People board a truck as they leave Khartoum, Sudan, on June 19, 2023.

'I no longer have a dream': Sudan has the largest displacement of children in the world

Telecommunications and internet connectivity were cut off again across Sudan as millions of people face an ongoing civil war. UNICEF spokesperson James Elder just returned from Darfur, a particularly troubling epicenter of the violence, and spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about the latest conditions.

The World

The civil war in Sudan has made life desperate for millions of people. It's been the case for many months, ever since the war there erupted in April of last year.

This week, once again, telecommunications and internet connectivity were cut off for a second consecutive day across the country. Service has been out because of clashes between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Sudan's Darfur region is one troubling epicenter of the violence.

The UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson James Elder just returned from a trip to Darfur in western Sudan. He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman from Geneva about the latest conditions.

Marco Werman: You've said that families in Darfur will often walk for days in search of safety.
James Elder: Frequently, they can survive 4 or 5 military checkpoints or some sort of checkpoint, and then at the last one, someone else will be shot, something else will be stolen from them. So yeah, long, long distances. And they're arriving in communities in Chad where really those communities are struggling. They're struggling because of the climate crisis. They're struggling [because of] a lack of water and food. And yet those communities open their doors. It's quite extraordinary. I saw towns of 30,000 people that had another 30,000 people arrive overnight and they do everything they can, but at the same time, when people flee long distances, it's strange things that they can befall them, strange horrors. Many of them have their phones stolen. As we all know, no one really remembers anyone's number anymore. They lose their phone. And that's the number to a sister in the capital, Khartoum, or their husband who's been detained somewhere, or a cousin in America. And now they're completely isolated in a refugee camp in Chad, really without the ability to contact anyone.
Yeah, with telecoms and internet communications cut down this week, I'm imagining that has a big impact on civilians, especially in an already remote part of the country like Darfur.
Yeah, it really does. Darfur has probably had connectivity for 5 to 10 days in the past six months. So, those people really, really are cut off. You know, I would speak to a woman who's desperately seeking a husband or children, and they think that they're somewhere maybe 10 miles away, maybe more, but they just don't have that ability to contact them. The network being down is just another challenge these people face. When we talk just people moving around the country looking for safety, I mean, Sudan is now the worst displacement of children on the planet. Four million children displaced. It's literally something like 13,000 children have had to leave their homes every day.
What is daily life like for kids in the areas you visited?
So, daily life is just wildly tough. There's still a threat of bombs and of fighting. There's a daily fight to get water now. Many of these communities have built back very well over the past 10, 20 years. I saw water systems with solar panels that pump water to 100,000 people, and that's been looted. You see schools that have been burnt. So, they are all sort of taking this deep breath of like, "We need to rebuild." And that's their approach, but they still don't feel safe. But there's also this psychological thing. You know, when you talk to a 22-year-old girl who's done three years of medical science and has got two to go, but universities are closed. And she says, "I had a dream. That was my dream. I no longer have a dream. Sadness is my friend." Those kinds of things, to see that kind of opportunity, ambitions shattered in the chaos of war, as you're seeing these brightest minds having to abandon their studies, that's heartbreaking.
So, you're saying there is no school for these kids in Darfur right now?
The vast majority of schools across Sudan, 90%-plus, are closed. These children have been out of school for a long time. And as we all know, around the world, it's off the back of COVID-19. So, it's a huge number of children. I did go to a school in Darfur where they've managed to get kids back in. UNICEF is supporting it. We're trying to give the teachers incentives to come. Again, the way communities support one another — health workers, teachers, these people have not been paid a penny for nine months. They turn up, as they say, "because these are our people." So, this school with teachers turning up, but there are 100 children. You stand in a classroom, regular-sized classroom, and you just watch. And there's this neverending stream of children, because it's 100 children.
Outsiders don't often manage to get into Darfur because it's so dangerous. How did you get in, James, and how did you get out of that part of the country?
Yeah it is, it's still an active conflict zone. I went in through Chad and then small little aircrafts to the far eastern border where a lot of refugees are. And then UN vehicles, we drive across the landscape to get to various cities and towns in West Darfur. We'll use any route we can to try and get past the warring factions. So, we would go in every day, sort of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but not sleep in Darfur still, which is strange in a way because you understand the safety levels. But I'm sitting there talking to mothers and children who are still going to sit there, are going to do their best to endure a bombardment. So, you're very much reminded time and again of privilege and the inequities that are everywhere.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: Millions of Sudanese displaced by war at home grapple with an uncertain future

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