Diary of a Travelling Imam
Issue 68 May 2010
Still in Sudan, my travels led me to the Shagarab Refugee Hospital. Whilst on a tour of the hospital, I saw a malnourished baby who was 18 months old but weighed barely four kilos. I could hardly stop myself from weeping. My son is 18 months old and suffers from Haemophilia and as a parent I’m tormented by that even though his condition is completely manageable. As I stood there, I couldn’t imagine what the mother of this poor child was feeling.
In the afternoon, I arrived at a refugee registration centre in the Eastern state of Kasala in Sudan. A large number of refugees were arriving at this centre every day from Eritrea; escaping the military dictatorship and persecution. People were walking for weeks during the nights and hiding during the day. If caught, they would immediately be shot by the Eritrean military, especially young kids escaping the possibility of being turned into child-soldiers. Walking bare feet through the desert and wilderness exposes these refugees, especially children, to snake bites and other dangers.
I walked around the camp and was horrified by the state of these people. They have become victims of a power struggle between various political factions and military leadership. In one corner of the camp, I noticed the derelict shell of a large hanger. Hundreds of people littered the place; some cooking using open fire, some too sick to move and lying on the floor, waiting for their fate to determine their future. Families were fighting for water that was being supplied to by a hosepipe. People were pacing around desperately, trying hard to convince the authorities to speed up the assessment process. I stood amongst them completely broken – what a dehumanised way to live. I left Kasala with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes.
I travelled for nine hours on the road to come back to Khartoum that night. I had a flight to catch the next morning to travel to Darfur. I was excited about visiting a place I had heard so much about in our media. I imagined Darfur would be overrun by refugees fleeing the government sponsored ‘Janjaweed’ militia. The element of danger always attracts me, so I was gearing myself up for a huge refugee camp with guns and camels running in every direction!
My first stop was a village called Juruf, 80km north of Niyala. A severe sand storm struck us on the way. The road was completely covered with sand and from inside the car, we couldn’t see a thing. One thing I hated about these roads was check points. Initially, I was told there were only six check points but it turned out to be at least 20; every few miles we had to stop to answer to a different set of security personnel. It made the entire prospect of travelling by car tedious and irritating. At one check point, when a car failed to stop, a soldier erupted into gunfire, firing a volley of shots in the air. We all ducked for our lives. When we turned back, the soldier smiled. I couldn’t see what was funny about a round of gunshots.
After stopping off at the local market places to have a wander, that afternoon we drove further out into the farmlands. There were many farms but due to water shortages, the land was mostly barren. I noticed there were a handful of wells around that area, so I decided to visit a few. Life depends on these; farm lands and animals would disappear without them. Locals dig them manually with pickaxes and shovels and when faced with rocks and natural stones, they use chisels and hammers to dig their way through. One 60 year old man was digging away deep in the well, 10 meters below. He had reached that depth in two weeks and intended on completing it within the next two weeks. I asked him how he managed to work so hard in the fierce heat and at this age. He laughed and said, “I am stronger than you and getting stronger every day.” Behind his laughter, I saw a beautiful, cheerful, hardworking man. He left the biggest impression on me of what it means to work hard.