Photo by Jen Marlowe.
Tuesday, May 6:
The villagers in Shegeg Karo in North Darfur face an impossible choice. Do they load an 8-year-old girl, possibly with a broken back, into a car and drive her eight-plus hours over the grueling, jolting, unforgiving North Darfur desert to seek medical attention in neighboring Chad–a country with one of the world’s poorest health care systems?
Or do they continue to wait for a United Nations or ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) helicopter to bring medical assistance? Two days earlier, a single Antonov plane circled over Shegeg Karo. Crude bombs were pushed out of the back hatch. The bombs exploded on the village’s market. Eleven people were killed, six of them children from the Shegeg Karo school. Others were badly injured.
No helicopter has yet arrived. As morning slips into afternoon, the skies are still empty and silent and it doesn’t appear that one will be coming that day either. The little girl is unconscious. She hasn’t been able to eat or drink anything since the attack. The other critically injured child, a 14-year-old boy, is conscious, but his speech is slow. He’s drinking water, but hasn’t been able to eat. He has a broken arm and leg and he’s lost a lot of blood…
I first came to Shegeg Karo in 2004 with my colleagues Adam Shapiro and Aisha Bain, filming our documentary Darfur Diaries. We met a young man named Dero in the village market the day after we crossed the border from Chad into Darfur. During the short time we were in Darfur, Dero became our guide, translator and dear friend.
Dero took us to the Shegeg Karo school; a mud hut with a thatched roof. He had built it himself. He told us why:
“No school here in Shegeg Karo. There are more than 3,000 people in this area without any school, any hospital…. After I left secondary school, I couldn’t go to university. I returned back here to build this school, to run it by effort. No one paid me. I tried to call to people to pay for their children so I could teach them. I didn’t care about age. If someone came, more than 20 years, or 7, or 8. My aim was not about age. I wanted to educate people how to read and write.”
Dero had pointed out where the blackboard had been and where the students used to sit on the ground. “Sometimes more than thirty in one class, sometimes less,” he had said. “I tried to teach them how to read and write the alphabet in Arabic. I tried to teach them a few words of English. I taught three years without any salary, but after three years this war happened, and now we stopped. I stopped teaching.”
“Will you build a new school?” Shapiro asked.
“If the war is over and the situation gets better, I can try to build a school again. I will call those who have some education to teach the people here,” Dero answered.
But Dero was eerily prescient. “If I gathered students in this school to teach them and suddenly airplane came to bomb it, then that would be wrong of me.”
Shegeg Karo hadn’t been attacked since early 2005. The village was enjoying some tranquility, if not peace, and a measure of normality seemed to have returned to the town. So when I called Dero to ask him if he thought it was a good idea to start the school in Shegeg Karo again, he responded enthusiastically. When children return to school, it’s usually a sign that people have regained confidence in their future and a community is on the road to recovery. On May 4, 2007, with the help of actress and activist Mia Farrow, we raised enough money at a single fundraiser to launch the Shegeg Karo School of Peace. Dero energetically organized the lists of teachers and students and volunteered to be the link between the school and Darfur Peace and Development Organization, our partner NGO for the schools we fund.
When my cell phone rang early in the morning in Seattle, on Sunday, May 4, one year to the day after we raised the funds, I saw Dero’s name on the caller ID. He was calling from El Fashir, the only city in North Darfur with an update, I assumed, on the progress of the school.
“I have very sad news for you,” he said. “The school in Shegeg Karo was bombed today by Antonov plane.”
“What? Dero, what did you just say? The school in Shegeg Karo–bombed?”
“Six children were killed.”
I hung up the phone in a state of shock. Six kids killed. More injured. I needed to let people know what happened. And I needed more detailed information. I began a series of calls to Darfuri friends from Shegeg Karo, trying to track down who knew what. Dero called me back with more news: it was worse than we had originally thought. One of only two water pumps in the village had been destroyed. The market was hit, and twenty stalls destroyed. Five other villagers were killed in the market. The death toll had now risen to eleven. Later, I learned the school hadn’t been hit directly; the students were killed after they left the school and were in the adjoining market. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been a comparable single Antonov bombing incident in Sudan in over eight years. That was the bombing of the school in Kauda, Nuba Mountains on February 8, 2000, leaving fourteen students and one teacher dead.
