Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Sudan: Darfur tree is her newsstand

NOTE from Sudan Watch Editor: A few days ago I remembered reading a news report twelve years ago about an extraordinary young woman in Darfur who wrote news on paper and posted it on a tree in Darfur. 

I was writing news about Darfur using my laptop to post it on this blog and wanted to try reach her via a blog post but decided against it incase it caused trouble for her. In those days what she was doing was courageous and dangerous. 

Today, I searched online for the story and found that it had been published by The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post twelve years ago, in 2007. Here below are the original articles in full.

Incidentally, today when I tried to access the article at the LA Times from here in England, the LA Times threw up a white page saying: "While most of our pages are available in a version of latimes.com created for European Union users, some are currently unavailable. We are engaged on the issue and committed to identifying technical compliance solutions to this problem. Thanks for your interest in the Los Angeles Times. https://notices.californiatimes.com/gdpr/latimes.com/

Thanks to Reem for reprinting the LA Times' article at her blog “Wholeheartedly-Sudaniya" in 2007. Here is a question I would love to have an answer to: "Dear Awatif Ahmed Isshag: I've often wondered what became of you, did you make it to Khartoum University in Sudan, where are you now?"

Incidentally, here are three quotes featured on the front of Reem's blog:

"Sudan is not really a country at all, but many. A composite layers, like a genetic fingerprint of memories that were once fluid, but have since crystallized out from the crucible of possibility" -Jamal Mahjoub, a Sudanese novelist

What is Sudan? "An uncertain country haphazardly cobbled together first by the Ottomans in the 19th century and later by the British during the 20th. It has no cultural coherence or geopolitical logic, even though its populations have become used to living together". -Gerard Prunier

"I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.”-Nelson Mandela
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Article from The Los Angeles Times
By EDMUND SANDERS, Times Staff Writer
Published March 4, 2007
Darfur tree is her newsstand
People walk miles to read the sharp reports that 24-year-old Awatif Ahmed Isshag pens and posts outside her home.

EL FASHER, SUDAN — For Awatif Ahmed Isshag, covering Darfur is the story of her life. Nearly a decade ago, at 14, Isshag started publishing a handwritten community newsletter about local events, arts and religion. Once a month she'd paste decorated pages to a large piece of wood and hang it from a tree outside her family's home for passersby to read.

But after western Sudan plunged into bloodshed and suffering in 2003, Isshag's publication took on a decidedly sharper edge, tackling issues such as the plight of refugees, water shortages, government inaction in the face of militia attacks, and sexual violence against women. 

Her grass-roots periodical has become the closest thing that El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, has to a hometown newspaper. 

More than 100 people a day stop to check out her latest installments, some walking several miles from nearby displacement camps, she said.

"I feel I have a message to deliver to the community," said Isshag, now all of 24 years old. The petite reporter is an increasingly common sight around town, her notebook and pen in hand as she interviews local people for her articles. 

Last week she roamed El Fasher asking people how they felt about the International Criminal Court's recent accusations against two war-crimes suspects in Darfur.

Critics have attempted to intimidate her and force her to shut down. Instead, Isshag is expanding this month with a new printed edition, enabling her to circulate for the first time beyond the neighborhood tree. 

"She represents the only indigenous piece of journalism in Darfur," said Simon Haselock, a media consultant with Africa Union in Khartoum. "She's got energy and drive. It's exactly what they need." 

Readers say her magazine, called Al Raheel (which roughly translates as "Moving" or "Departing"), is one of the only places they can read locally produced stories about issues touching their lives.

"It's the best because this magazine shows what is really happening in Darfur," said Mohammed Ameen Slik, 30, an airline supervisor who lives nearby. Isshag complained that despite international attention, the suffering of Darfur remained vastly underreported inside Sudan. 

There are no television stations in the area, and most newspapers operate under government control or are based hundreds of miles away in Khartoum."The local media don't cover the issue of Darfur," she said. 

"We hear about it when one child dies in Iraq, but we hear nothing when 50 children die" in Darfur. 

Through articles, essays and poems, Isshag frequently blames the government for failing to protect the citizens of Darfur. A recent story titled "What's Going On in El Fasher?" compared the government's tightening security vise in the city to checkpoints in Lebanon. 

A thinly veiled poem told the story of a sultan who blithely tried to reassure his long-suffering subjects.

Isshag said government officials had so far largely dismissed her as "just a young girl." But during a recent trip to Khartoum, she received an anonymous phone call from someone who warned her to "stop writing" and "take care of your education" instead.

