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A first-hand account from the frontline of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and Chad


The United Nations warns that the conflict in Sudan has caused one of the world's largest human displacements. It began about 10 months ago, when the Sudanese military and a powerful paramilitary group began fighting each other for political control. This week the U.N. pleaded for more aid to the region. It said the fighting has displaced more than 10 million people. Many of them have fled to neighboring countries. It's also left 18 million people facing acute food insecurity. For more, we've called James Elder, a spokesperson for UNICEF, the U.N. agency that provides humanitarian aid to children. He's just back from a trip to the border of Sudan and Chad, and a warning to listeners that some of what we'll discuss may be difficult to hear. James, welcome.

JAMES ELDER: Pleasure. It's good to connect, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Could you describe what you saw, your strongest visual memories of being there?

ELDER: Yeah. I think probably the strongest is just the eeriness of when you walk around a community. This could be a rural area or a neighborhood, like a middle-class neighborhood, and it's empty. It's just absolutely silent. You can only hear - underfoot, you hear crunching of glass under your feet. And you look, and it's - buildings are pockmarked, and it's clothes and things. Everything has been burnt and looted, and there is no one. There's no one. And that speaks to what you said. This, well, is the largest displacement of children on the planet. It's mind-boggling.

So I think that and then just this exhaustion of people that you see, whether it was in Chad, where the refugees have gone, or whether it's those in Darfur who are still terrified because they've had homes looted and homes burned, you know, there is just that look amongst people that they're battered. They're exhausted. And they're still terrified because war is very much still raging in Sudan.

PFEIFFER: Despite that emptiness, were you able to talk with some people? And if so, what did they tell you?

ELDER: Yeah, a lot. I spoke to a lot of people. I was in Chad, where you've had a lot of refugees come in. And I was in Darfur, where the war continues. Look. People - they speak to a couple of things. They speak to the horrendous violations of, you know, what we call grave violations, Sacha, the sexual abuse, the - seeing children killed, seeing rape of sisters or of mothers, this horrible level of kind of human suffering. They speak to that. They speak to - if - as a woman said to me, if they couldn't steal it, they burnt it.

You know, I hear stories of someone's brother having sand stuffed so far down his throat into his esophagus, deliberate attempts just to terrify and torture people. So the stories are endless, as are the stories of those people who walk for days and days with badly malnourished children, desperately seeking help. They're repeated time and again. You - the longer you stay there, Sacha, the more stories you will hear from people exactly to that, of family members killed or homes burned, of everything being stolen, people leaving with the last things they've got, but then that being stolen from them on the way.

PFEIFFER: All these people fleeing are obviously going to other places. You mentioned Chad as an example. Where else are people going to?

ELDER: Oh, Chad has taken the most refugees for sure. South Sudan has taken a large number. I have spent a lot of time in South Sudan, a very difficult place to end up as a refugee. It's a very difficult place to be if you're South Sudanese. So neighboring countries - as ever, poorest countries around the globe, not just in this crisis - poorest countries absorb the most refugees. Those with the least tend to constantly be asked to give the most, and that's what we're seeing here.

PFEIFFER: Migration is obviously a humanitarian and political issue that is now a worldwide issue. Does this displacement of people in Sudan potentially put migration pressure on other parts - on parts of Europe, on the United States? Is that something we could see down the line?

ELDER: I think that has to be a plausible outcome. I mean, look. UNICEF is a humanitarian organization, so it's perilous to drift into the politics or crystal-balling this. But things are bad right now. We are so far away from a cease-fire. So if this continues, if you can't get sanity prevailing, and if you can't get major - the region cannot push for peace and not allow this to slip into something much, much worse, then you have a great risk of even increased migration across that region, which is already - you're seeing a lot of migration there in that part of Africa, going across to West Africa, going across into Europe. And when you meet these people, you are reminded so much that they want to live in their community. I don't think I spoke to a single young person - this is university age - who didn't want to keep doing their studies and do something in Sudan. But those opportunities are fading and dying, and they and many other people without those education qualifications will go wherever they possibly can.

PFEIFFER: In this part of Africa, there are numerous countries experiencing all types of instability, and instability can lead to power vacuums. That can create rises - that can create a rise in violent extremism, which also has ripple effects globally. Is there any particular role that you think the U.S. or other countries in the world should be playing here?

ELDER: Look. It's a great question. Across the entire region of East to West Africa, there is a population boom that is pretty much unprecedented in human history. And any economist will tell you if you get that right, there's this burgeoning youth population. And by getting it right, that means education and making sure that that education gives those young people the right skills, and there's a labor market to absorb them. And that is the kind of thing that the United States can be a part of, making sure that education programs are well funded, because if you get that right, then you have an economic boom. You have this huge base of a working population, almost like the envy of an age in Europe.

If you don't get it right - and there's a clock that ticks on this - if you don't get it right, you have a massive youth population. They're disaffected. You risk, you know, the idea - you have tensions, political disorder, all these things - security, instability. So it's either a demographic dividend or a demographic disaster. And that is very much in everyone's interest to make sure that this youth bulge is a dividend to the region, to the countries and the world, to be honest, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: That is James Elder of UNICEF, just back from a trip to the border of Sudan and Chad. Thank you for your time.

ELDER: Thanks, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.