In Darfur, a Journalist Branches Out

Awatif Ahmed Isshag, with her newspaper, Al Raheel, which she posts on a tree near her house in El Fasher. It may be the only independent local reporting on Darfur, where most media are controlled by the government.
Awatif Ahmed Isshag, with her newspaper, Al Raheel, which she posts on a tree near her house in El Fasher. It may be the only independent local reporting on Darfur, where most media are controlled by the government. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 4, 2007

EL FASHER, Sudan, March 3 -- In this dusty market town in northern Darfur, a lucky few with satellite dishes can get news of the war surrounding them from CNN or the BBC. Others rely on a tree.

For the past 10 years, Awatif Ahmed Isshag has handwritten monthly dispatches and commentary about life in El Fasher and hung them on a short, wiry tree that scatters shade along the yellow-sand lane by her house.

For the past four years, the dispatches have included items about the conflict in Darfur that appear to represent the only independent local reporting about the fighting in a region where most media hew to the official government line.

Along with advice on how to be a lady, Isshag, a slight 24-year-old with an undergraduate degree in economics, has satirized the local governor and described the suffering of displaced families and gun battles in the markets of El Fasher. She recently wished the town a happy New Year, and compared the security conditions here to the situation in Lebanon.

Working in her new office -- a cement-floored, cracked-walled space in a building with faulty wiring -- Isshag dismissed the notion that she was doing anything unusual.

"Journalism is a profession of risk," she said matter-of-factly, her voice echoing slightly in the nearly empty room. She also said, "I will fast to get the story."

She estimated that 100 people a day stop to read the newspaper on the tree as they make their way through the neighborhood of dried-mud walls and painted steel doors. She refers to it casually as "the world paper."

Officially, it is called "Al Raheel," which means something close to "moving," a phrase that gently describes the 2.5 million people displaced in Darfur since 2003, when rebels took up arms against a central government they accused of hoarding power and wealth.

In response, the government armed nomadic tribesmen and launched a campaign of systematic violence. Experts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died as a result of the fighting, though the government disputes the figure.

Isshag has aunts, uncles and cousins in several refugee camps around Darfur, and her grandfather died in one called Kalma after fleeing his village.

Around El Fasher, a bustling town of one-story brick buildings and tiny, blue Korean taxis that skid alongside donkey carts in the sand, things are relatively calm, if difficult. The war has driven up rents and the price of nearly everything else. Basic resources such as water are under strain as the town continues to absorb a flow of people who have abandoned their villages or nearby camps.

Isshag, who is pursuing a master's degree in economics, said she would like to start her own company to help develop El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state.


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