She shrugged off the threat. "I'm not afraid," she said. "Journalism is a profession of risk. I'm not doing something wrong. I'm doing something right." 

Her passion for giving voice to the region's victims stems in part from her own family's losses. A cousin walked for three days to escape attacks by Arab militias, known as janjaweed, after her village was burned down. 

Her grandfather died in a displacement camp near Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state. About a dozen other relatives still live in the camp, unable for security reasons to return home.

Darfur's crisis began in 2003 after rebels attacked government forces. Government officials are accused of responding by hiring the janjaweed to attack Darfur villages and terrorize civilians. The government denies supporting the militias. More than 200,000 have died in the conflict, and 2 million more have been displaced. 

An advocate for women's education, Isshag credits her parents for allowing her to avoid being tied down by housework and pursue her interest in writing. But she occasionally uses her columns to lecture other women on pet peeves. 

A recent "For Women Only" article lambasted those who took off their shoes on the bus. "It's wrong," she said with a laugh.

Isshag hopes to complete a master's degree in economics at the University of Khartoum and one day to lead a development company, building schools and houses in her long-marginalized homeland. 

But for now she's focused on improving the magazine.

After a local Khartoum-based newspaper profiled her, Isshag received a new computer and printer as a gift from a well-wisher in Qatar. She's also looking into launching a website.

She said she would never charge readers for the paper or turn it into a business. "I don't care about the money," she said. "I would fast to get the story." 

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Article from The Washington Post 
Published 6:30 am CST, Monday, March 5, 2007
Sudanese journalist tells tales of conflict, refugees in her country

She tells tales of conflict, refugees
Awatif Ahmed Isshag, 24, has taken a 'risk' to tack candid stories of her community to a wiry tree

Awatif Ahmed Isshag posts her newspaper, Al Raheel, on a tree near her house in El Fasher, Sudan.
EL FASHER, SUDAN — In this dusty market town in northern Darfur, a lucky few with satellite dishes can get news of the war surrounding them from CNN or the BBC. Others rely on a tree.

For the past 10 years, Awatif Ahmed Isshag has handwritten monthly dispatches and commentary about life in El Fasher and hung them on a short, wiry tree that scatters shade along the yellow-sand lane by her house.

For the past four years, the dispatches have included items about the conflict in Darfur that appear to represent the only independent local reporting about the fighting in a region where most media hew to the official government line.

Advice and satire

Along with advice on how to be a lady, Isshag, a slight 24-year-old with an undergraduate degree in economics, has satirized the local governor and described the suffering of displaced families and gun battles in the markets of El Fasher.

Working in her new office — a cement-floored, cracked-walled space in a building with faulty wiring — Isshag dismissed the notion that she was doing anything unusual.

"Journalism is a profession of risk," she said matter-of-factly, her voice echoing slightly in the nearly empty room. She also said, "I will fast to get the story."

She estimated that 100 people a day stop to read the newspaper on the tree as they make their way through the neighborhood of dried-mud walls and painted steel doors. She refers to it casually as "the world paper."

Officially, it is called "Al Raheel," which means something close to "moving," a phrase that gently describes the 2.5 million people displaced in Darfur since 2003, when rebels took up arms against a central government they accused of hoarding power and wealth.

In response, the government armed nomadic tribesmen and launched a campaign of systematic violence. Experts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died as a result of the fighting, though the government disputes that.

Straining resources

Around El Fasher, a bustling town of one-story brick buildings and tiny, blue Korean taxis, things are relatively calm, if difficult. The war has driven up rents and the price of nearly everything else. Basic resources such as water are under strain as the town continues to absorb refugees.
Isshag, who is pursuing a master's degree in economics, said she would like to start her own company to help develop El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state.

For now, though, she is consumed with Al Raheel. In the next week or so, she plans to launch a printed newspaper that she will distribute around town for free.

Isshag's sister originally started the newspaper on the tree, writing articles about El Fasher but with an emphasis on women's rights. When her sister died in 1998, Isshag took over. She was 15.

Radio experience

She had some experience working on a student radio program for children, for which she would interview people around town. "From the beginning, I liked journalism," she said.

Isshag's father, a policeman, is supportive. Her mother relieves her daughter of chores so she can write the paper.

During a trip in January to Khartoum, Sudan's capital, Isshag received a harassing phone call that she believes came from someone in the government.

"He said to stop writing and to take care of your studies," she said, adding that the call hardly had its intended effect. "I'm not doing something wrong that I should be afraid. I'm doing something right."

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