Today, December 11, there was an attack by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) on Kulbus, an area in West Darfur near the Chad border. Ten staff members of Catholic Relief Service (CRS) are sequestered in their compound, waiting for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to evacuate them by helicopter. Even though El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, is safe, the UN will not evacuate the CRS staff to El Geneina for fear of ground fire on the helicopters. The ten staff members will be evacuated to El Fasher, where they will stay at the CHF guest house until further plans are made. (CHF does not have any operations in West Darfur.)
The cell phone networks in Darfur are shut down regularly, whenever the government plans an operation, to prevent communications among the SLA and to prevent leaks. Mobile and satellite services were shut down on the 6th. and 9th. of December.
A week before Mark and I got to El Fasher, there was an SLA attack in town, with the intention of targeting government officials. Instead, a bank official was killed, so the government imposed an 8pm curfew on the town, the time the bank official was killed.
The curfew effectively shuts down life in El Fasher starting around 7pm. Shops and vendors close up and restaurants are nervous to get their last customers out in time so that the staff can get off the roads before 8pm. The penalty for breaking the curfew is stiff. You are fined SD 1,500 (around US$6) and your head is shaved.
The curfew was lifted on December 6 to 10pm for the general public, and 9pm for NGOs. NGO vehicles have been the target of carjackings, and on December 1, a Spanish Red Cross driver was killed at Abu Shouk camp in a carjacking attempt. The Spanish Red Cross stopped their activities in the camps for a week, and staff members are not going to be using their cars in the camps. They will use the local taxis.
Mark and I have felt very safe everywhere that we have gone, both in town and in the camps. We’ve spoken to hundreds of women in the camps, wood merchants in trucks and horse carts, vendors at markets in town and in the camps, and soldiers posing for their photographs. We’ve been careful not to flash our camera when driving by military areas or barracks, but have made our interpreter and driver nervous at times by taking too long to photograph bushes and weeds, and girls on the road returning from collecting twigs. (We were told that in Khartoum, a tourist was arrested for taking a photograph of the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers!)