Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Darfur Diaspora: Floating like driftwood throughout all of Africa...

As I was walking home from the village tuckshop – consisting of a building the size of a large closet with five mostly-empty shelves stocked with three loaves of bread, five boxes of tea, ten bags of mealie-meal, four jars of penny-candy and the makings for the best French fries you’ll ever have – I ran into an elderly Irish Catholic nun who was out walking her dog before sunset (as a general rule in the part of Africa where I am now, most women – even crazy Americans like me – make it a point to be at home behind locked doors before dark every night. No nightlife here for us ladies! It just isn’t safe.)

The nun and I got to talking about this and that as we walked together down the dusty red-dirt road. “Did you know that some of those squatters over at the edge of the village are refugees from Darfur,” she asked me. Really? I wonder how the freak they got all the way down here, over a thousand miles away from Sudan.

“Do you think it would be possible for me to go over and talk to them….” I asked the nun. This could be a scoop. I’d been trying to get into Darfur for over a year now and it appears that no journalists are being let in any more. We are all being told that same old “Closed Military Zone” bull-dookie that keeps reporters out of areas where there is genocide going on these days – not like the good old days when being a war correspondent was just a matter of getting to a war zone, taking good notes and avoiding getting shot. No, news is being carefully managed these days – especially in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“Come visit me tomorrow,” said the nun, “and I’ll take you over there.” Cool. But the next day I couldn’t find either the nun or the squatters. Perhaps they had only been a figment of my Pulitzer-Prize-seeking imagination.

And then yesterday I ran into an American tourist who had just gotten back from Zambia. “While I was there, I talked with several Darfur refugees,” he mentioned in the course of our conversation. All the freak way down in Zambia? Wow. “One was a teacher, who said that he still wanted to go back and was planning to go back next year.”

Then I talked with an interesting older man from our village whose father had worked in the mines in Kimberly back in the 1930s. “My father had 11 children and even though black miners were treated like dirt back then and we were very very poor when I was growing up, he still made sure that all 11 of us got a good education. My youngest sister became a nurse and now she is working for an NGO at a hospital in Darfur.” Oh please please please! Can I have her cell phone number! With all the closed military zones in the world these days – I myself have been thrown out of Iraq and apparently will never be allowed back in again and my efforts to get into Gaza have totally fizzled – one gathers information, news (gossip) about war zones wherever one can.

Then I ran into someone from Zimbabwe and asked her if there were any Darfur refugees there. “Are you kidding?” she replied. “Why in the world would any refugee want to leave one hell-hole to come to another one? Zimbabwe is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and our people are wonderful but the government there is falling apart and it is definitely a failed state. Inflation is up five THOUSAND percent. Millions of people have fled the country. They don’t even have electricity in their three major cities, the president is a raving maniac and the Zimbabweans who are left are just barely holding on until the elections in March – not exactly a destination of choice for the massacre survivors of Darfur. Tell them to try Kenya or Ghana.”

I also talked with a tourist from Russia who told me that they even have refugees from the Sudan living in Moscow. But that’s another story. And of course Darfur refugees can be found in Egypt, Libya, Chad and Mali as well. Good for them. They may be living far from their homes. They may be suffering. They may be strangers in a strange land. But at least they’re alive.