Darfur is in the international spotlight, but a radio project is the only programme that targets the people concerned, writes David Smith for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. It's tough putting together the humanitarian information people need.

David Smith writes for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting:

When did you last hear a good news story coming out of Darfur? Have you ever heard a good news story from there?

Well, I’ve got one. There is a small group of Sudanese men and women based in the south Darfur city of Nyala who risk life and limb on a daily basis to deliver humanitarian information over the radio to the millions of displaced persons in the region.

They work for the BBC World Service Trust, a humanitarian arm of the world’s best-known broadcaster, and every day they put out a 30-minute programme that is broadcast on shortwave to western Sudan as well as parts of Chad and the Central African Republic.

In a conflict hot spot that is the focus of international media attention, this programme is the only one that targets the people concerned. The George Clooneys and Jan Egelands of the world are talking about Darfur, but not to Darfur.

The Darfur Lifeline project is emergency radio at its best. Twice a day, at 8 am and 8 pm, thousands of people hold their cheap Nigerian-made radios close to their ears inside their temporary homes of plastic sheeting and straw and hear about the crisis that is affecting their lives.

A team of 13 producers and researchers, all Sudanese and from all parts of the country, start their day early on the programme, which is titled “Salam ila Darfur” (“Peace/Greetings to Darfur”). They spend their time talking to internally displaced people living in the camps, health workers, local and international non-governmental organisations and even the military to find out what information is needed on the ground to keep the displaced informed and reduce the suffering even just a little.

Putting the programme together is not easy.

The journalists need permission from the Sudanese Government’s Humanitarian Affairs Committee, HAC, if they want to go just about anywhere. And they get it. Even NGOs that tend to shy away from the media make exceptions for the Darfur Lifeline team. NGOs are often suspicious of the media, and feel that media attention can jeopardise their work in sensitive areas by threatening what are often difficult relationships with local authorities.

Yacoub Ismael, the director of Oxfam’s regional office in South Darfur, says his organisation makes an exception to the "no talking to the media rule" for Darfur Lifeline. There is widespread acceptance within humanitarian circles that the work strengthens and complements their programmes.

Access is certainly helped by the BBC’s excellent reputation and large listenership. The BBC’s Arabic Service, which is completely separate from the humanitarian operation, has its highest per capita listenership in Sudan.

Walking around the camps in the early hours of the morning, the sound of radio easily travels through the flimsy walls of the shelters. Over the course of several days of intensive on-site surveys with the Darfur Lifeline team, the only wireless sounds we heard were from Bush House, from the Darfur Lifeline team itself and religious programming from the state broadcaster in Khartoum.

Surprisingly perhaps, on the occasions when programming content is criticised by the displaced population, it is usually following a broadcast about the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, DPA, which is viewed by most in Darfur as dead in the water. The DPA was signed in Abuja by the Sudanese government and one rebel group led by Minni Minawi, who has since joined the government.

Most of the main anti-government groups have rejected the agreement. This has not gone unnoticed by the displaced people. Darfur Lifeline producers say that people become aggressive when questioned about the DPA. They simply do not believe that the wealth- and power-sharing promised in the agreement, will happen. There is certainly no indication on the ground that it is.

Conditions in the camps are gruelling. Darfur borders the Sahara. The climate is harsh and availability of water is a constant problem. Close to half of the people of Darfur have had to flee their homes since the conflict began in 2003.

In many cases, the displaced face a host of new security problems in the camps. Rival ethnic groups live cheek-by-jowl and fight for dominance and control of the small amounts of wealth distributed by the aid community. Access to food, water, blankets and medicine represents a new kind of power. It is not surprising that new warlords develop out of something as innocuous as youth groups when human dignity is all but lost. Some of these camps contain well over 100,000 people, and as they are new entities of humanity, there is a power vacuum. It does not take long before anybody with a bit of charisma and a following recognises the power associated with having control over something as basic as food distribution.

Most people in Darfur, a region the size of France, are at the mercy of forces they have virtually no control over. Many of those forces are trying to kill them. The task of collecting firewood for cooking and warmth is life-threatening, because it takes women away from the relative security of the camp. The African Union military peacekeeping mission sends out occasional patrols to accompany the women. However, they are few and far between, and when attacked the patrols retreat to their own camps.

Information is one of the few tools Darfuris can use to take back some of the control they lost when their villages were burnt to the ground by Sudanese government forces and their allies, the terror-inspiring mounted Janjaweed warriors.

Information on where it is safe to collect firewood and where food is being distributed, information on where displaced children can go to learn to read, information on where lost friends and relatives can be found, and information on how to avoid or treat the numerous contagious diseases that sweep camps due to a complete breakdown in social services and infrastructure – this is what the Darfur Lifeline team puts on the air every day.

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, conducts vaccination campaigns throughout Darfur on a regular basis, the security situation permitting. Their Nyala office makes no bones about the value of the BBC radio programmes. “Our immunisation coverage in the camps doubled after the BBC broadcasts,” said UNICEF’s Nagui Kodsi.

The Sudanese government operates its own radio service in Darfur. However, it is almost impossible to find anybody who believes a word produced by the state broadcaster. In any case, journalists working for the government are not allowed into the camps. The divide is so wide that Kodsi says he has attended health ministry meetings during which the government of Sudan has admitted it relies on the BBC to send messages to its own displaced people.

This may be one of the reasons why the service is tolerated. It is not easy to gather information in Darfur. Most foreign journalists have had their requests for permits to travel there turned down by the Sudanese authorities.

The main reason the programming carries on is simply because it is humanitarian and not political. The Nyala-based team does a fine balancing act so as not to attract too much attention from Khartoum many hundreds of kilometres away in the east.

Officially, they are not journalists but humanitarian workers. However, this correspondent has rarely seen journalists as committed to their craft as this brave little group who are broadcasting from hell.

Salam ila Darfur broadcasts on shortwave from transmitters in Cyprus at 0500 GMT and at 1700 GMT on 7150 kHz and 17595 kHz.

* David Smith is a Johannesburg-based media consultant specialising in setting up emergency radio projects in zones of conflict. This article was written for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.