Skip to main content

Whatever it takes: One woman’s story of perseverance in West Darfur

WFP staffer Huda Abouh Mohamed Ali recalls the perils of being a humanitarian under challenging circumstances
, Isadora D'Aimmo
Kreinik IDP camp, West Darfur: WFP staffer Huda Abouh, left, is very popular, especially among female programme participants. Photo: WFP/Isadora D'Aimmo

Huda Abouh Mohamed Ali joined WFP in 2004 in West Darfur, where she is currently Field Monitor and Gender Focal Point. In the Q&A below, to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, she recalls the harrowing experiences that make her ever more determined to serve WFP in Sudan.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in 1971 in Mornei, West Darfur, the fourth child in a family of ten children. My mother was my father's second wife — he had a further 18 children with two other women. Most of my family members still live in the village together, coexisting harmoniously, while I have made a home for my husband and three children in Geneina. I am proud of the family I have created for my three boys aged 13, 11, and eight. Although their father could opt for polygamy, he will never take a second wife.

How tricky is working in the field?

The challenges are largely practical: issues related to road accessibility and poor road conditions, especially during the rainy season, when delivering food aid can become hazardous. Security is also critical in the area. I witnessed, on multiple occasions, colleagues being carjacked.

‘Armed criminals tried to break into my house. I managed to push the red button on the WFP radio handset and called for emergency help'

In one instance, in 2005, a driver on duty was tasked to deliver medicine to a colleague who had contracted malaria. While attempting to make this vital delivery, he was carjacked and abandoned in the middle of nowhere. Somehow, he managed to walk back to the office late at night. In the same year, two colleagues were attacked in a similar manner while on a monitoring visit to Mornei.

Was that kind of thing common?

In 2006, four colleagues returned to their car following a community meeting in Dorti camp in Geneina, when several men jumped in, forced them into the back seat of their vehicle and drove miles away. In this instance, WFP immediately launched a search by helicopter and found them on the road: the car was destroyed after an accident but there was no sign of the thieves. Then in 2010, the colleagues and the crew of a WFP flight to Umshalaya refugee camp were attacked and passengers were beaten and robbed. The pilot was also kidnapped and rescued over a month later.

Are there incidents where you've been affected personally?

In August 2010, our escort vehicle flipped due to poor road conditions, and while colleagues were trying to extract passengers, I searched for help in the rural fields nearby. I cried so hard that I suffered bleeding — the scar from my C-section two years before gave and I started bleeding. I was later evacuated to Geneina and Khartoum for medical assistance.

On 24 August 2013, four peacekeepers from Burkina Faso — part of our UNAMID (UN-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur) — were swept away by floods while we crossed Wadi Noro. All four colleagues died in front of us that day. In the aftermath of these traumatizing events, I developed depression and heart problems and struggled to hold myself together.

‘I see pregnant women delivering in open spaces, having nothing to wrap their babies with once they are born'

Around six months later, in February 2014, I was in a workshop when unexpectedly heavy rains began and brought back the painful memories of that day. Overwhelmed by emotion, I collapsed. I was hospitalized in Jordan for a heart surgery, and slowly I began my recovery… but I will never forget. The WFP community is what really helps keep going. Colleagues have literally saved me. In 2005, armed criminals tried to break into my house. I managed to push the red button on the WFP radio handset and called for emergency help from colleagues.

In December 2010, I was being physically harassed, when a brave colleague saved me from being raped: I was in Masteree for a post-distribution monitoring of Integrated Blanket Supplementary Feeding, asking women about consumption and utilization of WFP food.

Houda, left, overseeing WFP Multipurpose Cash assistance (MPC) in Kreinik targeting 13,330 beneficiaries with both cash and in-kind food assistance. Photo: WFP/Isadora D'Aimmo

A man arrived, took all my communication devices, such as mobile and satellite phone, camera, and radio, then beat me shouting that I was working against my country, a prostitute serving the Khawaja — the foreigners. I was forced towards the guesthouse of the Cooperating Partner — empty, because all the staff were busy at the distribution site. Once at the entrance, I realized that he was about to push me inside. I began shouting to attract attention. One staff member of the Cooperating Partner arrived and saved me. All this lasted for at least three hours, so when our helicopter arrived, the crew couldn't find me and started searching for me until I could finally travel back to Geneina. The day after, the incident in Umshalaya refugees camp happened.

You remain committed to your humanitarian work

I love my job. I have never considered quitting because of hardship or difficulties. As a field monitor, I see the challenges that the beneficiaries go through normally. This helps me to put everything into perspective, to understand that with all the odds, I am a privileged woman, whose difficult times are nothing compared to theirs, and that I have to continue serving them. Bad days aside, the good times are extremely rewarding, especially when I see the happiness that my organization brings to the people in Darfur.

One of your key motivations is empowering women

Gender has always been my interest, I read gender studies in 2002, before the long war that erupted in 2004, and achieved my master's in April 2014 at the Ahfad University for Women in Khartoum. My aim was to contribute to a positive change in my community, and now that I actually work on gender within a UN organization, I feel blessed because I have a golden opportunity — what I dreamt of doing as a student became a reality.

What strikes me most is when I see pregnant women delivering in open spaces, having nothing to wrap their babies with once they are born. Once I offered my veil that I use to cover my head, as a Muslim woman. I am also struck by children crying because of hunger, little girls raped sometimes by more than one man, as well as the preparation of bodies of those who have passed away, as it is done in open spaces. However, I always see some hope. For example, in Ardamata we found a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped by three men — she is now being assisted through WFP's Food for Assets programme.

What are your hopes for Sudan?

I wish for stability in Sudan, including a stable economy, and security at all levels. I hope that this would be enough to bring peace among all tribes. I wish for good opportunities for all the people in Sudan, especially education and employment with an appropriate wage. I hope that the children of Sudan will never become child soldiers again, will never drop out of school again, and will never have to suffer from the anguish of hunger again. I hope to see education at the top of our priorities, and that the crucial role of women in peace building will always be acknowledged and supported, because women are the main drivers for change, in their own families and in the community.

How about for yourself?

For myself personally, I want to see my kids become well educated. I want them to have the opportunity to make a difference and contribute to development and peace in Sudan.

Your advice for people who want to do humanitarian work?

Start volunteering in your community and accept chances wherever you see an opportunity to help and bring positive change. When you become a humanitarian worker, your entire life will be impacted. You need to make sure what is that you really want. Most importantly, the key to learning and understanding this field is the experience itself; the best university for humanitarians is life.

Find out more about WFP's work in Sudan