Christmas Appeal: How just 60p buys hope for the women of Darfur

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The women walk quickly in single file across the pale sand, their stark orange and purple shawls flapping in the hot wind. Frequently, they look over their shoulders and then towards a distant tree line. It is mid-morning and the daily wood- gathering run in Abu Shouk refugee camp, a rolling mass of straw shacks and polythene-sheet shelters that is home to 50,000 people, has started for its women.

If they are lucky, these graceful figures disappearing into the shimmering horizon of the sub-Saharan Sahel will return from their three-hour trip bearing on their heads a meagre crop of twigs and tree roots to provide a day's cooking fuel.

If fortune does not favour them today, these women, refugees from the murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur that has claimed 30,000 lives and caused 1.8 million to flee their homes, will fall foul of the soldiers and fighters camped around them.

At best, the troops will steal the women's tools. More likely, they will catch the slowest, beat her and rape her. The rapists are from the same armed factions, including the feared Janjaweed militia, responsible for driving the women from their homes to Abu Shouk. Even here, there is no escape from persecution.

It is a fate that should be avoided at any cost. But when that cost is just 60p, the price of some mud, animal dung and a few hours' coaching, the need to help Abu Shouk women - and millions of others trapped in Darfur's refugee camps - becomes an obligation. With that 60p, as part of The Independent's Christmas Appeal, each woman can be taught to use an ingenious stove that cuts the fuel used by two-thirds, and with it the need to make the perilous journey into the scrubland.

Shazia, a sofly spoken mother breast-feeding her four-month-old daughter, Mazaa, which means Dignity, lowers her voice to an almost inaudible whisper when asked about the last time she went to gather wood. The 23-year-old, whose name has been changed, said: "There were soldiers and fighters, a group of about four or five. They wait for us. Normally when we see them from far away and run. But they hid themselves well. I tried to run but they were too quick. They were dirty, rough men. I cannot speak of what happened. It is why I called my daughter Mazaa, so she may have what I lost."

She uses the word "violence" to describe the assault and it is painfully clear from her face what took place that day. One woman sat beside her said she put the chance of encountering the soldiers at one in every four visits.

Since the attack last year Shazia has not ventured out for wood, preferring instead to pay the extra expense of buying it from the camp's market for 100 Sudanese dinars, or 25p - money she can ill afford.

Beside her, Asma Ibrahim, 21, explained the dilemma that the wood gathering poses for the women of Abu Shouk, which stretches for three miles on the edge of El Fashir, a government-controlled town in northern Darfur, close to the scene of a series of atrocities and village burnings at the height of the conflict in 2003. She said: "If we have no wood, then there is no fire. If there is no fire, then there is no food for our children or husbands. It is terrible to go out looking for wood, you think all the time about what might be waiting. But now at least we don't need to go out so much any more. Now we have something that offers safety."

The "safety" in question comes in the shape of an object which at first glance looks like a car tyre fashioned from clay. This new type of stove dramatically reduces the amount of fuel consumed while cooking food and thus the need to seek wood - a chore which has become a lottery of sexual violence.

Measuring some 30cms in diameter and 20cms in depth, the stoves are fashioned by the women in Abu Shouk from materials that surround them - a mixture of river bed clay, water and an organic binding agent, in this case donkey dung.

The women use a large cooking pot as a mould for the stoves, fashioning a perfect circle in which three stones are placed to balance the pot above the fire. The fermented dung and clay mixture will stop the stove cracking after it has dried in the merciless Saharan sun for three days.

Once in operation, the stoves also cut cooking time by at least 75 per cent because the cooking pot sits snugly into the opening. They create less smoke than the traditional open fire, reducing the incidence of respiratory disorder and eye conditions caused by day after day of crouching over flames. The stove is the invention of Sudanese researchers and Practical Action, a British-based charity which seeks to use simple technology to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.

Mohamed Fidiel, the charity's director in Sudan, said: "The materials needed to make the stoves are effectively free - we teach the women to use the clay and materials that surround them.

"But the results are impressive. They are at lower risk of attack because they do not have to fetch wood so often and the efficiency of the stove helps with health and the environment."

When Abu Shouk was first established in 2003 at the height of the genocidal purge of farmers and villagers across Darfur, which the campaigning group Human Rights Watch earlier this month said was directly ordered by the government in Khartoum, it was surrounded by sparse woodland. Its name, Shouk, comes from a particular type of tree found in the Sahel.

But the sheer demand for wood has decimated all nearby trees, right down to their roots, making regeneration impossible. The women now walk up to 2.5 miles to find fuel. The process of deforestation will be at least radically slowed.

Practical Action holds workshops for women from camps across Darfur on the principle that each "student" will then pass on her knowledge. For an outlay of £1,000, a session of 12 training days can be held complete with materials and a trainer for 25 women per session. So far, an estimated 10,000 stoves have been made across Darfur.

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