Mohammad Ali Ashour, widely known as Johnny, is a professional photographer, a musician and a karate coach. He lives and works in Ardemta, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city of Geneina, the capital of West Darfur State, near to the border with Chad.
In an interview with The Niles, the 40-year-old explained his close ties to the region and why he is also a social activist in the tense region of Darfur.
Given the tensions, are you not tempted to leave Darfur so that your children enjoy a better future?
I feel that my children’s future is here in Darfur.”
(Laughing) Where will I go? I was born and raised here in Ardemta in Geneina. I will not leave this place. I have no other place to go. Here are most of my family and my wife and my children. In spite all these wars, insecurity, daily misery and grave crisis, I will not leave. I feel that the future of my children is also here in Darfur.
What is special about Ardemta?
Ardemta is not like the rest areas of Geneina. It is a historical area where the first military base was established back in colonial times. Soldiers from different tribes have created a kind of cultural interaction that does not exist in the rest of the city. Ardemta is the most vibrant and productive area in terms of creativity and arts and the city’s leading artists live here.
Given your long-standing ties to the area, how do you view the camps and the situation of the internally displaced people (IDPs)?
The camps are miserable in spite of the aid provided by organisations. These people have lost many important and essential things; their villages, shelter, land and everything. Thus, they are forced to stay in camps in light of the continued war.
After so many years, people have adjusted to their lives in the camp. They marry, work in new trades, get an education. In the past, it was difficult to enter the camps. There were many problems and people, who did not accept their new situation, dealt fiercely with anyone new entering the camps.
Now, however, camps are more open. There is communication between everyone: People living in the city and the camps. They share services, such as education, health etc. Now, you can enter the camps and stay there without being afraid.
The government describes a suspicious relationship between IDPs and workers for international organisations. This has sometimes led to the expulsion of organisations by the state. How have the IDPs been affected by these expulsions?
Johnny with a displaced woman at the IDP camp of Krinding 2, east of Geneina, Jan. 24.
IDPs do not generally follow politics very much. They know the organisations’ workers and have good dealings with them because they provide them with aid and vital things. The move to suspend a large number of organisations has caused great problems for IDPs.
I have also noticed that it has made them self-reliant and has prompted them to work for themselves, a positive development.
However, expelling and stopping a number of organisations have eventually had adverse impacts on a large segment of them.
What is your opinion of the protracted crisis in Darfur. What are the prospects of a solution amid escalating violence and war?
The solution is in the hands of the government, but right now I believe it complicates the crisis rather than solves it.