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Amid Darfur's desperation, 'little joys'

  • Story Highlights
  • Field officer with World Food Program captures images of village and camp life
  • More than 2.5 million have been displaced, driven into huge refugee camps
  • Traditional market routes have been disrupted by the violence
  • An estimated 200,000 have died in Darfur since 2003
  • Next Article in World »
By Porter Anderson
CNN
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(CNN) -- When Diego Fernandez talks about the tens of thousands of Darfurians who huddle in southern Sudan's refugee camps, he speaks both as an aid-agency worker and as a witness with a camera.

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Photographer Diego Fernandez of the World Food Program calls Darfurians' resilience "a triumph."

"They should have dignity and self-sufficiency," he said. "I mean, these people have been living on their own all their lives; cultivating, completely independent, and now they're just relying on humanitarian aid."

That's the field officer talking. Fernandez is charged by the United Nations' World Food Program with ensuring that food reaches the camps, transported in dust-eating Daimler trucks that grind along the baking supply routes between camps.

"But you see people still walking the markets" in larger towns and even in the refugee camps, he said. "Still eating outside, still laughing, children playing. It's quite interesting to see how life runs parallel to the conflict."

And that's the photo-journalist speaking, his camera at the ready. Watch an audio slide show and hear Diego Fernandez talk about conditions in Darfur »

Fernandez gets the high view when traveling in one of the helicopters that ferry personnel across contested terrain. And at ground level, he walks the terra-cotta sands, talking with elders, with children, with exhausted mothers and restless teens.

Most have been forced from their homes into the camps for safety and food. Many have travelled long distances.

"In some cases, it takes them ... up to a week, traveling from their villages to the camps," he said. These long journeys are made in high temperatures sometimes on foot. Photo See a photo gallery of some of Diego Fernandez's images »

Once these displaced people, currently estimated to total some 2.5 million, reach the large camps, Fernandez said, they're in an environment completely unfamiliar to them.

And yet with good humor they scratch out a life for themselves in the camps and make the best of a bad situation.

Fernandez said he marvels at how people in the camps continue to pursue the "little joys" of life.

Their own pastoral communities, built expressly to accommodate the needs of the families who share the land, offer scant preparation for the squared-off lines, rumbling supply trucks, necessary regulations and noisy crowding of the refugee camps.

But the drive to preserve tokens of normal life, however small, are hard to defeat, according to Fernandez. Men gather to talk, women share chores, kids frame their days in friendship and play.

He saw this first, he said, when working in Iraq. Stationed in Baghdad with the Spanish Embassy prior to the start of the 2003 U.S. invasion, Fernandez said, he watched a population struggle to keep something of their routine intact, even as the attacks loomed.

"Iraqis started to store basic supplies at home in anticipation of the war -- water, flour, sugar, fuel, sure. But you could still see them working, walking in the streets."

In a region where news organizations are highly regulated and often find it dangerous to operate, photographing Darfurians requires special arrangements. Even aid officials like Fernandez must have proper permits to carry cameras.

"When you are in the field, when you're out in the bush," he said, "it tends to be much easier to find the photographs. And people are more easy about being photographed.

"But when you are in the big towns, sometimes it's more difficult. Sometimes people are not happy. Sometimes you are requested to show your permit to take pictures. If you have it, things are fine. If you don't have it, you can actually get into trouble."

Fact Box

Sudan's Darfur region

  • Roughly one-third the population of the Darfur area, or 2.5 million people, have been displaced by conflict.

  • An estimated 200,000 people have died in Darfur either directly or indirectly as a result of the conflict which started in 2003.

  • Sudan has endorsed a U.N. resolution to send 26,000 peacekeepers to Darfur starting in October. It will be the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping operation.

  • U.N. force is to deploy attack helicopters to help deflect attacks by Arab janjaweed militias on villages.

    Sources: World Food Program, The Associated Press
  • Formerly a student in international economics at Madrid's Complutenese University, Fernandez joined the World Food Program mission in Sudan in 2004. He found then that while the displacement was well under way, getting aid to the people was tough. It still is.

    "The camps are scattered all over the place, over a big area," he said.

    "There are no roads -- no paved roads -- so to get all the food that we distribute every month to more than two million people. It's a big logistical challenge."

    As a program officer, Fernandez must monitor the overall distribution of food. "We deliver the food to its final points of distribution. At some points of the year, this reaches almost half the population of Darfur, which is six million people.

    "From time to time, the camps are closed. They just can't take more people. And there are still people arriving," Fernandez said. "We are still seeing displacement.

    "When the rainy season comes, many areas become inaccessible without roads. The trucks cannot cross rivers."

    Fernandez said one of the greatest complexities of the crisis is the effort of refugees to return to their villages, many of which have been destroyed in violence that does not always stem directly from the conflict between Khartoum and rebellious southern forces.

    "Nomads are coming further into the South, for example," he said.

    "They let their animals graze in the farms. That triggers conflict between the nomads and the farmers. It's very difficult to follow. It takes a long time in the area to understand what is going on."

    But in the time he has spent focused on the place and its people, he said he's found Darfurians most impressive for their strength.

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    "They are very resilient and the way they face adversity is something unbelievable. I don't think I would be able to survive out there for more than a day in such conditions. They are very brave, and at the same time they are very hospitable. You never have a problem when you're out there," he said.

    "That's one of the good things of working Darfur, is dealing with Darfurians. They're extremely kind and warm people." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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