Hell on Earth

This has got to be Hell on earth: a land of searing heat and dust, as unforgiving and inhospitable as any place I’ve seen. The few living creatures unfortunate enough to find themselves here seem more dead than alive and all around as far as the eye can see are withered, stunted trees, decaying donkey carcasses and cracked, dry river beds.

“God, it’s hot” is all we can muster the energy to say, as if stating the obvious might somehow make it less shocking, a little more bearable.

We enter a mud brick court yard and a toddler comes bounding into my arms, all cheeks and chub, closely followed by a grinning MSF doctor. “This is Omar,” she announces proudly, “and just a few weeks ago he wouldn’t eat, couldn’t walk. Look at him now”.

Behind her an MSF car pulls into the hospital compound laden with starving children. The doctor’s face drops.

This to Chad, where for over a year now savage fighting between Arab and African muslims in Sudan’s Darfur region have driven up to a million people from their homes. The tactics used are brutal – air raids, mass executions, rape and torture – leading some to call this today’s greatest humanitarian disaster.

The ‘lucky’ ones – over 130 000 of them – are those who have managed to escape across the border and into Chad. Omar is one of them. Both his parents were killed and if he hadn’t been brought to the MSF clinic he would have soon followed suit. But lucky is a relative term; these are not conditions that most people in England would consider fit for human life.

The laughter I was sharing with Omar and the mothers in the feeding centre pauses as the new arrivals are helped out of the car: their little bodies shipped into the safety of MSF arms to be fixed with drips; their mothers following close behind. These are the children from the camps. Perhaps their situation is better than those in Darfur. But it is still desperate.

I have never seen a refugee camp before and am unsure what to expect. We bounce along through the dessert sand for half an hour, every now and again passing a solitary walker. Then all of a sudden a sea of plastic sheeting spreads out before us. After the monotone desert the colours are strangely beautiful and you feel almost guilty for thinking so. Thousands upon thousands of women snake a path through the sands as they queue for food, their pink, purple, and yellow robes flowing in the wind, opaque water containers perched elegantly on their heads radiating shafts of light.

We step out of the car and the hot wind slaps against us. I look around me in panic, searching for a way out, a piece of shade, some protection from the wind. There is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I grow anxious at the thought of being stranded here for a few hours. How do these people survive in this all day?

For the next hour or so we wander – stagger – around the camp. Women queue patiently for food, blankets or medical help, their limp children strapped tightly to their backs. I hear a turban clad man cry out amiably yet insistently, and in remarkably good English, for British troops to come and stop his people being massacred.

But it is the wadi, or water hole, that brings home the death and despair that is here, doubling you up like a blow to the stomach.

Here we see a river bed piled high with the rotting carcasses of donkeys and sheep. Everywhere we look is a dead or dying animal, their fly-blown corpses melting into the earth. Clumped together in a dusty, muddy huddle on the empty river lip are the ever-precious camels and a few goats. An army of children desperately scrape the bottom of the stagnant well with their buckets, ferrying precious water to the flock, beating away the less valuable animals and leaving those already too dehydrated to move swaying in stupour. These livestock are the only means of a future survival these people have – they are their bank account, their savings, their only hope of a future. And they’re dying. It is the most hopeless sight I have ever come across.

And back in the camp the children are dying too. There are an estimated 11, 000 people here in this one camp – mostly women and children – and more are arriving by the day. The camp is full beyond capacity and whilst we watch on helplessly
engineers determinedly drill the ground, hunting for a new water source. Camp organisers, wild-eyed and cracked-skinned look on in stunned silence as yet another bus full of people spontaneously arrives. How can they care for these people without more funds from the international community?

Outside the tent MSF has set up as a clinic, where a crowd of women clamour for their children be examined. The MSF doctor and nurse work flat out, trying to establish some order and ensure the sickest children are seen first. It is relentless work and I oscillate between admiration for the staff as they work without pause in the sweltering heat of the tents, and an aching sense of helplessness and despair for the mothers as they display the skeletal arms of their children and turn to me for help. But no-one is forgotten and slowly but surely every child is checked for malnutrition, vaccinated for measles, and given a dose of vitamins and worming tablets – three basic medical acts that are the difference between life and death in these conditions.

Compared with the sprawling misery of the refugee camp, the MSF hospital back in the nearby town of Iriba radiates hope. Mothers clap gleefully as their children regain enough strength to laugh and play and even cry. War-wounded play cards and hobble around the compound, waving amiably. Inside the wards, families are having tea parties on the floor.

But as the war in Darfur continues, the refugees keep coming and the conditions are only getting worse. Every day more and more children are being shipped to the MSF feeding centre.

There are two memories that will stay with me forever from my time in Chad. One is of Omar – a shining example of the difference emergency medical care can make amid the chaos of war. The other is of a woman cradling the bones of her gasping son, as he struggled to draw in air. The next time I saw her she was slumped with her back to the crowd, face to the wall, silent in grief.

The situation for refugees in Chad will worsen. Soon the rains will come, making it near impossible for agencies to truck in food, and there will be more death. My thoughts are with the remaining 900 000 people who have not been able to make it across the border and remain trapped in this violent, indiscriminate conflict. If this is the situation for the refugees we see here, what must life be like for them?