He has been waiting 16 years.
Those years have been spent here in Omdurman es Salaam, a sun-baked refugee
camp with thousands of hastily constructed shelters like Maeike's, about 20
miles southwest of Khartoum, not far from the banks of the White Nile.
According to the last official estimates, 100,000 people are crammed into
this labyrinth of mud huts, tent-like shelters and garbage-strewn canals,
though the population is probably far higher, aid agencies say.
Unemployment hovers around 90 percent. The luckiest residents form
Khartoum's underclass, toiling as day laborers in the textile factories,
washing clothes in Arab homes, hawking shoe shines and sweets on the city's
dusty streets. The rest idle away days and nights in a community racked by
malaria, cholera and malnutrition.
There are no trees, no grass, and very little that is green, just vast
expanses of rocky, reddish soil capped on a recent morning by a powder-blue
sky. Take away the shacks and the people and this landscape looks eerily
similar to photographs of Mars.
And this camp might as well be as far away. The plight of the people here
long ago disappeared from the pages of newspapers. There have been plenty of
other horror stories in Africa since people began moving here: slaughter in
Rwanda, wars in Congo and Liberia, and now a humanitarian crisis -"genocide,"
according to the United States - in Darfur.
They wait, and hope
Still, they wait, unseen and rarely heard. Even lifelong residents of
Khartoum know little about the hardships of their neighbors. Residents of the
camps come from a half-dozen tribes, speaking different languages, practicing
Christianity, Islam and traditional animist beliefs. What holds this diverse
community together is the shared hope that someday they will return whence
During the past two years, it seemed that that opportunity might arrive.
Khartoum and the southern rebels have nearly hammered out a peace deal that
would allow millions of refugees to return to their homes. But as the
spotlight turns to the Darfur crisis, experts fear there is little chance of
Khartoum or the West having the time or stamina to finally bring an end to
International and local relief efforts continue to distribute food,
medicine and other aid to about 4 million people in camps throughout the
county, including 2 million near Khartoum.
In Omdurman es Salaam, the government started a project to sell plots of
land to residents so they could build more-permanent structures, though most
are too poor to pay the $75.
Even donors are beginning to lose interest, locals say, shifting limited
resources to focus on the emergency in Darfur.
No one knows how long the displaced civilians will wait before going home.
But Maieke, who at 23 has known little else in his life other than this
camp, offers the newly displaced in Darfur this advice: "Be open-minded and
settle your dispute. Don't take the same path we've taken," he said as he
stood perspiring in the midmorning sun. "We don't wish this for them."
A member of the Shilluk tribe, Maieke was raised in the Upper Nile, where
his family kept cattle, owned a house and some farmland.
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