Sixteen Months in Darfur - Part 1 of 3

by Jonathan Drake

Editor's Note: In printing this series, we want to show you firsthand the gravity of the situation in Darfur. As long as the world continues to overlook this blatant genocide, there is no respite in sight for the oppressed tribes. We encourage you to pray for peace and justice, to donate to organizations that are working to alleviate the suffering, and to pressure those in power to act for the good of humanity.

In November of 2004 I stepped through the door of a plane and into a world drastically different from my own. Prior to that time, I approached life from the perspective of someone who had never experienced suffering, true hardship, or had ever really had anything not go my way. My family had gone through some lean years, when my father was switching careers, but we had always had food on the table and we'd always lived in a comfortable house, surrounded by loving friends and family.

Thus, when I stepped into the sweltering heat pulsating from the sun-baked tarmac of the Nyala airport in South Darfur, Sudan, I was totally ill-equipped and unprepared for what would soon become my life. 

In 2003, the world became aware of potential genocide occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. To boil down the complex issues to a tangible point, Arab tribesmen, known as the Janjaweed, were being aided ("aided" defined as training, equipping, supplying, and even fighting in conjunction with, using Russian Hind-24 attack helicopters, Antonov 12 bombers, etc.) by the Sudanese government in their marauding and systematic attempts to exterminate African tribes.

The black tribes' villages were burned to the ground, women were raped, men and children murdered, farms destroyed, and survivors fled for their lives, abandoning all earthly possessions. It is estimated that around 3.5 to 4 million people were displaced, becoming what the United Nations defines as IDPs (internally displaced persons). 

Fleeing to areas considered to be safe, they formed large camps, congregating around water points and existing villages. This, in turn, put huge stress on the local economies and Darfur, already a strenuous place of survival, was plunged further into poverty and hardship. The international community was slow in responding, but Darfur soon became the hot spot' for humanitarian work and hundreds of non-government organizations showed up on the scene to help alleviate suffering and keep people alive.

The international relief organization Samaritan's Purse arrived on the scene in September, 2004, with a small group of expatriates to set up a project in the food distribution sector, partnering with the UN's World Food Program. Operations were based out of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur and a city of close to a million people. Throughout the course of my time there, the project grew to include an emergency education project, a water and sanitation project, non-food item distributions (shelter material, cooking utensils, soap, etc.) and women's protection projects.

I was hired in October for the food program and arrived on the project in early November, having signed a year-long contract. For the first seven months I was out in the field six days a week, managing our Sudanese national food distribution team and monitoring our monthly food distributions that serviced over 80,000 people. 

At the end of those seven months our Food Program manager left the project and I, being the only other staff member involved with the Food Program, became the manager by default. My responsibilities suddenly doubled, as far as workload was concerned, but the magnitude of the consequences of my decisions as Food Program manager climbed to a point that truly terrified me. I realized that my decisions, my work quality and my ability to "get the job done" directly affected the survivability of what became more than 100,000 people.

During my tenure I learned to keep extensive journals, recording, real-time, the events that were happening around me. Here is an excerpt, taken from March, 2005, that might help you picture a food distribution:

"Our work has been started and has seen already almost two hours of progress. Order and organization do not come naturally to the locals and we have had a nightmare of a time trying to impose it. At every distribution we set up a large perimeter and only allow registered people to enter. Most camps know our system well enough and are easier to manage. However these people have provided the greatest challenge so far. For about 45 minutes it was utter chaos. Imagine 5,000 people all shouting and pushing to get in. Madness, sheer madness. These people, due to their tenuous situation, have few things on their minds other than survival. To survive you must be the strongest, the most cunning, the most cut-throat, even. Weakness means death.

"Gazing out over the crowd I was struck with the realization that I am the sole white person for many miles. There is a boy staring intently at me. Kind of annoying actually. You'd think I would be used to it but there is a point where you long to be ordinary and to not stand out like, well, a white guy in a sea of black people. I have a great view of the scene. I'm perched on a pile of wheat sacks ten sacks high. From here I can see everything. I face west and directly in front of me is the waiting area. It is about 75 yards long and 15 yards deep. A rope on the edge keeps people out and they are lined thick along all points. At three points we have tables where my guys are checking people in.

"Thirty or so men work quickly in carrying the food out and their behavior reminds me of a stirred-up ant's nest. Constant chatter clutters the airwaveskind of inspiring, this whole scene."

I could never have imagined, or been prepared for what such an event would have been like. Being exposed to suffering and desperation on a level not easily found in America caused me to rethink a lot of what I had grown up believing and expecting to be true. Even the heat, a constant and persistent aspect of life there, contributed to the mental "wrestling" that took place, as it made me very aware of my circumstances, even when I was away from a distribution, resting in the "quiet" of my room in Nyala.

Over the next two articles, I hope to share with you some of my "wrestlings" and include you in some of my resulting paradigm shifts, using some of my experiences and the personal lives of some of my Sudanese friends to provide context. I thank the Lord for my encounters and look forward to being able to share some of the things that I learned through them.

Jonathan Drake served with Samaritan's Purse in Darfur from November, 2004 to January, 2006,
and again from August to October, 2006. After returning to the U.S. in October,
he was unable to obtain a travel permit to return to the project in Sudan
because tensions have risen as the situation there continues to worsen.

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