The Digital Journalist
On the Ground in Darfur

by Mario E. Ruiz

June 2006

I first learned of the Darfur crisis in the fall of 2004, a year after the atrocities began to unfold. I was working for Brigham Young University's newspaper at the time and the managing director, Jim Kelly, suggested that he and I go photograph the situation. We needed money, however, and we began looking for grants to help fund our trip. I wrote a proposal to the Office of Research and Creative Activities at BYU in October and after months of waiting for a reply we finally received word in April that our project was awarded the money.

BYU was funding this trip and they would not allow us to travel into Sudan because of the conflict. Instead, we would travel into neighboring Chad to where over 200,000 Sudanese refugees had fled from Darfur in the last year. Now that funding was secure, my goal was to make a contact for help with travel and lodging on the ground. I spent over a month e-mailing countless organizations and NGOs, telling people of my interest in covering the situation. I did not hear back from anyone.

Children at Iridimi refugee camp outside of Iriba, eastern Chad. The camp is home to over 14,000 Sudanese refugees who have fled the conflict in Darfur after their villages were attacked by the Janjaweed.

Mario E. Ruiz / ZUMA Press
After almost giving up hope that anyone would reply to my request for help, I received an e-mail from UNICEF officers in Chad who agreed to assist me. I was astonished and surprised that the United Nations Children's Fund had agreed to help me out. Of all the organizations that I contacted there could not have been a better group to make my arrangements. They agreed to arrange my flights and travel within the country and to provide housing and meals throughout my stay in Chad. I sent them copies of my passport, press credentials and photos so that they could arrange my photographic and travel permits.

Jim Kelly dropped out months before I left because of other obligations and I was left on my own. I made my way overseas in August and planned for a three-week trip -- total. It took a day and a half to get to the capital, N'Djamena, alone and four more days to finally get to Iridimi, the most accessible of the Chad camps. It was the rainy season, so land travel was severely limited and risky. We could only travel to certain camps and only if the oadis, temporary rivers caused by rains, were crossable. Eventually, Iridimi would be the only camp we would be able to access during my stay.

A man crosses through Iridimi on his horse and cart. Though armed militias continue to terrorize the Darfur region of Sudan, camps in Chad are relatively safe.

Mario E. Ruiz / ZUMA Press
I was told I would have five days in Iridimi. We would arrive by plane via a United Nations cargo jet on Monday and leave Friday morning, giving me only four days to shoot at the camps. I had no idea whether that would be enough time to get what I needed. With the amount of pressure I placed myself under it would prove to be enough time.

My first visit to the camp was Monday afternoon and I only spent an hour or so shooting. I photographed men playing volleyball in Iridimi's center. I was surprised to see people in good spirits and playing games. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that since I was on the Chad side of the conflict things would be more tame, but I still was not sure what condition the camps and refugees would be in. People were alive and healthy. They had survived and that was my story.

A newborn refugee baby waits for post-natal care at the clinic in Darfur run by Medicos Sans Fronteras (Doctors Without Borders).

Mario E. Ruiz / ZUMA Press
I spent the next several days photographing as much as I could physically handle. The sun was draining my energy and I could only spend so much time at the camp itself. The people at Iridimi were helpful to me for those several days. I found a man who toured me through his section and we sat and had tea one morning with several other section leaders. We sat around and talked of their experiences with the Janjaweed fighters, the murders they had witnessed and their long and miraculous exodus out of Sudan.

That week with survivors of the Darfur genocide was an experience that has strengthened my passion for journalism and my compassion for human life. I would return in an instant if more funding were available. But for now I want to tell the stories of other people surviving other atrocities.

© Mario E. Ruiz
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Mario E. Ruiz is a staff photographer at The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, where he shoots everything from local sports to news and features. During his own time, he pursues his passion for documentary photography. In 2005, he covered the state of Chad's refugee camps following the influx of more than 200,000 displaced Sudanese. This coverage won the NPPA student quarterly clip contest and the Sports Shooter monthly student clip contest. Ruiz recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Visual Arts 2006. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay area after immigrating to the United States at the age of two from El Salvador. He is currently based in South Orem, Utah, and is represented worldwide by ZUMA Press and available for assignment: 949.481.3747.

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