The nomadic spirit at breaking point due to persistent drought in Somalia

Abdillah Fara’s kraal

Photography Petterik Wiggers/ Text Koert Lindijer

The village meeting in Budunbuto is rudely disrupted when the nomad Abdi storms in. “Water, water, who  has a jerrycan of water for me?” he begs those present on the mats. Village chairman Said comes out of his cross-legged position, rubs his withering red hair and turns to the visitor. “Why do you cover your head with a cloth”, he first wants to know. “Then you can’t see the worry on my face because of the drought,” the nomad replies.

The tall men in sarongs had gathered in the empty food warehouse of the village, 100 kilometres north of the regional capital Garowe, to discuss what to do after four years without rain. There is no water at all in the village. Only Said, the leader of the hamlet of a few hundred homes, can afford the 200 euros to get water with a tanker, 120 kilometres away.

He walks to his home through the swirling dust and hands his last two jerry cans to the desperate nomad. For Somalis, the traditions dictate, take care of each other. His children look sad, because they see the water disappear for their tea, as their parents will have to wash their feet and faces with sand in the morning for prayer.

The nomads outside the villages and towns suffer the most from the drought. “We are lost, last week an old woman and a young man in my family died,” says Abdi Ahmed, “goats and sheep die every day. We are dying, only God can save us.”

In the battered landscape with the blazing wind and the blistering heat, there is only room for hardened people. Their way of caring for each other, the social clan ties of the Somali people – all their drought-fighting traditions are now exhausted.

Development projects – storing rainwater or digging wells – are no longer able to cope with the climate change that has left the country very dry. In Somalia in March 670,000 residents were displaced by drought, 4.5 million are in urgent need of help, that is a quarter of the population. Due to the extreme drought, 13 million people in the entire Horn of Africa are at risk from food shortage.

It’s all about livestock

Hamdi runs the only shop in Budunbuto. Five cans of corn, a packet of flour and a bottle of cooking oil is all that remains on the shelves. “I don’t sell anything anymore,” she complains, “nobody has money, everyone owes me.” She talks about the fate of women and children in the crisis. “It breaks my heart to see them begging for water from the houses.” Outside, the nomad Abdi meanwhile walks agitated through the streets. “My donkey is gone,” he shouts, “how can I transport those jerry cans now, my kraal is one day walking from here.”

In the autonomous state of Puntland with approximately four million inhabitants in north-eastern Somalia, 95 percent of the rural population and 70 percent of urban residents depend on livestock. The savannas are arid, only in the rainy season does the grass reach so high that the sheep disappear into it.

“In Puntland, city dwellers depend on the support of their rural relatives,” says Ahmed Muse, the mayor of the capital Garowe. The city coat of arms shows off a sheep, in Puntland everything revolves around cattle. “I see more and more beggars in the city,” says the mayor, “because relatives in the bush no longer send money. City dwellers can no longer afford two meals a day. If the cattle die, the Somalis die.”

In Somalia, the nomadic spirit prevails, but the breaking point for most residents will come if no rains fall in the coming weeks. Hyena tracks can be seen on the savannah around Abdillah Fara’s kraal beyond Budunbuto.

“We try to bury our dead animals as much as possible because they attract countless predators,” he says as he kneels next to a carcass, the remains of a cow that he left here exhausted yesterday. During the night he repeatedly puts his remaining few cows on their feet, “because if they don’t stand, they fall asleep and succumb.”

Happy sheep don’t make noises. Now they are bleating noisily. “They tell me that they are sick, that the remaining grass is too salty, that they want to drink.” He pushes a faltering sheep towards the herd with his stick and sighs: “He won’t make it to the kraal tonight.”

Cycle of Worries

When it rains and the world turns green again, you can hear people here laughing and animals copulating. “Then we are free, then we milk every day. But the joy has disappeared from our lives. Now nobody is even going to visit his brother in a neighbouring kraal, we are stuck in a cycle of worry.” He apologizes – “I’m too tense to talk” – and walks away behind his animals.

Puntland is a relatively stable part of dangerous Somalia. The terrorist group Al Shabaab is mainly active in the south of the country, but the security situation in Puntland is so precarious that foreign visitors are not allowed to travel without a handful of bodyguards for their protection.

Gasoline prices

The cattle-exporting economy is in tatters and the local shilling has lost so much value through devaluation that the currency has been discontinued and replaced by the dollar. Inflation and high gasoline prices make it even more difficult for residents to survive.

