The girl, the tree and the newspaper

In Darfur, newspaper journalism is reduced to the basics. From the 'newsroom,' it goes straight to the 'tree that spreads shadow,' where it stays for a month, and the neighborhood kids protect it from the bad people with toy-guns. Meet Awatef Ahmad Isaac, publisher and owner of Al-Rahil.
By AMIRA AL-TAHAWI in Al-Fasher, Darfur
soudna tree journal
Awatef Ahmad Isaac. © Edmund Sanders

AL-FASHER, Darfur, Sudan, Jan. 29 (MENASSAT.COM) – "Ah, what an age it is / When to speak of trees is almost a crime / For it is a kind of silence about injustice!" wrote the German poet Bertold Brecht in 1939.

With Brecht's permission, we will make an exception and speak here of trees and of injustice in the same breath. For these trees stand in Al-Fasher, the dusty 'capital' of Darfur, and they are being used by a young girl to hang her self-produced daily newspaper on so people can find out what's happening in the rest of the war-stricken province.

'The Girl Journal'

Her name is Awatef Ahmad Isaac. She is 26 years old and she is carrying on a project that her older sister Afaf started 11 years ago, when she first hung the handwritten pages of what was then the Al-Mustakbal (Future) newspaper on the doors of the Al-Fasher high school for girls. When Afaf died in 1998, Awatef continued the newspaper, changing the name to Al-Rahil (Departure).

When we sit down for a chit-chat with Awatef, she says she would like to start with a salute to all the women in the camps in Darfur and beyond. "A salute to all displaced persons and refugees, that are bearing the bitter cold, just to be able to change the status of the woman, so she would be able to rise from her inferiority. I would like to salute all the humanitarians and all those who work for human dignity in Darfur."

Awatef is called "The Girl-Journal," in reference to a poem by Sudanese poet Mustapha Sayyid Ahmad, entitled "The Girl-Garden."

"It was just a dream that became reality", she says of the newspaper, "an idea I had the honor to make real with my sister, Afaf, before she died."

"We first started to write by hand on paper, using glue, some gum, a wooden board, and some colors to draw cartoons and the title. Our office was our own home", she reminisces.

"I used to collect information, first from the district where I lived, then from all over the city. Later on, I covered things happening outside of the city. This was prior to the war. I used to talk about the suffering in the North due to the lack of water. I used to deal with women's issues, their hard work and problems related to health as well as all the difficulties of traveling."

With the deterioration of the security situation in Darfur since 2003, "The Girl-Journal" took on a new significance.

The tree outside Awatef's house quickly became a meeting place, where locals and travelers came to find out the latest news about what was happening in the rest of the province. News that the regular newspapers are unable to get, or are forbidden form publishing. Awatef estimates that around 100 people stop by every day.

The Washington Post recently described Al-Rahil as "the only independent local reporting about the fighting in a region where most media hew to the official government line."

Under the 'tree that spreads shadow'

Journalist Alaa Bashir, who works at the As-Sahafa newspaper, remembers his first encounter with Al-Rahil some two years ago.

"We were driving through the neighborhood when we saw a banner saying, Al-Rahil," under a tree. It was one of the short, wide trees that are typical for the region, and that the locals call "Alhajlijah" (tree that spreads shadow). Bashir and his friends stopped the car and got out to investigate.

"Some children were playing with their toy-guns under the tree – it seemed like they were trying to protect it. We came closer and read: Newspaper Al-Rahil, published by the family of Ahmad Isaac. The 'wisdom of the day' read, 'Poverty is not a shame, shame is when Man has no ambition.' "

Awatef has an "office" now, one room in a run-down building, where she puts the paper together. Around the middle of last year, Rahil started writing its articles on the computer, and printing free issues on the humanitarian situation, aimed at travelers and visiting journalists.

But the main edition is still the tree outside Awatef's house.

"Once finished", she says, "the newspaper goes out from the office straight to the tree situated east of our house. And it stays for a month under the 'Alhajlijah,' where Aisha sells beans, and where the neighborhood boys play and keep an eye on 'Al-Rahil,' to protect it from the bad people”.

Accounts of systematic rape

Awatef has received threats from unidentified persons – some were made on her phone –, who advised her not to cross her limits as a woman. Some politicians even tried to influence her father, who works in the local police department, to stop the publication of Rahil. But Awatef's father has stuck by his daughter.

More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the central government in Khartoum, accusing it of repressing black Africans in favor of the Arabs in the North. The government responded by mobilizing nomadic Arab tribesmen and launching a campaign of terror, which has displaced 2,5 million people.

Most of the information published by Al-Rahil are accounts by people who have witnessed the violence, including rape. Some of Awatef’s family members escaped from attacks on their towns. Her grandfather died in a refugee camp.

"These are not isolated incidents," Awatef assures, "they happen constantly. Some of the incidents were recorded and have been sent to court. But there was a rape of fifty girls in Darfur which was not investigated despite the accusations. There are also 119 cases of rape that were not closed; one of them happened with a woman who was raped by a security official who hasn't faced trial until now despite the accusations. The victims have received no compensation."

The reports are important, given the insistence of the Islamic government in Khartoum that the human rights abuses are systematically exaggerated by the Western media and the denial of its own involvement.

To counter this, Awatef has published examples of violations that occurred in places under the control of the government. She has also criticized the administration of the Wali in sarcastic poems, and she speaks of the endurance of the refugee families and the deterioration of their conditions amid harsh climate changes, the scarcity of food and fuel and the militia attacks. She has written letters to local and international politicians, urging them to solve Darfur's problems.


But Atawef also publishes some jokes, and writes about the role of the woman on the political and cultural levels.

The "tree newspaper" even has a readers' letters section, with people being invited to scrawl their comments in the margins.

Lately, recognition has come to the little newspaper on the tree.

In Khartoum, Awatef was honored by the SPLA, the rebel movement which has recently joined the government after decades of armed opposition. She was also feted by Sudan's Modern Center for Studies during the Women Day last year, while her friends and members of the "Sudanese online" website threw her a party at the beginning of 2007 in the German Cultural Center in Khartoum, where she received a camera from Britain, a computer and a printer from the UAE, and money as well.

In addition, the members of "Sudanese online" and some Sudanese living abroad are trying to set up a network of reporters for Al-Rahil from all over the world, and a volunteer society with a 10$ monthly membership fee.

And a poet too...

Awatef has recently obtained a degree in economics from Nilin University, and is now preparing her masters thesis, while finishing a book about Darfur describing her own testimonies of what she saw and heard, including a field trip to some refugees camps such as Abu Shouk.

But she is also a poet, and her poems reflect her own pain as well as that of an entire province torn apart by violence.

"I am a tormented girl in the West,
I’m a girl full of patience, pain and agony
I’m scented with the perfume of the nights
Carrying the heavy weight of the passing days
Awaiting compensation."