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Letter from Hej El-Eja: Once, this was a village

1985 July 15
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by Paul Vallely

There was no particular reason to choose this village. It was one of scores we passed, one of thousands scattered throughout the province of Darfour which occupies as many square miles as a country the size of France.

It stood on the crest of a hill. We left the Land-Rover at the bottom and walked through the soft sand towards the little houses of dry ochre grass and the fences of dead thorn which surrounded them. There were nine of the compounds, each containing two of the insubstantial straw buildings. Broken cooking pots with holes knocked in the bottom had been inverted and stuck on poles in the barrier of thorn.

In the first corral, massive clay grain storage pots, built in situ and baked by the heat of the African sun, lay empty on their sides. Beneath the platform of old branches which in better years was used for drying crops, lay an abandoned milling-stone of well-worn pink granite in which flecks of mica sparkled in the harsh sunlight.

The sand between the compounds was blown into perfectly formed ribs by the Sahelian wind. No footprint had disturbed it for some time.

Then, from over the hill, appeared a bent figure of a woman. Under one arm she carried a massive basket.

The village was called Hej El-Eja, she told the Oxfam nutritionist for whom the village was only one of hundreds of empty places towards the end of a three month survey of this part of the west of Sudan, where aid workers predict that half a million people will die in the next three months.

Until a few months ago 80 people lived here, she said. But had long ago run out of food. They had eaten their seed. The wells were dry.

Her name was Asha Abu Issak. She had once lived in a nearby village, but now she too was in the camp at Silaya, a town which had only 17 houses but now has 10,000 people squatting on its out-skirts.

She had walked for nine hours from the camp to the countryside she knew in search of traditional famine foods. She was receiving grain in Silaya from a German relief group but only one kilo a week, less than a third of what nutrionists maintain is the bare minimum.

She showed us her basket with its sparse layer of brittle desert dates and yellow mokheit berries which are poisonous but can be eaten if they are soaked for three days. She had to travel this distance because all the mokheit near the camp had been gathered. Now it was running out here too. The season was almost over.

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