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Darfur mobile boom a lifeline for homeless families

Food is scarce in Darfur’s refugee camps, where thousands of families who have fled fighting live without the most basic services. But even in this strife-torn region getting a mobile phone call, for many is still a priority. In spite of a seven-year civil war, the north eastern African countries mobiles market is booming, driven by a mix of cheap Chinese imports and demand from international peacekeepers, travelling businessmen and aid workers. Also, a lot of families uprooted by conflict already have mobiles with them when they arrive in camps. "We want them for the same reason everyone else wants them. I talk to my friends. I can phone home when I'm late in class," says student Mohamed Abdul Karim, who told Reuters news agency his family fled attacks by government-backed militias on their hometown, Tawila in 2003. "Everyone wants the best phone. When you see your brother or your colleague has a new phone, you change ... People do have money here. They bake bread. They make bricks."

Sudan has been caught up in two long civil wars. The first ended in 1972 but broke out again in 1983. A separate conflict, which broke out in the western region of Darfur in 2003, made nearly two million people homeless and caused between 200,000 and 400,000 deaths, according to the CIA World Factbook. Sudan also has had large numbers of refugees arrive from neighbouring countries, mainly Ethiopia and Chad.  The country's main phone companies are now upgrading their networks to keep up with demand. But a handful of lesser-known brands have moved into some of Darfur's poorest corners, the camps that are home to more than two million people who have fled fighting.

People living in Abu Shouk camp have also developed ways to make their own money from the boom. Already, a strong repair business has sprung up and because access to electricity is short, one Sudanese pound (about 30p) can buy a full charge. "As long as mobile phone operators are willing to go into these areas, these kinds of activities spring up around them,” said Erik Hersman, of African technology website AfriGadget. People in harsh areas also want and need to communicate. That's the base level driver in this whole mobile space. It overcomes inefficiencies." Meanwhile, what could be Sudan’s first fully multiparty elections in about 25 years, is now just two months away in April. But people in Abu Shouk, many of whom fled attacks by government militias as far back as 2003, refuse to register as voters.

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children