Help is needed, but it isn’t coming. “Somalia always had drought and nothing will change that,” said Abdullahi Abdirahman Ahmed of the national aid organization Hadma in Garowe, “but climate change has left us in a permanent crisis. In the past, droughts struck every ten years, now every three years.”

Neither the central government in the federal capital Mogadishu nor that in the regional capital Garowe has any funds. “We depend on foreign donors, but they tell us that all funds go to the victims of the war in Ukraine. The Somalis will die and we have nothing to help them.”

This article was first published on 29-3-2022 in NRC Handelsblad

The storm gathers in the desert around Al Fashir in Darfur

As the village of Wadda awakens to the sound of pigeons, chickens and donkeys, an old man rides his camel over the sand that has been smoothed by the chilly morning wind. He straightens his turban and looks disapprovingly at the revolutionary slogans on a wall. The youths of this small village in North Darfur renamed it the ‘martyrs’ square’, in memory of a sit-in in 2019 against the then autocratic president Omar al-Bashir in which one of them was killed.

The camel kneels, the man dismounts and introduces himself as one of Wadda’s elders. “Young people are agitators these days,” he grumbles. “We elders have always kept the peace here. Now young people don’t fear to us anymore. That is why blood was spilled in this square.”

There exists a power vacuum in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, on an even bigger scale than in the capital Khartoum, where the conflict revolves around civilian resistance committees against the military coup in October. The conflict in Darfur is more complicated and already started at the beginning of this century. After a peace treaty in 2020, four rebel groups moved into the regional capital of Al Fashir, their leaders were given political positions and their fighters joined the government army of President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the allied Rapid Support Forces of Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti. The latter group, popularly known as Janjaweed, which relies on support of Arabized Sudanese and is notorious for its crimes against African Darfuri, seems to be the strongest of all.


In the marginalized regions of the country, far from the traditional centre of power in the Nile Valley, armed movements, which often represent narrow ethnic interest groups, are claiming their share. Nowhere is the disorder as widespread as in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. As in Khartoum, resistance committees have sprung up in Darfur and people are killed in demonstrations against the old guard. “Darfur was handed over to the rebel groups and militias, and that has led to complete impunity,” says a security specialist in Khartoum. “In addition, with the departure last year of the UN peacekeepers Unamid and the African Union, there is no longer a single force to keep the violence in check.”

In Wadda, a village of 15,000 inhabitants, the elderly who supported Bashir at the time are trying to regain their lost position. “They are trying to reverse everything that young people have achieved since the deposition of Bashir in 2019,” said Huda Adoma of the local resistance committee. He points to the village square. “The family of that man on the camel was involved in the death of our martyr. Like the resistance committees in Khartoum, we demonstrated here for weeks. Then the man’s son and three brothers came. They killed the martyr and stabbed another with a knife.”

To the displeasure of the younger people, the elderly of Wadda want to settle this murder in the village square in the traditional way, by paying ‘blood money’ to the family of the victim.  ”The elderly collaborated with the old regime. Now our time has come. We want justice.” 70 percent of the 45 million Sudanese are under the age of thirty.

Wadda is far from the world of tap water, paved roads, electricity and internet. That’s why it is even more remarkable how politically and culturally aware the young people are after thirty years of strict Islamic dictatorship under Bashir. But the youth are no match for the weapons of the warlords in Darfur. “We have fallen into a bottomless pit after the military coup,” sighs Ibrahim Abdullah, also a member of the resistance committee.

His colleague Rahma Yosif gives him a prod with her elbow to keep him from losing heart. “Certainly, the politics of Sudan are depressing and certainly here,” she says, “but we in the resistance committees are fighting for much more. There must also be a cultural revolution.” Her male supporters nod in agreement. “Sudan’s social problems are far greater than their political ones. In daily life we women have nothing to say and when we do speak out, the elders call us ‘sluts’.”

The overriding problem facing Wadda, and all of Darfur, however, is climate change. This leads to drought, lack of drinking water, impoverishment of the soil, competition for land between the black agricultural population and the Arabized nomads. At the time, instead of dealing with the problems, Bashir sent his army to the black farmers and armed the Janjaweed of the nomadic Arab population to burn their villages. At the height of this conflict, around 2002, an estimated 300,000 people were killed. The International Criminal Court indicted Bashir for genocide. Half of the population of Darfur, more than six million people, has been in need of food aid ever since that war, according to the UN. About two million Darfuri still reside in camps. Last year half a million were added as a result of new conflicts.


