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“Looking Back at Darfur” by David Snyder

May 21, 2009

Travelogue: Looking Back at Darfur by David Snyder

Today we are happy to launch yet another new feature of the PhotoEdit blog: photographer travelogues. Our photographers have traveled worldwide to catch glimpses of cultures and places that most of us can only dream about, and we thought it would be intriguing to have them recount their experiences in their own words. For our first travelogue, we are proud to feature a relatively new member to our team, but one who has provided some magnificent photos from Darfur, Chad, Haiti, and other places throughout the world: PhotoEdit contributor David Snyder. Here David provides a compelling look at his time in Sudan (specifically Darfur) and neighboring Chad, sure to be of interest for any photographer who has ever dreamed of traveling internationally to work abroad.

Sudanese senior man stands guard at a water collection point at a UN refugee camp for Sudanese people displaced by the war in neighboring Darfur, Abeche, Chad

One of the things that attracts me most to photography is the power of an image to draw you back in time. I often look back over images I’ve taken in years past, and among the images I look at most often are those I took on a two trips to Darfur and Chad in 2004.

It seems like a lifetime ago now, with many trips in between, but the days I spent in Darfur, and the dusty refugee camps of neighboring Chad, are still fresh in my mind. Sadly, the region is still in the news as a place of conflict. Recently, Sudan’s president — Omar Al Bashir — was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. But as is often the case, such headlines make little difference in the day-to-day lives of those suffering.

I was reminded recently of just how little most of us know about such places when I was at a seminar for news photographers. Few had ever been overseas, and the questions they had for the presenter who had done work internationally for some humanitarian agencies revolved most often around the logistics of traveling in such countries. How do you communicate? How dangerous is it? Where do you stay, and how do people treat you when they see you taking photos? Darfur is a place where such questions are particularly relevant.

Sudanese woman and her daughter, refugees from the War in Darfur, find shade under a plastic tarp at a UN refugee camp in Abeche, Chad

In all I spent about ten days in Darfur, and another ten in Chad, working for an international humanitarian agency that was providing items such as soap, cooking oil, pots and pans and utensils to some of the more than two million people displaced within Darfur. Another 200,000 had fled across the border and were crowding tented refugee camps in the desert of Chad. To answer the questions posed by the news photographers, I communicated with the help of local staff members who translated from Arabic to English. In Darfur I stayed at a small house, rented by the aid agency from one of the rare local families who had permanent shelter: a simple concrete house with four or five small rooms. We hooked up a generator to have power at night — essential for charging camera batteries and running the laptops upon which we all depended for our work.

In Chad, electricity was not an option. We stayed in a tin-roofed shelter, and slept on local cots made by stringing strips of animal hide over wooden frames. In each place we ate rice and beans, and occasionally chicken, cooked by local women hired by the aid agency and thankful for an income.

Sudanese children, refugees from the War in Darfur, stand outside a tent at a UN refugee camp in Abeche, Chad

In 2004, as today, Darfur was unsettled. Upon arrival by UN flight from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, all new personnel were briefed by a UN security advisor. He spoke of banditry, occasional bombings by government planes, and sightings of the feared Arab militia known as Janjaweed — roughly translated as “devils on horseback” in Arabic. As all humanitarian workers are unarmed, their only security is the good will of the local populations, and the radios they carry to monitor reports of any danger.

Chad was little better. Though untouched by bombs, the border area was rife with banditry and the threat of cross-border raids by Janjaweed militia. Each day I would visit the large nearby camp — home to 30,000 people displaced from Darfur — crowded by family into tents that offered little breeze in the summer heat. The relief came in the form of thunderous rainstorms that soaked the red-tinted sand and everyone sheltering on it.

When I look back at those photos of Chad now, I remember the long days, the sweltering heat, and the trauma of the camp, where every resident had a horror story of having escaped from Darfur, many having lost family members to the conflict. But perhaps the most remarkable thing to me, looking at those photos now, is that the crisis is Darfur is still unfolding. Some of those same people I photographed five years ago are still crowding the same tents, still soaked by the same summer storms. It is a reminder of the often unique experiences that being an international photographer brings with it. We can leave to tell the story of places like Darfur. Those living those stories cannot.

Side view of a scarred face of a Sudanese senior woman, a refugee from the War in Darfur, staying at a UN refugee camp in Abeche, Chad

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This concludes the very first travelogue feature for the PhotoEdit blog. We thank David for taking the time to recount his experiences to our readers. To see David’s complete collection of worldwide multi-ethnic photography, you can click through to his lightbox by clicking here. Stay tuned for more forthcoming travelogues, and if there is a particular area of the world you would like to see featured, please leave a comment and we’ll do our best to accomodate your request!

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