Letter from Darfur: Desperate Measures
Credit: Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
Leaving a disaster site by plane is the most stressful kind of travel. Miss our appointed spots on this flight and we'd be stranded in Darfur: the ultimate nonrefundable ticket. And so, on our last day there, even after we'd packed our bags, we were feeling understandably rushed. We walked briskly to the hospital to check on Yahia. Entering the feeding center, we couldn't see him in his bed; the concrete room was practically empty. My heart fell. Then Kevin, my cameraman, whispered, "Over here!" There was Yahia, dozing. I looked at his chart and roused him gently to examine him. The good news was that his malnutrition had improved, from phase one (life-threatening) to phase two. He was gaining weight. Then came the bad news. As I listened, his chest rattled with the sound of lobar pneumonia. Worse still, the hospital was out of antibiotics. One of his doctors showed me a slide of his sputum. It revealed the culprit: big, dangerous, hospital-acquired bacteria, a Gram-negative infection that would without question kill him off if untreated.

And here, as I'd hoped when I arrived, I discovered myself at the intersection of supply and demand, putting disconnected pieces together. Dr. Salim, assigned to the police, would, I knew, have access to the proper antibiotics. We should have been at the airport by now but instead we hopped in a jeep and drove like mad to the police hospital to explain the situation. Without a word the doctor led us on a sprint to his store of gentamicin, precisely the antibiotic Yahia needed, then returned with us to the hospital. I reassured Yahia's mother Miriam in Arabic, explaining that this medicine would save her son's life, and Yahia began wailing. He was fighting back. I glanced at my watch while I stood with Miriam for a moment as she held Yahia in her arms to comfort him. She nodded thanks, and I nodded back before walking away.

Jill joined us as we got back in the jeep, and I turned to Dr. Salim. "We met a poor boy with a cleft lip," I told him. He tut-tutted with sad understanding. "There must be something we can do for him," I went on.

"The police hospital in Khartoum could perform the surgery," Salim volunteered.

"IMC could fly him out," Jill added.

"And if all else fails, I'll pay his way," I said.

We had only 15 minutes until the plane left. Sliding into a four-wheel drift around the last corner, our Land Cruiser skidded to a halt outside the Abu Zar camp. With the clock ticking in my mind we hurried into the courtyard. My shoulders slumped at the sight of a yard full of kids. "This is going to be impossible," I said, surveying them, when suddenly Jill, in spite of being the shortest among us, spied him.

I walked up and gently asked that he get his mother. He returned in a few moments with a young woman holding a baby in her arms. "Would it be okay to send you and your child to Khartoum in a few weeks' time?" I asked her, grasping for the proper Arabic. "We will pay for surgery to fix his mouth." Women in Sudan age quickly; this woman of 20 or 21 had the weary face of someone 10 years older. She gave me a hard look at first, then burst into a smile. Suddenly she was a beautiful young woman. She looked at her son, then at me. "Na'am!" she nodded.

In spite of the urgency, we had to follow protocol. I led the boy to the village elders, who were gathered under an enormous shade tree. Even here, robbed of their livelihood and their independence, they still commanded respect and allegiance. After the long traditional greeting I launched into my pitch, trying not to sound rushed. "May I have permission to take this boy to Khartoum?" I asked in Arabic, explaining how we planned to help him. They talked among themselves, and then smiled. "Na'am," they said, with a gesture of agreement. I touched the boy's shoulder good-bye – Salim would make the arrangements from here – and trotted back to the jeep. We hit the runway as the ancient 727 started its engines; as we boarded, the flight attendants were preparing for takeoff by reinstalling the emergency exits and doors, which had been left off in an attempt to cool the sweltering plane.

I sat down, breathing and sweating hard, just as the engines surged. As we accelerated, my mind kept racing with the details of our morning. Would the antibiotic keep Yahia alive long enough to attain a healthy weight? And what about the other boy: How would someone who'd never been in a plane feel about being whisked to Khartoum for surgery? And then, as the plane rose and banked, the landscape stretched out in front of me, revealing Chad, and the Sahara, and the constellation of needs and difficulties I'd encountered on the ground expanded into the larger problems. I pictured Dr. Dowelbait and Dr. Salim, and then imagined the thousands more like them – the will of a whole nation, determined to enact a better future. What would happen if UN forces couldn't take control of the territory? How would the camps survive if supplies were cut off by all-out warfare? And then, as Kevin ran through his photographs next to me, I thought of the aid workers on the flight here. They hadn't been staring out the window, ruminating on the larger picture. They'd been focused on what was in front of them, on doing their part.

The Conflict

Who's Involved

In 2003 Darfurian rebels attacked a government base in El Fasher. The Sudan government responded by asking Arab militias to purge villages of rebel groups, such as the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Hundreds of thousands died as a result.

Why They Fight

As grazing lands are swallowed by desert, pressure on the land has inflamed tensions in a region already divided between Arab herders and African farmers. The rebels want a share of potential oil wealth.