On the plains outside Wadda in the blazing midday sun, trees sink into a mirage. A woman on a donkey cart passes a mass grave from the war in 2003, when a rebel movement occupied the village. Since then, farmers keep more livestock so that with the extra proceeds they can buy weapons for their defence. They burned the dry reeds on their fields to keep the nomads out: traditionally, farmers and nomads made mutual agreements about access to the land, but the poisoned political climate has now led to distrust. “Those damn nomads wash their livestock behind our drainage ditches so we can’t drink the water anymore,” says a man who is digging up the sediment behind an artificial sand wall for when the rains return.

The Sahel, of which Sudan is a part, is one of the fastest warming places in the world – 2 degrees warmer than a century ago, research shows. Shepherds and farmers fight over dwindling resources. “Darfur can no longer handle the population pressure,” says an employee of UNEP, the environmental organization of the UN. In the past enough water remained behind in the creeks, now even the basins do not retain enough water.

Digging a water catchment

Until recently, aid organization Save the Children paid citizens with food to dig these types of drainage reservoirs. Now she pays in cash, as all food aid supplies were recently stolen. Development becomes difficult in times of conflict. In the clinic of the same aid organization in the village of Abudialage, nurse Islam Brema weighs a thirteen-month-old child in a washbasin. “Much too light,” he sighs. “And I have nothing to feed her.” Her mother ties the baby on her back and walks back home, 45 kilometers away. Hunger is on the rise: 12 percent of all families in Northern Darfur have at least one severely malnourished child.

A Save the Children employee draws three circles in the sand: two circles opposite facing each other, that of the elderly and that of the young, and a third one called development. “How can we reunite the elderly and the young by working together on development”, he wonders, “because although against the tide we must continue to help the citizens”.

Fatnia Hamad, 11, is sitting on a mat with her mother in Abudialage. The sun is setting, she is exhausted. “I get up at four o’clock, walk to school for two hours and back at the end of the morning. In the afternoon I cover that distance again with the donkey cart for water.” In the morning her mother cannot make tea due to lack of water. Sometimes Fatnia faints at school from fatigue. The mother looks with  a scornful eye at the men sitting separate on another mat, but they say they don’t have time to fetch water.

den of robbers

On the way back to Al Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, the driver zigzags in the clouds of dust over tracks skidding left and right. Under the last rays of the sun, the mountain range in the distance takes on erratic shapes, with in the foreground remains of houses of a village destroyed by a land dispute sticking out of the sand like rotten teeth. Whoever wants to avoid kidnapping for ransom here, always takes a different route on the way back. Al Fashir is a den of robbers, full of rampaging militias, government troops, rebels and armed criminals. Trucks with merchandise are robbed every day. At nine o’clock everyone rushes home to get in before the curfew.

The street into the city center is marked by the looted warehouse of the World Food Program warehouses. Seventeen hundred tons of food were lost at the end of December. All food aid in North Darfur came to a standstill. Further down in the city lies the looted former yard of the peacekeeping force Unamid. Generators and cars worth a total of millions of euros were stolen here.

Former Enemies

In Al Fashir, each armed group controls its own district. Despite the peace deal, warlords continue to recruit fighters. Sometimes they send them as mercenaries to Libya for extra income.

Darfur’s rebel groups say they are fighting for the black farmers, but most have not controlled areas for long since their formation early this century. The Janjaweed militia is probably the most violent against the population, as it were during the war at the beginning of this century. The former enemies must now ensure an integrated army and return of stolen land, two terms of the peace agreement not yet implemented.

Janjaweed fighters also show up in the heavily guarded office of Governor Nimir Abdel Rahim, leader of a rebel group. “I am a freedom fighter,” the governor emphasizes in a conversation. “As a freedom fighter, I captured general Burhan a long time ago, now the president of Sudan. I often remind him of that,” says Governor Nimir. “If you have defeated someone in a battle, you should no longer see him as an enemy.”

As with Burhan, he is lenient on Janjaweed leader Hamdan Dagalo Hemedti, the second most powerful man in the country. “We have to be careful with those two, they feel unsafe. If they give up their position, they risk losing everything.” Janjaweed leader Hemedti was given a gold mine in Darfur by Bashir.

Nimir is the first one to mention the issue of the major looting in Al Fashir at the end of December. “All soldiers misbehave, including those of my rebel group,” he readily admits. “The bases of former peacekeepers Unamid were looted in several towns elsewhere in Dafur. So my soldiers thought: we can do that too. But the government army and the Janjaweed started it. Tomorrow Burhan and Hemedti are coming to visit me in Al Fashir. We need to discuss how to encamp the armed groups outside the city.”