I began collecting the names and the ages of the victims.
Fatima Suleiman Adam Omar, third grade; 10 years old. Fatima Ahmad Bashir, second grade; 8 years old. Mubarak Mohammed Ahmad, third grade; 10 years old.
Shock, grief, despair and anger merged into one sick feeling.
Munira Suleiman Adam, second grade; 7 years old. Adam Ahmad Yusuf, fourth grade; 11 years old. Yusuf Adam Hamid, kindergarten; 5 years old.
The sick feeling deepened.
“How many people are injured?” I asked Dero when we next spoke. “What kind of help do they need?”
There’s only one person in Shegeg Karo with a satellite phone, Dero told me. This man hadn’t yet been able to count or assess the injured. They were trying to gather them all in one place. And they were still burying the dead children. But Dero had informed the World Health Organization and the UN Department of Safety and Security just two hours after the attack occurred, and UNICEF was next on his list.
I called Dero Monday morning to check if he had any updates.
“The people in Shegeg Karo are preparing to send the seriously injured people in a car to Chad.” The most critically wounded, he went on to tell me, was Adeen, a 14-year-old boy with a broken arm and leg. And Fatma, an 8-year-old girl the villagers suspected had a broken back.
“They’re sending them in a car to Chad?” I repeated with disbelief. I had traveled on the road from Shegeg Karo to Chad–if it can be called a road. It was bone-jarring enough to break your back even if your back wasn’t already broken. The journey might kill the little girl. “Isn’t the UN or ICRC sending a helicopter to evacuate the kids?” Dero had no answer. I asked him to ask the villagers to hold out while I tried to get answers.
I scrambled to learn why the severely injured children hadn’t been evacuated. First I heard that an ICRC helicopter was ready to fly but the Sudanese government prevented it. Next I heard that the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) received permission to send a helicopter–but got their coordinates wrong and wound up flying to an entirely different village. The deeper I tried to dig, the more confused the answers were and the less clear it became why help hadn’t arrived–or if anyone could guarantee that it was forthcoming–or if anyone was even making any kind of real effort to ensure that it would be.
Dero reported later Monday afternoon that the villagers didn’t think they could wait any longer. Fatma had been crying in the hours after the attack but was now “not talking.” But I had just received information that UNAMID was trying to get another helicopter out on Tuesday. I asked Dero to call back the man with the satellite phone. Could they wait until the next day and hopefully the helicopter would come first thing in the morning? Darfur is host to one of the largest humanitarian aid operations mounted on our planet. UNAMID has a special mandate to protect civilians. Help would have to come. It would come. Dero said he would call and try to convince them to wait.
Twenty-eight hours after the attack. Thirty hours. No helicopter. Thirty-five hours. Nothing. Conflicting stories as to why. But the bottom line remains the same. No help arrived. Fatma’s condition was worsening, Dero said. She had lapsed into unconsciousness.
Help should have arrived in Shegeg Karo within hours after the attack. Instead, forty-eight hours later, the villagers had an impossible decision to make: Do they load their broken children onto cars to seek medical treatment, forcing them to endure a journey that might kill them? Or do they remain in the village and watch their children slip further from hope as they continue to wait?
Late Tuesday afternoon, people from the village drove Fatma and Adeen four hours to a town in North Darfur. The children survived the journey. The ICRC met them there. Fatma’s back was injured, it turned out, but not broken. Her leg, however, was broken. She and Adeen each had one leg amputated.
I’m not sure which is more shocking: that we live in a world where governments drop bombs on their own children or that the people of Shegeg Karo were abandoned in their hours of greatest need. Perhaps because some Darfur activists consistently raise slogans with inflated rhetoric of genocide and daily slaughter, it becomes harder for the international community to really see and pay attention to a massacre when it actually happens. But one thing is certain. This village, this school, these children–Fatma and Adeen–are paying the price for the incompetence of humanitarian organizations, including the world’s largest peacekeeping operation with a special mandate to protect civilians.
For information on how to help the people of Shegeg Karo, please visit Darfur Diaries.org