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A Darfur tree is her newsstand

People walk miles to read the articles posted by 24-year-old reporter Awatif Ahmed Isshag.

March 04, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

EL FASHER, SUDAN — For Awatif Ahmed Isshag, covering Darfur is the story of her life.

Nearly a decade ago, at 14, Isshag started publishing a handwritten community newsletter about local events, arts and religion. Once a month she'd paste decorated pages to a large piece of wood and hang it from a tree outside her family's home for passersby to read.

But after western Sudan plunged into bloodshed and suffering in 2003, Isshag's publication took on a decidedly sharper edge, tackling issues such as the plight of refugees, water shortages, government inaction in the face of militia attacks, and sexual violence against women.

Her grass-roots periodical has become the closest thing that El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, has to a hometown newspaper. More than 100 people a day stop to check out her latest installments, some walking several miles from nearby displacement camps, she said.

"I feel I have a message to deliver to the community," said Isshag, now all of 24 years old.

The petite reporter is an increasingly common sight around town, her notebook and pen in hand as she interviews local people for her articles. Last week she roamed El Fasher asking people how they felt about the International Criminal Court's recent accusations against two war-crimes suspects in Darfur.

Critics have attempted to intimidate her and force her to shut down. Instead, Isshag is expanding this month with a new printed edition, enabling her to circulate for the first time beyond the neighborhood tree.

"She represents the only indigenous piece of journalism in Darfur," said Simon Haselock, a media consultant with Africa Union in Khartoum. "She's got energy and drive. It's exactly what they need."

Readers say her magazine, called Al Raheel (which roughly translates as "Moving" or "Departing"), is one of the only places they can read locally produced stories about issues touching their lives.

"It's the best because this magazine shows what is really happening in Darfur," said Mohammed Ameen Slik, 30, an airline supervisor who lives nearby.

Isshag complained that despite international attention, the suffering of Darfur remained vastly underreported inside Sudan. There are no television stations in the area, and most newspapers operate under government control or are based hundreds of miles away in Khartoum.

"The local media don't cover the issue of Darfur," she said. "We hear about it when one child dies in Iraq, but we hear nothing when 50 children die" in Darfur.

Through articles, essays and poems, Isshag frequently blames the government for failing to protect the citizens of Darfur.

A recent story titled "What's Going On in El Fasher?" compared the government's tightening security vise in the city to checkpoints in Lebanon. A thinly veiled poem told the story of a sultan who blithely tried to reassure his long-suffering subjects.

Isshag said government officials had so far largely dismissed her as "just a young girl."

But during a recent trip to Khartoum, she received an anonymous phone call from someone who warned her to "stop writing" and "take care of your education" instead.

She shrugged off the threat.

"I'm not afraid," she said. "Journalism is a profession of risk. I'm not doing something wrong. I'm doing something right."

Her passion for giving voice to the region's victims stems in part from her own family's losses. A cousin walked for three days to escape attacks by Arab militias, known as janjaweed, after her village was burned down. Her grandfather died in a displacement camp near Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state. About a dozen other relatives still live in the camp, unable for security reasons to return home.

Darfur's crisis began in 2003 after rebels attacked government forces. Government officials are accused of responding by hiring the janjaweed to attack Darfur villages and terrorize civilians. The government denies supporting the militias. More than 200,000 have died in the conflict, and 2 million more have been displaced.

An advocate for women's education, Isshag credits her parents for allowing her to avoid being tied down by housework and pursue her interest in writing.

But she occasionally uses her columns to lecture other women on pet peeves. A recent "For Women Only" article lambasted those who took off their shoes on the bus. "It's wrong," she said with a laugh.

Isshag hopes to complete a master's degree in economics at the University of Khartoum and one day to lead a development company, building schools and houses in her long-marginalized homeland.

But for now she's focused on improving the magazine.

After a local Khartoum-based newspaper profiled her, Isshag received a new computer and printer as a gift from a well-wisher in Qatar. She's also looking into launching a website.

She said she would never charge readers for the paper or turn it into a business.

"I don't care about the money," she said. "I would fast to get the story."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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