It is a rule of thumb among experienced relief workers that when a community builds and operates a school, it is a sign of normality returning, an indicator of confidence in the future. On arriving in the remote village of Ain Siro in northern Darfur, the school is much in evidence. It is clean and well-organized, with 800 boys and girls, funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from the community, and it is the pride of Ain Siro. The picture below is the assembly at the start of the school day.
A few days in Ain Siro is a reminder of what life used to be like in Darfur. The village is nestled in the spine of hills that runs due north from Jebel Marra into the desert. Protected by the mountains, the SLA has controlled the area for the last four years, and for many of the people in the vicinity, allowed an element of normality to return. Villages have been rebuilt, a rudimentary health service set up–and the school re-opened.
The clinic is run by a former prisoner of war, an Arab medical assistant with the Sudanese army who was captured when he stayed with the wounded soldiers rather than run away. He decided not to stay in Ain Siro and has since married a local woman. The clinic has only modest supplies–far too few for the 80,000 people it serves–and he says he sees malnourished children quite regularly.
The medical assistant is one of the few Arabs in Ain Siro. But the turmoil of war has brought others to the village. There are several southern Sudanese, including some soldiers sent by the SPLA to join the SLA, and others who were IDPs in Darfur and joined the rebellion. There is a Hadendowa from eastern Sudan.
Our stay coincided with a wedding. Many Fur traditions were in evidence, including distinctive music and dancing, and the camel-back chase to catch the bridegroom’s sister from a nearby hilltop.
The local Arabs (Awlad Rashid and Mahariya) are notable by their absence from Ain Siro. But relations with them are slowly improving. Although Abdel Wahid al Nur has refused to join the official peace process, he has instructed SLA commanders to make agreements with the Arab tribes in their vicinity. In many cases, they were already doing this on an ad hoc basis. In the case of Ain Siro, this began when the Arabs stole some livestock and the SLA took an Arab boy prisoner. A meeting was arranged at a neutral place where an exchange took place. Now there are regular meetings (one is pictured below), but the bitter legacy of the recent past runs deep, and so far the Ain Siro community has not agreed that they should permit the Arabs to come to their village. This has proceeded without any external recognition, let alone assistance. Progress has taken years, but it is real. The Arabs say they hope to come to pray in the mosque soon.
Ain Siro shows how people on all sides are tired of war and, when given the chance, can make their own small but significant steps towards peace and normality. When Julie Flint first wrote about Ain Siro “saving itself” in 2007, most were sceptical that it represented anything significant. Two years on, not only has Ain Siro survived, but its model of self-help is less exceptional than it was.