Radio Dabanga: Dutch lifeline to Darfur refugees
For an hour each morning, two small rooms in central Netherlands become a lifeline for refugees in war-torn Darfur, cut off from the world and massed in dire camps thousands of kilometres away.
At seven thirty in the morning Sudanese time (0430 GMT), Radio Dabanga starts broadcasting its' daily programme in five local languages to the remote western Sudan region witness to one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies.
"Radio is the only way of reaching the people of Darfur," Leon Willems, director of the Dutch non-governmental organisation Press Now behind the initiative, told AFP. "It is what sustains life."
Hence the name -- Radio Dabanga, from an Arabic word for a large terracotta pot that holds a family's food reserves.
The programme started in December 2008 to fill "a need for independent information", said Willems. It operates out of facilities at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, a public radio and television network based in the city of Hilversum.
"Other international stations are present here but they are not aimed solely at Darfuris and do not broadcast in the local languages," he said.
Ravaged by civil war since 2003, Darfur, the size of France, has scant infrastructure like electricity, little access to the press and high illiteracy.
A journalist at Radio Dabanga, Muhagir Muhagir, speaks on March 9, 2009 in the studio of the radio based in the central Dutch city of Hilversum. Every morning, refugees in camps in Darfur and Chad listen to radio Dabanga, the first radio made by people from Darfur for Darfuris.
UN officials estimate that up to 300,000 people have died from the combined results of war, famine and disease since ethnic rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government, complaining of discrimination, though Khartoum says only 10,000 people have died.
Another 2.7 million have been displaced in dozens of camps scattered in Darfur and 250,000 fled to neighbouring Chad.
When Radio Dabanga starts up each morning, people in these camps huddle in hordes around battery-powered radios for a brief connection with the outside world, said Muhagir Muhagir (47) one of six Darfuri journalists on the editorial team in Hilversum.
'We have filled a void'
The programming focuses on hard news, reported by some four dozen volunteer local correspondents in five languages: standard Arabic, Darfuri Arabic, Masalit, Fur and Zaghawa.
"It is difficult to be a journalist in Darfur because it's a war zone, a country where there is no free press. It's tough," said Tajeldin Abdalla Adam, a 32-year-old Sudanese journalist who fled to Belgium in 2004 and later moved to the Netherlands.
"We have filled a void. Before Radio Dabanga, the population had little access to objective information. And they don't listen to government radio because they believe the government is responsible for the conflict," he said.
The broadcasts took on new urgency last week when the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir for war crimes in Darfur.
Sudan responded by ordering our of Darfur 13 international aid agencies, which the UN says account for more than half the distribution of food, drinking water and medicines in the region.
Radio Dabanga manager Leon Williams attends a morning conference on March 9, 2009 in the studio of the radio based in the central Dutch city of Hilversum.
"Refugees find themselves in an even more acute situation since the ICC arrest warrant," said Willems.
The UN said the expulsion order will have "devastating implications" for those in the camps, and for days Radio Dabanga has aired desperate comments phoned in by worried refugees.
"We will have problems with water, education and health care," lamented one refugee woman, translated for AFP by one of the journalists. "We are being punished for nothing. What have we done to deserve this?"
Radio Dabanga, which transmits over shortwave, is funded by governments and donors and has a budget of two million euro (USD 2.5 million) for 2009.
As of next month, it will extend to three hours daily, adding music and cultural programmes, said Willems, whose NGO promotes the development of independent media in conflict zones and countries in transition.
"We receive dozens of telephone calls every day from listeners in Darfur or Chad," said Willems, who found this "astonishing" given the expense.
But not all calls to the show are from fans. "We also receive messages of anger," said Muhagir, who said he left Sudan under threat for the Netherlands 14 years ago. "Some believe we are making propaganda.
"Working at Radio Dabanga, you satisfy many people but you also make enemies," he added. "We are afraid that pressure might be put on our families who have remained behind in Darfur."
Photo: AFP/ Philippe Huguen