All the rebel leaders of the peace agreement sided with the military after the coup in October, and not with the protesting civilians. They feel part of the military world of thought, the army is the strongest power factor in the country and offers opportunities for money and looting. They call the civilian protesters “rioters.” “But I remain a freedom fighter”, says Nimir, “I allow the young people in Al Fashir to demonstrate”. They try to do so the next day during Burhan and Hemedti’s visit, but they are arrested and robbed of their mobile phones and shoes.

Two days later, fighting breaks out between a faction of the Janjaweed and a rebel group at Unamid’s apparently not-yet-dismantled base. There are several casualties.

This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 15-2-2022

Sudan: “The more blood that flows, the stronger the spirit of the revolution will be”.


Sudan and her killed son

Susan Nasir’s eyes have sunk deep into her sockets from prolonged crying. Mohamed Majid, her 17-year-old son, is one of the more than 70 protesters who were shot dead by soldiers in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in recent weeks. He had joined the ongoing demonstrations against the military coup in October in which General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized power. “Majid was very talented,” she says, “he was due to start training at the School of fine arts this week.”

Susan covers her face with her hands under which the tears flow again. ,,I had a bad feeling on the day of the demonstration at the end of December. I put my hand on his forehead and quoted verses from the Quran. He laughed scornfully and said, “Mom, you don’t think they’re going to shoot me in the head do you.” Whenever my kids go to protest, I can’t eat or drink all day until they get home.” That evening Majid did not return. He had been shot in the head.

Her eldest son Ramy comes to sit next to her on the bed in their small house in Omdurman, the satellite city of Khartoum. “It was a sniper who hit him from a high floor in a building,” he says in a hushed voice, “I had warned my brother not only to look at the soldiers but also up.” Friends tried to take Majid to the hospital on a motorbike – because the soldiers prevent ambulances taking them during demonstrations – but he had already bled to death. A painful sense of guilt gnaws at Ramy. Like his brother, Majid was a Rasta and therefore easily recognizable. “I’ve been arrested many times and sometimes I think they were after me.”

Ruthless repression

A wounded demonstrator taken away on motorbike

Sudan is in a turbulent phase in the cycle that has gripped the country since its independence in 1956, with military regimes alternating with brief periods of civilian rule. A popular uprising of hundreds of thousands on the streets of Khartoum toppled the most brutal of all generals, President Omar al-Bashir, in 2019. But the military prevented the civilians from ruling alone and a hybrid civilian/military transitional regime was formed until Burhan returned all power to the military after the coup in October. This time, the anger of younger demonstrators in particular appears to be even more difficult to suppress than before. The repression is relentless: the non-violent demonstrators await arrest, rape and soldiers who aim at their heads and chests.

Khartoum has turned into a city of bricks lying around, the only weapon of the protesters. Blackened spots from burned car tires, remains of barricades, accumulated garbage and heavily armed soldiers and militia at strategic points create a picture of a town besieged, a city in a state of war and decay.

The carnival atmosphere that followed the impeachment of President General Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1989, the cultural events at the sit-in with hundreds of thousands of people at the Ministry of Defence, the sense of freedom after a rule that enforced strict Islamic morals deep into everybody’s life, they have are turned into a very grim situation.


The bridge over the Blue Nile to Khartoum North is open today; during demonstrations the soldiers usually close those access roads and pull the plug from the internet. Pathologist Ihsan Fagir (67) lives in Khartoum North. “It is very difficult to forbid our children to go to the demonstrations,” she says. “But we warn them to cover their faces with sunglasses and tear gas masks.” She is a member of the Doctors Committee, which is one of the driving forces behind the resistance to the coup. Because the wounded often do not reach the hospitals due to military obstruction, or because the soldiers even fire tear gas grenades in the hospitals, she, like other health workers, treats the wounded in secret places.

Ihsan Fagir has been a women’s activist for years, including under the deposed president Omar al-Bashir. Women are now deterred from demonstrating because of the increasing number reported of rapes of detainees in army camps. “I teach girls how to prevent rape, by tensing the legs when the rape starts, or grabbing the rapist by the testicles.” She led the group Down with Women’s Oppression for many years.

She had received a distressing call this morning. Her successor to the group, Ameera Osman, was taken from her home that night by a group of masked soldiers. “She was in the bathroom when they came, but they broke it open, wrapped her naked body in a blanket and ran off,” Ameera’s sister moaned over the phone. Ameera is disabled and needs daily medication. But no one can find out who arrested her and where she is now, although the Secret Service is suspected to be responsible. Moments later, Ihsan Fagir’s husband called to warn her to go into hiding. Ihsan Fagir shrugs. “I’m an old woman, they can’t get me down, I’ve been arrested so many times.”

