UNICEF Spokesperson for Youth Ronan Farrow has returned from a trip to the Darfur region of Sudan saddened by the changes since his last visit in 2004 but motivated to remind young people that they can make a difference.
“Eighteen months ago we saw a very makeshift emergency situation, people sheltering under tarpaulins by the hundreds of thousands in these camps,” says Ronan. “Now there’s a disturbing sense of permanence. The structures are brick and clay. The sad part is that people are now living in just as much danger. Women who walk just five minutes out of the camp are still attacked.”
Ronan, 18, travelled to Darfur earlier this month [June] with his mother, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow, to highlight the ongoing need to help children caught up in the violence there.
“Young people have really been at the centre of this conflict,” he observes. “Children have really been hit harder than anyone else. The camps are 90 per cent women and children. That’s a population of 2 million people now.”
‘Compelled to do something’
In Darfur, Ronan met with children whose lives have been turned upside down, including one 17-year-old boy who has been fighting with the Sudanese Liberation Army rebel forces since he was 13.
“He was awakened one morning four years ago by the sound of gunshots,” says Ronan. “The Janjaweed swept through his village on horseback and camel. They slaughtered everyone, raped women, and his entire family was killed. He survived only by hiding among the corpses of his relatives. After it was all over, he walked for seven hours across the desert and the first people he encountered were these rebel fighters. He said he was eager to take up arms.”
The fact that children have been forced to take up arms, becoming at once victims and a part of the problem, is a “vivid illustration of the failure of the international community,” notes the UNICEF spokesperson.
“It’s difficult, after meeting people of my own age and looking into their eyes and hearing their stories, not to feel compelled to do something,” he adds. “And I’ve found that when I tell people these stories, they have the same reaction. They want to do something.”
Aid workers as role models
Ronan continues: “People really can help. I’ve seen examples of really fun things like dance competitions for Darfur, or people getting their church groups or their schools together to send money. UNICEF [in Sudan] is only 20 per cent funded at the moment, so things like that can make all the difference right now.
“One thing people can do is push their leaders in Congress to seek political solutions. The other is, of course, to support the massive humanitarian effort. I know firsthand from being there that UNICEF is doing extraordinary work, as are the other aid organizations.
“My role models would be the aid workers I’ve met working out in the field, heroically struggling to keep people alive. Nothing would make me more proud than to end up spending my life in a conflict-afflicted region trying to help people in whatever small way I can.”