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Undaunted by inherent dangers of Darfur

No roads mark way for relief coordinator

EL GENEINA, Sudan -- Matthew McGarry, who grew up in the Western Massachusetts town of Longmeadow, has spent the past three months in the provincial capital of western Darfur. He is working to get food and desperately needed supplies to people caught in a war between antigovernment rebels and Janjaweed militias that has left about 200,000 dead, displaced up to 2 million, and created an environment of destruction and despair on a largely barren desert landscape.

The 26-year-old graduate of Longmeadow High School as well as the University of Notre Dame and Fordham University, is an area coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian agency of the US Catholic community. CRS is a lead agency among scores of nongovernmental organizations working frantically to get help to survivors of the war in Darfur.

Whole villages have been burned and inhabitants killed or severely wounded. Livestock and other belongings have been stolen and women systematically raped.

Now that the rainy season is about to begin in Darfur, the struggle is intensifying to put in place the means to deliver food and materials for shelter, sanitation, and water supplies. Eventually, latrines, schools, and health clinics will be built.

Meanwhile, McGarry is in the process of moving to Kulbus, the most remote CRS outpost in western Darfur, a town of low mud-and-brick buildings, many of which have been damaged and abandoned in the past two years of warfare. The town is surrounded by forbidding desert, infested with deadly snakes, dangerous spiders the size of a man's fist, and scorpions poisonous enough to incapacitate a healthy grown man for a couple of days.

McGarry, a strongly built man, is undaunted. Working in heat that reaches 120 degrees, he smiles. ''I'm not sure anything really prepares you for west Darfur, but this has been by far the best kind of work I've ever been able to do.

''It's hard work, but the human interaction is incredible," he added. ''The opportunity to interact with the people, the value of the work. There's never a dull day. There's always a crisis to manage. I have a good relationship with the beneficiaries. I have a lot of freedom. I love being here."

For the most part, the beneficiaries are hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children scattered across the desert, where they have taken refuge from the war. The lexicon of relief work identifies them as ''internally displaced persons" to distinguish them from refugees who have fled the country. But the beneficiaries also include inhabitants of communities alongside whom displaced people have encamped, and more recently, the nomadic tribes, whose perennial, centuries-old migratory paths have been blocked by the war.

They are all Muslims, men in flowing white gowns with large turbans and women in brightly colored gowns and headscarves, who walk or ride camels, horses, and donkeys with a dignified elegance that belies their desperate conditions. Most walk, sometimes for miles, to get the monthly food rations distributed by CRS and other nongovernmental organizations.

McGarry reaches them in a diesel-driven Toyota Land Cruiser that can make it through deep sand in a land where there are no roads or markers, only barely discernible tracks in the desert.

''On a day-to-day basis, it's extremely hard, thankless work," McGarry said. ''It's only when you're able to step back and reflect on it that you feel a sense of fulfillment. You don't do it for the thank-yous, but it's nice to see the palpable change in the environment, from desperation to hopefulness and an expectation that things will change for the better."

McGarry has done humanitarian work for years, beginning in college at Notre Dame when he worked at a Catholic-run shelter in Des Moines for two summers. He has also done humanitarian and relief work in Nicaragua, Gaza and the West Bank, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, where he started as an intern for CRS, ''I got to see the best and the worst sides of an African country in serious trouble. I came out of it feeling Africa is where I want to work for the foreseeable future," he said.

He credits his parents and a strong Catholic tradition of helping those in need for his career choice. His father, Thomas McGarry, a former Xaverian brother, was Longmeadow school superintendent from 1987 to 2004. His mother, Florence, worked as assistant director of continuing education at nearby American International University.

''My folks were always involved in volunteer work, like soup kitchens," he said. ''I have plenty of friends who are making tremendous amounts of money and who are monumentally unhappy. This stuff about your possessions possessing you, I've found to be true. I'd rather be free."

In Darfur there are no restaurants, no nightlife, no place to get a beer in a country where strict Islamic law forbids alcohol. He would not dare approach any women here. McGarry said he reads a lot in his spare time.

''I have good friends here at the office. There's not a whole lot to do when you're living in a tent in Kulbus. Most of the time it's too damned hot to do anything," he said. ''But I knew that when I came. . . . Right now I feel very satisfied and fulfilled. This is what I always wanted to do."

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