Jebel Aulia Idp Camp: the Slowest Place in the World


Written by Peter Wiggins
29 Monday 29th September 2008

Even by African standards, Sudan has been brutally affected by war. When people think of Sudan they think of the conflict in Darfur, but a civil war between the Arab-influenced North of the country and the African South has spluttered on since Sudan’s independence in 1956. A peace treaty came in 2002 but four million IDPs had been created. Many of them fled to Khartoum.

Meanwhile the city centre of Khartoum is in transition. Money, a lot of it from China, is being thrown its way. The forces of globalisation are at work but they have nothing to say to Khartoum’s one million IDPs. They make up 40 percent of the population living in camps that surround the city.


IDP Family


When one thinks of a ‘camp’ one tends to think of something temporary, something here-today-gone-tomorrow, but the IDPs (IDPs are to be distinguished from refugees only in that they have not crossed a border; they're 'internally dispalced') of Khartoum have been living in camps not for days or months, but years. There is a strange relationship with time. These people live with a permanent sense of temporariness. They plan to leave – but they don’t know when.



Some IDPs have gone back home but many have chosen to return back to the camps. The places they have come from have often been devastated by the war. The dilemma as to whether to stay or go is a grim one.

IDP Mother and Child

Recently I visited a camp in Jebel Awlea, (‘Mountain of the God Men’) with an NGO that I was volunteering for. We stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the brutal Sudanese heat. It is about 45 degrees outside. IDPs flocked towards us - young and old, male and female. They seemed pleased that we had come. The Sudanese are famous for their hospitality. The IDPs might not have much to give but they’re still welcoming and generous. Some of them go and fetch us water.


A local NGO activist showed us around the camp. He was pleased to tell us that wells had been built in the area and that the IDPs had access to clean water. We wandered around; everywhere we went, we were followed. We were surrounded by children. The more we walked the bigger our group became.


IDP Children


At one point I lost the group and was led into an enclave by myself. Spaced-out-looking men were sitting around laughing and joking. Their eyes were very red - clearly drunk. They insisted that I have a taste and I was served arage – a traditional moonshine drink made from dates. Alcohol is illegal in the North of Sudan but in the camps many of the men have taken to drink.


Against my better judgment (I hadn't eaten, it was only 11 AM, and it was bloody hot outside) I knocked one back. They howled with laughter: "The khawaja (foreigner) is drinking with us."


The housing was flimsy - no protection from the sweltering heat and there was no drainage. Every year when the rains come, homes are destroyed. Sanitary conditions are appalling; rubbish and animal carcasses line the streets; goats munch away.


Peter and Brad Walk with IDP Children

But the thing that somehow disturbed me the most, the thing I hadn’t imagined, was the complete absence of activity... the nothingness. These people are just there. They seem to be waiting for something but it seems as if they have forgotten what they’re waiting for. They might have to wait forever.


It is not something that I really understand. There is no football, no pen, no book – but somehow, lingering somewhere, is a sense of dignity. The world has done its best to chip away at it but it is still there.


Two friends, Brad and Emily, had gone to take photos for the NGO and the IDPs were fascinated. Everyone wanted their photo taken. For people who have been stripped of their identity the camera gives a voice, the camera somehow they can trust.


As they posed for photos, there were many smiles but the smiles couldn’t mask their sadness.


IDP Women


As we drove away, a leaving party assembled to see us off. An old woman cried something out in Arabic: “Oreedo an amoot fe baladee” - “just take me back to my hometown before I die…”

SUDO, the Sudan Development Organisation, is a non-governmental organisation that works in camps outside of Khartoum and also in the regions of Kordofan and Darfur. They run a variety of projects in food security and sanitation, human rights and education. To find out more visit their website

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