An aid worker's story: The day they kicked us out of Sudan
19 March 2009
Written by: an international aid worker expelled from Darfur
As I flew out of Sudan, all I felt was guilt. I knew we had no choice - we were being forced to go - but I kept thinking of the people I had to leave behind: my Sudanese friends and colleagues; the children smiling and shouting "OK" every time they see a stranger; and most of all the people living in the camps, who have already suffered so much and are now having to suffer even more.[Hat tip: The Thirsty Palmetto]
I kept thinking of the women - who shared everything, no matter how little they had, who always had so much work to do, yet despite their hardship always managed a smile.
Just a few months ago the government closed down the women's centres in the camp - where women who have suffered abuse could find support. But the women didn't give up. Last week they made plans to celebrate International Women's Day in the camp, and I promised I would be there to help them organise it. But I didn't even have the chance to say goodbye.
It's still hard to believe I'm not in Darfur anymore - we are not in Darfur anymore. How is it possible that years of so much hard work can be torn apart within a few hours?
The day it happened will be imprinted on my mind for years to come. We had a meeting with the staff that morning - nobody imagined that it would be our last.
At 4 p.m. we all crowded in front of the TV to watch the announcement that the International Criminal Court was indicting Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes. It was all that anybody in Sudan had been talking about for the last few months, and nobody knew what was going to happen.
An hour after the ICC announcement, we received the call. The Government had revoked our licence and we must close all our programmes. No further explanation.
That night none of us could sleep. We have had nothing to do with the ICC and we couldn't understand why the government was blaming us - and making vulnerable Sudanese people suffer as a result.
We tried to cheer each other up by saying it would all be resolved by the morning. But first thing the next day we were told all international staff had to leave Darfur by 4 p.m.
We were in shock. We had to throw everything we could into a few small bags. We barely had time to tell our friends and colleagues we were leaving.
The hardest part was when our Sudanese colleagues came to our house to help us pack. We tried to say goodbye, but they refused to believe it - they kept saying, "You will be able to come back in a few days."
Government officials quickly arrived at the office, confiscating all our assets - our phones and computers to start with. A few staff were taken off by National Security officials for questioning. We didn't know what was going to happen to them.
We set off for the airport - stopping only to say a tearful goodbye to bemused friends and colleagues who we passed in the street. I didn't know what to say to them.
We drove past some of the camps where we have worked - that was even more difficult. I wanted to stop and tell people what was happening, that we were not abandoning them and that we had no choice.
I couldn't stop thinking about what would happen to the people there. What about the water pumps and the food distributions? The health centres and the children's classes? So many important projects, all being stopped almost overnight.
At the airport, National Security were waiting for us. They searched through all of our bags. They took - stole - all kinds of personal items: cameras, iPods, our own computers with hundreds of photos of our lives and friends in Darfur.
By the time we reached Khartoum, our entire organisation had only a couple of phones and computers left to share between us. A few days later we were out of the country.
It has been a week now and everything still feels surreal. Every phone call I make to Darfur reminds me of what has been destroyed.
Millions of people - who have lived through years of war and violence - are going to suffer as a result of this decision. I may never be able to speak to my friends living in the camps again, but I promise them I will keep working to try and help them.