The Making of Abu Shok

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-outside El Fashir, Northern Darfur

By Catherine Bond

At first glance, it could be a film set – lines of white tents pitched on orange sand dunes at the desert’s edge.  Or it could be a small African farming town, humming with the sound of mills pounding grain at dusk.

But Abu Shok camp is neither, of course.

In it, more than 40,000 African civilians rely on little more than life’s basics – food, water, shelter, latrines – having been driven from their villages in a government counter-insurgency campaign against rebels in Sudan’s Darfur province.

The decision by the Government of Sudan to create Abu Shok – the name of a nearby Arab village meaning “hedgehog” because of the spiky bushes growing there – was pushed ahead by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in April.

At the time, the international aid community was pondering an ethical dilemma: was it right to help create displaced people’s camps in Darfur, amid widespread violations of international humanitarian law that led to massive population displacement and that were being labelled - among various circles - as “concentration camps” as a result of “ethnic cleansing”?

“To us in the field, there was no question,” says Alexander Liebeskind, one of the ICRC delegates who saw displaced families living in a disused tree nursery called Meshtel, on the outskirts of Northern Darfur’s main town of El Fashir.

“At Meshtel, there were 30,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on a dry river bed,” he says.  “And it was horrendous.”

The displaced were sleeping under cotton sheets strung across trees, some relatively wealthy families camped out with their beds and furniture.  ICRC delegates thought Meshtel a health and safety risk, prone to seasonal flooding and disease. 

The El Fashir authorities came up with land for a planned camp on the town’s northern periphery – a long valley between two sand dunes.  ICRC delegates took a look at it and decided to make do. 

“We said ‘we can do it and if we do it, we do it all’,” says Liebeskind.  “We gave conditions: the IDPs had to agree to be relocated, they had to have freedom of movement, there was to be a police station to keep law and order, and the government had to be committed to defend the camp from outside attacks.

Then came the logistics.  The displaced at Meshtel proffered a list of some 60,000-70,000 persons.  Liebeskind says it took a Sudanese Red Crescent volunteer, a traditional Sheikh, twelve hours a day for three consecutive days to whittle the list down to 32,529 people – 32,000 people under 153 Sheikhs and 50 Umdas - a traditional system Liebeskind likens to “European nobility, a Sheikh equals a Count and several Counts equal a Baron, or Umdas, who report to Kings.”

Wells were drilled, and water pumps installed the ICRC and Unicef.  Plots were measured in large blocks, separated by wide “roads”.  Tents were airlifted in.

There were only four ICRC staff members in El Fashir at the time – Liebeskind, Irfan Sulejmani, Karen Strugg and Mohammed Osman – supported by key members of the local branch of the Sudanese Red Crescent.

With no previous planning experience, they laid the whole camp out, the emphasis on keeping communities together, but with adequate individual space. “The whole luxury of the camp was space,” says Liebeskind.  “Physically and psychologically, it’s very important for those people to have an organised space.”

The authorities gave the ICRC three days to facilitate the transfer of the displaced from El Fashir’s old tree nursery; the ICRC said it needed eight or ten.  But on D-Day – the day trucks should have started moving families from the old tree nursery at Meshtel – there was still no police post.

“At four o’clock in the afternoon, one policeman arrived on foot,” says Liebeskind.  “We made it clear that we would wait, that we were not joking.”

In the end, moving everyone by truck with their belongings took 20 days, the new camp swelling to 42,000 persons, with Meshtel becoming “a check-in counter for Abu Shok,” Liebeskind says.

“In all my career with ICRC,” he says.  “It’s one of the operations we did with the smallest means and the greatest impact.  There was a lot of co-operation and team spirit, a minimum of infrastructure, and yet it worked.”

When the move was over, there was a birth of twins in the camp.  The same day, a child died.  Liebeskind had to choose a site for the graveyard – a slope overlooking the camp.

“The cycle of life and death in the camp had begun,” he says.