11 November 2005
by Rosemarie North
In Elsalam settlement, on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Flora Hussien has been working for nine years as a Red Crescent volunteer, doing health education among her own community of people displaced from South Sudan. Elsalam has a population of 150,000 people, all displaced by 22 year civil war.
“We are encouraging the women to use reproductive health and family planning,” says Flora in Arabic through an interpreter. Flora, 24, whose two children are carefully spaced two years apart, enjoys her work.
“I like it because it’s a topic that deals with life. You have to deal with births and so on,” she says.
“I believe in the principles of the Red Crescent. And I like to help people. I feel that it’s very important to raise community awareness.”
“When we started the health situation was not good. Now it is starting to improve. In the past, it was worse. Now some of the people know what family planning is and the benefits of it.
Of 21,000 unpaid Red Crescent volunteers in Khartoum state, 5,000 are internally displaced, like Flora. They work within their own communities of displaced people - about two million in Khartoum state.
Displaced volunteers play a unique role, says Sami Mahdi, Sudan Red Crescent organizational development officer.
“These volunteers work in health education because they are from the same community. They can use their own language, the local language, and this helps in facilitating and conveying the health messages probably.”
Twenty-two years of internal conflict between the North and the South have displaced millions of people. Since January 2005, when a peace agreement was signed between the North and the South, millions of displaced people and refugees have been expected to make their way home. People have started moving, and they are expected to go home over the next few dry seasons.
As a result of the end of hostilities, the Sudanese Red Crescent now has the chance to establish or rebuild branches in areas of the South that were off-limits during the conflict.
It will be a big job. There is virtually no physical or administrative infrastructure. Roads are largely non-existent, landmines make many parts dangerous and harvests have failed. South Sudan has some of the worst human development indicators in the world. One woman in nine dies in childbirth. One child in four dies before the age of five. Malaria, diarrhoea, intestinal worms, sexually-transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS, skin infections, nutritional disorders and malnutrition, eye infections, measles, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, Guinea worm and other conditions are rife.
But there are hopes that an emergency situation, where Sudan has largely been reliant on external help, could transform into programmes that help the country recover, reconstruct and develop.
On 7 November, the International Federation launched an emergency appeal for CHF 8.4 million (USD 6.4 million) to give immediate assistance to 500,000 to 600,000 returnees expected to return to South Sudan over the next six months. The emergency operation's main priorities are to offer protection to returnees along the routes home, set up way stations on transport routes with health care, water and sanitation, and provide resettlement packages for people´s final destinations.
In the areas of the South where there are no branches yet, or where the branches need seriously rebuilding, volunteers will be essential in the emergency operation and the longer term future of the country, says International Federation organizational development delegate John Undulu, who is based in Khartoum.
Volunteers who were displaced and are now returning home have a special role to play. "It’s very important to have volunteers from within the internally displaced communities,” says John.
“Many of them will be returning back to their homes, and they must understand the role of the Red Crescent because they will also act, when they go back, as a nucleus for a Red Crescent branch or unit. We should be working with them to take the Red Crescent back to their places.”
Developing volunteers and establishing branches in South Sudan have been identified as priorities during a historic trip made this month by representatives of 12 National Societies and Markku Niskala, the Secretary General of the International Federation.
Among the participants in Sudan were representatives of the National Societies of Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Somalia, Spain, Sweden, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, along with International Federation staff from the Khartoum delegation, the East Africa Regional Delegation in Nairobi and the Secretariat in Geneva.
Jorgen Elneff Poulsen, Secretary General of the Danish Red Cross, says the visit shows the Movement should plan to have a strong presence in Sudan for at least three to five years.
“We have the biggest operation ahead of us since the tsunami and we have now got a much clearer picture of the strengths of the Sudan Red Crescent.
“We are here facing the world’s biggest refugee problem and there are so many things to do, things as simple as a well, getting a little clinic, getting refurbished schools.”
Now is the time to act, he says.
“Can you imagine that in this world, you have three, four, five generations of people who have never been educated? How can we let this go on in 2005?”
Volunteers will be the key to addressing urgent needs and developing the country, says Jorgen. “The visit was not just worthwhile, it was inspiring. I was really impressed by the volunteers and with what they are trying to accomplish with the small means they have.”
Sudanese Red Crescent Secretary General Omar Osman Mahamoud welcomes this emphasis.
“I think it’s very important to concentrate on this branch development and volunteer management, particularly in the south.”
So would Flora Hussien consider returning to Juba, in South Sudan, where her family is from? If there were services in Juba for her family, such as health centres and schools for her two children, she would consider moving south, she says.
“I would like to return but only after a guarantee that the situation is better.”