One koro of millet to feed 13 mouths - displaced in eastern Chad

A plough lies in the shade of the straw hut and is a reminder of the time when M. Abdulai was still a farmer. Agriculture did not make him rich. Everything that is harvested at the end of the brief growing season in Chad's dry south-easterly region is stored in large clay pots and has to last for the rest of the year. But at least Abdulai could still feed his family of 13.

Most of all, however, Abdulai needs a safe village to return to so he can tend his fields. If he cannot plant anything in March, he will not be able to harvest anything in autumn and will then have to be reliant on outside help for another year.

At least, he could until militia raided his home village of Faride on November 7, 2006. Many of the approximately 1,000 villagers were injured and the village was pillaged and burned to the ground. Abdulai fled with the other villagers from the attackers, who were armed with machine guns and, according to him, were Arabic-speaking Chadians.

So they travelled to nearby Karo. Then the surrounding villages also experienced violence and pillaging, so the people from Faride set off once more. All of the people from the entire area, between 8,000 and 10,000 people, have gathered in an improvised camp eight kilometres northeast of Goz Beda, the district capital, where they are hoping to find a minimum of security.

A koro of millet

"We didn't have time to bring grain, clothes, mats or blankets," says Abdulai. "We have nothing left except two donkeys." They help carry kindling from the area around the camp to the market in Goz Beda.

"The money we get from that is just enough for one koro of millet." Abdulai shows us an empty 3 kg capacity bowl, the contents of which have to feed 13 people every day.

"We see some malnourished children, but not many more than is usual in this region," says Maximilian Gertler. The MSF doctor holds a surgery three times a week in the camp along with a mobile medical team. "But the people don't have any energy any more. In combination with other health problems, the number of malnourished children could skyrocket."

Smelly, muddy water

Diarrhoea is an illness that, when coupled with malnourishment, can cause a vicious circle which is particularly dangerous for young children. The main cause is contaminated drinking water.

"In terms of water volume, the four wells near the camp are coping surprisingly well with the huge demand of so many people," says Michel Becks, MSF water and sanitation expert. "But the quality is terrible. The water is muddy and smelly."

So Becks' team has set up two boreholes with hand pumps while the aid organisation Oxfam cleans the existing wells.

A lack of hygiene and bad living conditions in the camp also hide other potential health risks: there are hardly any latrines and the makeshift huts made from branches and straw hardly protect against the wind, dust and low night-time temperatures.

"The people are sleeping on the bare ground with no mats or blankets at temperatures of 12 to 15ºC," says Maximilian Gertler. "It's no wonder that we are having to treat more and more people with pneumonia. The likelihood of infections spreading is high because people sleep very close to one another."

Conjunctivitis is neither contagious nor life-threatening and, in normal conditions, it is not a serious health problem.

"But because of all the dust and the lack of hygiene, I am treating increasingly serious cases every day: babies whose eyes are stuck together and oozing with pus," says Maximilian Gertler. "This shows that the people urgently need clean water, soap, mats, blankets and better shelters."

No security, no harvest

Many organisations specialising in providing water, food or shelter are struggling with the complex logistics offered by the inaccessible area and the lack of security. At the end of January, precisely 11 weeks and two days after they fled home, Abdulai's family finally received its first rations from the UN's World Food Programme, which is supposed to be enough for four weeks. Blankets, mats, buckets and plastic sheeting have also been distributed by MSF to over 2,200 families in the camp near Goz Beda.

Most of all, however, Abdulai needs a safe village to return to so he can tend his fields. If he cannot plant anything in March, he will not be able to harvest anything in autumn and will then have to be reliant on outside help for another year. But when some of the villagers from Faride returned home at the end of December, seven were shot dead.

Attacks are even happening just outside the camp: just a few days ago, Abdulai and two of his children were a few kilometres away from the camp collecting straw when they were shot at.

"There were seven riders - four on horseback and three on camels."