November 9, 2005

Enterprising locals profit from Darfur conflict

By Opheera McDoom

NYALA, Sudan (Reuters) - Stepping into the leafy courtyard
of the busy K2 restaurant, it's hard to believe one is in
Darfur, at the heart of a conflict that has killed tens of
thousands of people and shocked the world.

The restaurant caters for almost 11,000 aid workers in
Sudan's remote West who, despite daily threats and harassment,
try to feed and shelter 2 million people who have fled their
homes to wretched camps during 2-1/2 years of fighting.

K2 is one of many local businesses that have sprung up in
Darfur to cash in on the extra spending power of about 1,000
international aid workers in Darfur and around 6,000 foreign
peacekeepers posted to the region.

"This is great money for me. I couldn't find a job before,"
said Mariam Zacharia, who cleans for an international aid
agency in El-Fasher, the main town on North Darfur state.

"They help with aid and we can get jobs with them too."

Sensing a market, the K2 Indian restaurant in Khartoum,
popular with foreigners, has opened a branch in Nyala, capital
of South Darfur state. A store selling pirated video and DVDs
has also opened, offering after-curfew entertainment for aid

Doing business in Darfur may be lucrative, but it is also

Armed men intimidate, beat and sometimes kill to steal
valuable food, fuel and medical supplies. Banditry is rife and
commercial convoys are favorite targets, meaning supply lines
are never guaranteed.

Those in remote towns can find themselves cut off without
access to bottled water or fuel as trucks struggle to make
their way along the dangerous roads from Khartoum.


Rebels took up arms in early 2003 in Darfur, accusing
Khartoum of monopolizing wealth and power. The Sudanese
government is accused of arming Arab militias who raided mostly
non-Arab villages, raping and murdering civilians.

The government denies the charges but the United States has
called the conflict genocide and the International Criminal
Court is investigating alleged war crimes in the area.

The fighting drove tens of thousands from their homes,
sparking a humanitarian crisis, which drew in thousands of
foreign aid workers.

However, the aid workers are not the only ones with money
to spend. The African Union (AU) has about 6,000 troops spread
over a vast region the size of France, responsible for
monitoring an often-violated ceasefire.

Seeing the opportunity for a quick profit, shrewd locals
have opened shops selling imported goods such as Tabasco sauce,
Mars bars and non-alcoholic beer for the soldiers next-door to
the AU headquarters in El Fasher.

"Business is good," said Ali Imam Karkoum who owns a
grocery store near the AU. Soldiers sit on the shaded balcony
eating imported goods, buying cigarettes and checking out the
latest accessories for their mobile phones.

Sudanese authorities say restaurants should close during
Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer which
ended last week, but they made an exception for the cafe
next-door to the AU.

Owner Huda Abu el-Yemen said she invested $8,000 to open
the cafe and expected profits to start rolling in after two


The arrival of humanitarian workers, soldiers, pilots,
human rights observers and journalists has had other effects.

A year ago, Darfur's silent nights were interrupted only by
the sound of sporadic gunfire. Now, the roar of huge
generators, brought in to provide aid agencies with power,
drowns out the chirp of crickets.

House prices have rocketed as workers seek offices and
accommodation. Demand is high but supply is scarce in the
region, where buildings higher than two stories are rare.

El-Yemen said her family had let a house to governmental
aid agency USAID for twice the rent it would have fetched 18
months ago.

"Two years ago, the maximum rent you would pay for a house
here would be about $100. Now, you can pay up to $1,000 (per

Even the state mobile phone company has cashed in. The need
for communications has brought mobile networks to remote areas
bordering Chad such as el-Geneina town and even the small town
of Zalengei in the heart of Darfur.

Existing networks in main towns are overloaded and at peak
times it is impossible to place a call.

Coupled with supply problems because of the violence in the
region, the flow of new money has raised the prices of goods
bought by both locals and foreigners.

A chicken used to cost $6 but has risen to $7.50 and local
people expect it to increase further. A kilo (two pounds) of
meat was $3.50 but now costs up to $5.

"But praise be to God that they are here, because they help
our way of life," said cleaner Fatma Jabbar.