Sudan Portrait – Kordofan (1985)

In a world of displacement and climate crisis almost no one is talking about Sudan. Sudan, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNCHA), “is now today world’s largest displacement crisis: Almost 9 million people – 9 million people – have been forced to flee to other parts of Sudan or neighboring countries. Most of the population lacks access to health care. An entire generation of children is missing out on education.” When I spent six weeks in Sudan in 1985, I covered the famine in the province of Darfur for The Village Voice, and there discovered a crisis that Guardian reporter Jonathan Steele called the worst he had ever seen in his long lifetime of reporting. People in a refugee camp we visited had only one liter of water per person each day for all of their needs. They lived in tents made of rags wrapped around branches. The heat was terrible. The poem below is one I wrote to describe those circumstances. They have now worsened, if one can imagine this possible.  –EC

Sudan Portrait – Kordofan (1985)

We leave at dawn: by ten the sun
glares whitish-copper on the desert.
Dwarf-trees shrivel their branches
against the pitiless sky.
In the vastness toils a human form
with jerry can on twelve-hour errand of water.
One of thousands, isolate in their journey,
the sun beating into their bones.
The bones of a dead goat jut up from the dust.
The sand sifts over all.


The Asahi Shinbun reporters smile,
Pressed in khaki and safari hats,
from square inches of the lightest fabric
producing all that’s necessary:
Sand goggles! Cameras! Water-purifying straws!
The Guardian’s reporter, Steele, smiles.
we’re all so proper:
he, the sun-blotched Brit, I, the American with tape recorder, long skirt, running shoes,
arms protecting breasts from jeep’s jolting.
We talk of England laying Sudan waste
with cotton, turning farmers tenants.
A century later, the landless hack down trees
for firewood to sell in city markets.
The land sifts down in dust, no roots to hold it.


The tents of Ghada Camp fan to the horizon,
Rags wound around dead branches,
shards of trees that once were Ghada’s forests.
A dark human cloud billows around us,
forest of outstretched arms, imploring hands,
and ceaseless incantation:
“This woman begs you visit her tent,
her mother is dying…
this other has no one left; her man just died…”
Within the crowd’s thick heat we press
to the water tank: an oval hulk on rusting wheels.
Forty-five thousand here. One liter per person per day.
The strongest walk to El Obeid to beg. The others?
The weary camp director shrugs: “Well, many die.”

The farmer, Gismalla Usef, stately, tall,
advances in courtly greeting: “Welcome,” he says.
Ritual scars adorn high cheekbones. Patient reserve in the eyes.
Our important pencils poise for data.
How many children? “Nine. We’re eleven, with my wife.”
His village, Santah, now buried under sand,
three hours away by car; two by truck.
He came three days on foot.
Once he had thirteen acres of wheat, sorghum, groundnuts.
Now? Nothing.
What was hardest?
He suffers our question with mild surprise.
Something like pity for our innocence
flickers in his eyes.
“The hunger.”
One hand ceaselessly caresses the littlest head:
“Nothing is left but my children.”

In a tent that passes for sick ward
a dying child lies on a canvas cot.
The mother’s face is blank with grief,
tears course continuous down her cheeks.
Someone pulls the child’s shirt up for our gaze.
Sharp little bones lift the brown skin in peaks;
His neck cords strain, his cough rasps in feeble whispers.
The doctor whispers, “He will not last the day.”

Outside, we see the cart, tiny ingenious toy
made of one coathanger,
the sort you’d throw away back home.
Its child-crafter drags it round and round.
His mother comes to me, tall, gaunt, and brown,
makes a tent above me with her shawl.
through my tears her face is sudden kin.
“Take this,” she says, “the sun will burn your skin.”


Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.