Friday, November 11, 2005

The Sudanese regional government commander, Sadiek Abdel Nabi, shouts at Condoleezza Rice's right hand man, in front of a big crowd of journalists: "'I am el-Bashir here!'"

He was referring Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall for the next conversation between Nabi and Bashir.


I had a pleasant chat today with three nice Sudanese fellows who are one of about 4,000 refugees (the number they gave; I didn't count) camped out on a square in my neighborhood, the Mohandiseen district of Cairo, opposite the Egyptian headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

It's a bit like a little shantytown without shanties. They've been living on blankets for 44 days now, protesting their treatment by UNHCR, claiming they've not been granted their proper rights as refugees by the Egyptians running the local office of UNHCR.

My quick read is that it's a pretty tough sell: Convincing the wider world that the UN isn't offering enough help to war refugees. I guess you tend to think refugees should take whatever help they can get and not complain about it. The anti-UN crowd isn't usually too concerned about the plight of refugees, so they're unlikely to take up the case; and the pro-UN crowd doesn't want to play into the anti-UN crowd's hands by making the UN look like the corrupt organization that it is. I've heard vaguely similar stories about UNHCR's treatment of Romany refugees in Kosovo.

Yet word on the ground here is that the protestors have a legitimate grievance. I've met one person who works at UNHCR who admitted that openly, and I know at least one more person who claims to have talked to others within UNHCR who echoed the sentiment.

I do get the idea protestors could improve the vocabulary they deploy in discussing their plight. I don't mean their spoken English, which is often excellent. I mean slogans like, "We refuse local integration," which sounds like they're protesting the fact that they've been asked to assimilate to Egyptian society.

In fact, once you talk to them, you learn they're simply asking to be given basic things like normal Egyptian education for their children.

Perhaps they're just too acquainted with UN bureaucratese: Phrases like "We refuse local integration" and "No to forced voluntary repatriation" (huh?) are not exactly soundbites that are going to make the nightly news around the world.

The real point is that UNHCR, like many other UN agencies, seems like it's an almost criminally inefficient organization.

Related stories:
5,000 Sudanese Refugees Participate in Cairo Protest (Angola Press)
Free of Sudan, but trapped in Egypt (Minneapolis Star-Tribune
More: Escape From Sudan (Village Voice)


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