At the start of the uprising against then-leader Bashir at the end of 2018, a large part of the demonstrators were women. In an interview with Ameera in NRC Handelsbald on 26-4-2019, she told how women had an extra hard time under the Islamic fundamentalist Bashir. Ameera was first jailed in 2002 for wearing pants. “Women are angry because they are the most oppressed,” she said at the time. “They stood in the street cheering and calling on the men to join their demonstration.”

That time of spontaneous resistance, such as against Bashir in 2019, in which fathers and mothers participated, has given way to an underground and more organized uprising. The aversion to military rule and Burhan seems to be widely shared among all Sudanese, but young people now no longer trust the political parties with which they collaborated in the opposition to Bashir. They no longer want to compromise with both the military and the political parties and reject negotiations. The demonstrators are now mostly independent young people, who feel betrayed by Burhan but also by the political parties which had formed the hybrid interim regime with the army.

Stubborn resistance

In the frontline

The next day, another meeting is accompanied by bad news. The meeting with Badawi Mohamed of a resistance committee in Omdurman is cancelled. He was hit in the head by a tear gas canister during a demonstration yesterday and is in intensive care. Three people were killed in that demonstration. “He was somebody of the front lines,” said Yousouf Abdallah Arbab, a member of Badawi’s resistance committee.

The underground resistance committees fire up the fight against the military regime. This was started in 2013 during a short-lived and failed popular uprising against Bashir, but in the past two years hundreds more of such committees have been secretly set up, each appointing a special team of courageous demonstrators, who call themselves the Angry Protesters or the Kings of Battle. “They lead the way, they protect themselves better than the others, for example by wearing gloves to pick up grenades fired at us and throw stones at the soldiers and police”.

All over Sudan, young people are eager to continue until General Burhan leaves. Not only in Khartoum but also in many other cities they take to the streets again and again. They call themselves revolutionaries. They don’t want to have their uprising compared with the Arab Spring, their uprising is different and Sudan is not an Arab country.

“We are much better organized than we were during the uprisings ten years ago in Arab countries,” said Almoufty Abdoulmoutheb. He belongs to yet another resistance committee. “We work much more at the grassroots among the common people, this is not just a spontaneous uprising. We have used the past years to coordinate our actions. In our committees, we elect our leaders democratically. That’s why we are so resistant and the army can’t dismantle up our organization.”

The committees work well together, using WhatsApp and telephone. “When we erect barricades in our neighbourhoods and the police come to fight us, we warn a resistance committee in another neighbourhood to take to the streets there too. That’s how we confuse the police,” says Almoufty Abdoulmoutheb. They collect money for the families of victims – “martyrs” in the words of the demonstrators. “Revolution has become a culture for the youth,” he continues. “I gave up my master’s degree until the revolution is over. The more blood that flows, the stronger the spirit of the revolution will be.”

We were naive

With the men the adrenaline pumps through their blood, which sometimes makes them reckless. Young women are more thoughtful. Hanan is skyping at the villa of her father, a minister deposed in the coup. She is highly educated and in her rich neighbourhood with chic restaurants and beauty salons she is a member of a resistance committee. “When we took on Bashir, our dream was a free and stable Sudan with good education and health care,” she says, “but oh how naive we were, Bashir and Burhan are made of the same cloth. If we also succeed in overthrowing Burhan will we have our victory taken away again by yet another general?”

Yesterday she was slightly injured during a demonstration. Sometimes she has doubts. “Maybe we’re naive to go on like this,” she says. “It hurts so much to have to say farewell to yet another fellow protester every time. What is happening in Sudan is heroic, but it also makes me very sad.”

This artivle was first published in the Netherlands newspaper NRC Handelsblad on 1-2-2022

Some of the 79 Sudanese killed in demonstrations in recent weeks, copied from the website of the Resistance Committees

Mohamed Adam Haroun 16 years old shot in the head on November 18 2021

Mohamed Alshaikh Idris 53 years old Bullet shot in the head on December 3 2021

Mohamed Alshaikh Idris 53 years old Bullet shot in the head on December 3 2021

Mujahid Mohamed Farah 15 years old shot in the abdomen and thigh on November 14 2021

Mohamed Yousif Ismail 27 years old shot in the chest on January 30 2022

Othman Abdullah Al Sharif Babikir 40 years old shot in the pelvis on January 17 2022

Sit Al Nufour Ahmed Bakar 25 years old shot in the jaw on November 17 2021

Ali Brair Ali Mohamed 22 years old shot in the chest on November 17 2021

Yusuf Abdulhamid Mirgani 16 years old shot in the head on November 21 2021