Duty and the beast
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Telegraph, Saturday 11th June 2005
The people of Darfur in western Sudan are still in desperate need of aid. But so too, says Stanley Johnson, are the donkeys that may be their only resource
I had a window seat on the De Havilland Dash-8 plane from Khartoum to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. For most of the long journey I stared down at the desert, taking in the total emptiness of the immense landscape. How on earth did people manage to live here under “normal” circumstances, let alone in a war zone at the end of six years of drought and failed harvests?
The Khartoum-El Fasher shuttle is run by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Services and was full of relief workers of one sort or another. The bearded young man sitting next to me said he worked for Médecins Sans Frontières.
“And you?” he asked.
“I'm with SPANA, the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad. We’re trying to save the donkeys in the refugee camps, among other things.
The young man stroked his beard. “Saving donkeys would not be high on my list of priorities under present circumstances"
I understood his point. In a week when the International Criminal Court announced an investigation into war crimes in Darfur, the humanitarian situation in western Sudan has once again become the focus of global attention.
An estimated 300,000 people have died in Darfur in recent years, 200,000 have fled the country and there are about 1.5 million displaced persons living alongside a ‘host” population of 600,000. The whole region has been racked for years by conflict: Arabs versus Africans, northerners versus southerners, nomads versus pastoralists, the government versus the Sudanese Liberation Army. Was there a place amid such misery and strife for any concerns other than for human welfare?
The flight that morning was the milk run. We put down briefly at El Obeid, Nyala and Jenin, and at every stop aid workers either boarded or disembarked. We finally reached El Fasher at about 2pm.
My travelling companions were Jeremy Hulme, a craggy ex-Black Watch soldier and Orkney farmer who has been SPANA's chief executive for the past 14 years, and Karen Jones, the charity’s veterinarian. As we waited for our vehicle, I mentioned my chat with the man from MSF.
“I get that reaction all the time,” Jeremy said. “Talk to the humanitarian community about donkeys and they mark you down as a people-hating bunny-hugger. Yet, out here, donkeys are truck and taxi, often the only non-human resource these people have, If the donkeys die, the people have neither the incentive nor the means to get back home again. That’s the situation we are trying to avoid.”
Later that day, we were able to see for ourselves how its efforts to save the donkeys are succeeding. Our first stop was a mud-brick compound half-a-mile outside Abu Showk refugee camp. With its Sudanese partners, and in cooperation with the UK-based charity Kids for Kids, SPANA had organised the collection of 60,000 bundles of hay, which were starting to tower over the compound’s walls.
“A year ago,” Jeremy said, “there were probably 10,000 to 12,000 donkeys in Abu Showk, all brought in by the refugees. Today there are maybe 1,400. The rest were simply allowed to starve to death. The aid effort was so focused on the people that their working animals were ignored. It’s understandable that people come first, but pack animals and livestock should at least be on the radar. The donkeys that are here now need food to survive — 60,000 bundles of hay will keep them alive for a couple of months.”
“And the cost?” I ask.
“Around £50,000 so far, but it is money well spent. By keeping the animals alive till the rains come, in July or August, we give them a chance of surviving in the longer term. In the lives of these people, it’s hard to imagine anything more important than saving the animals. They carry the scarce water from waterholes and haul the firewood to cook the food provided by the aid agencies. And when the refugees finally go back to their homes, as everyone hopes they will, they will need these animals more than ever. You don’t have to be a sentimentalist to see that.”
As we watched, donkey-carts trundled in laden with bales of hay that were transferred to the stack. More than 70,000 people live in the camp (20,000 more than six months ago), in tents or under tarpaulins provided by international relief agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children. The organisation is impressive. There are latrines on every corner. “The facilities here are probably better than in the villages,” Jeremy points out.
Some people suggest that the reason the number of refugees in Darfur has been growing so dramatically is that it is seen as a “soft option” compared with life in the semi-desert. I realised just how cynical this notion was when we sat down in a tent for a series of briefings with Abu Showks community leaders, as well as the women SPANA has trained to care for the animals in the camp.
Little by little they began to recount the horrific attacks that had brought them here. One man talked of grenade attacks by Janjaweed militia — some believe they are encouraged by the Government — and of explosions and machine-gun fire in the middle of the night. Another spoke of villagers running away in panic into the dark and the desert. These were not old tales. Many of the people were recent arrivals.
Organisaions such as SPANA and Kids for Kids are working for that brighter day when the refugees can return to their villages. SPANA is funding the training of “paravets” (like paramedics), and in Darfur we attended the first training course. Fifteen students had been selected by the Darfur villagers themselves for training in basic animal care so that when they return to their lands they can help maintain healthy livestock herds.
The charity’s vet, Karen, was in her element. Local farmers had brought in ailing animals to the impromptu clinic and she spent a happy morning peering down donkeys’ throats and rasping roughened teeth. “You’ve got to watch out for donkey rabies,” she warned when I ventured too close.
SPANA knows it must change some minds if it is to succeed. It has begun, for example, to press the British Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) about the effectiveness of its recent £1 million grant to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Darfur, designed to provide veterinary support, feed and health care for donkeys and livestock. The Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, at least recognises livestock as “key livelihood assets”.
On our last day in Darfur, we travelled three hours across the desert to the town of Mellit. I have travelled in many parts of the world and seen people living in conditions of extreme poverty, but I have never seen anything like the unofficial refugee camp we found there.
As I crouched on the sand, talking to a group of refugees, a glassy-eyed donkey expired before my eyes. Call it an asset; call it an old and trusted family friend — either way, the passing of that animal in the desert heat will mean, ultimately, even greater hardship for the family that is now going to have to manage without it.
For more information about the work of SPANA and Kids for Kids, see www.spana.org and www.kidsforkids.org.uk.
By Stanley Johnson, Copyright © The Daily Telegraph, 2005. Published in The Telegraph 11th June 2005
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