EL FASHER, SUDAN — Amid the suffering of Darfur, there's an odd prosperity bubbling up in this once sleepy town.
Paved streets and lampposts are replacing sand roads. A fleet of bright blue South Korean-made taxis, newer and nicer than those in Khartoum, the national capital, create afternoon traffic jams so bad that a police officer must direct the flow.
A pair of multistory office buildings are under construction downtown, and newly built rental homes can fetch $5,000 a month, not including utilities, of course, since most of El Fasher doesn't have water or electricity.
In stark contrast to the burned-out villages and squalid displacement camps that characterize much of Darfur, this dust-choked city is booming, thanks largely to an influx of scores of United Nations agencies and private charities, as well as the newly deployed U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission.
Since the conflict in Sudan's western region began in 2003, El Fasher's population has nearly doubled to 500,000 as refugees sought safety in camps along the city's borders or with family members in town. Though the North Darfur capital has its share of crime and gunfights, it has largely escaped the fighting that has plagued other areas.
Along with the displaced, El Fasher has attracted an army of aid workers who use the city as a base for battling Darfur's humanitarian crisis.
El Fasher's growth stands in stark contrast to the rest of the region, which continues to suffer one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Hundreds of villages have been destroyed. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people have died in the conflict, many from disease and hunger, and an additional 2.5 million have been displaced.
El Fasher is home to about 500 international staffers whose agencies have created an additional 3,000 jobs for locals. Those figures will only grow as the peacekeeping mission ramps up to full deployment of 26,000 troops and a civilian staff of 4,000, many of whom will be based in the mission's El Fasher headquarters.
It's a drop in the bucket compared with El Fasher's total population, but experts say the humanitarian industry now accounts for about two-thirds of the city's economy.
Retail sales are soaring thanks to the comparatively high salaries paid to international staffers, though foreign demand is also driving up prices on everything from real estate to bottled water.
"It's a war economy," said Abduljabber Abdellah Fadul, rural planning professor at El Fasher University.
"Historically, El Fasher had a subsistence economy," Fadul said, explaining that most residents eked out a modest living by trading locally made goods and home-grown food. The lack of investment and development was one reason rebels attacked government forces in 2003 in El Fasher, alleging decades of marginalization by the Khartoum government.
If Sudan's capital is enjoying an oil boom thanks to the nation's fast-growing petroleum industry, El Fasher is experiencing what could only be called an aid boom.
Fruit and vegetables from as far away as Iran and South Africa flood the local market. Furniture from China and Indonesia is available downtown. The number of filling stations in town has tripled in three years because of the growing demand of aid groups employing gas-guzzling SUVs. There's even an air-conditioned pizza parlor catering to Westerners.
"People are beginning to think in a more business-minded way," said Adam Ahmed Sliman, an economics analyst in El Fasher. "And for the first time, really, there is an opportunity for people to make some money rather than just getting by day to day."
About three years ago, a stranger working for a German charity knocked on Khalil Adam Abdulkarim's front door and offered a then-eye-popping sum of $1,100 a month to rent his family home.
"I thought, 'Why not,' " said the El Fasher businessman and former government minister. He moved his seven children to a nearby house, paying just $150 a month, and used the profit to build a new house, which he's also thinking about renting.
"This is really changing our lifestyle," he said. "But it's also isolated and isn't really connected to any development plan. It won't last."
He said many of those reaping the benefits of El Fasher's growth are wealthy homeowners like himself or outsiders coming from Khartoum seeking to make their fortune.
"I can earn three times as much here," said Ammar Khalid, a construction engineer from Khartoum whose company is completing a mansion near U.N. headquarters that it hopes to rent for $10,000 a month.
Egyptian entrepreneur Sameer Refat, 33, is making a killing selling Chinese-made filing cabinets and bedroom sets to international aid groups. He also runs a grocery store where one of his most profitable items is something that wasn't available here five years ago: bottled water.
"Foreigners really like it," he said. "No one else buys it."