A Water and Sanitation Engineer Returning From a Refugee Camp in Chad

A friend of mine judges how successful the forthcoming day will be by whether or not she spots certain donkeys in a certain field on her morning journey. Spotting all three donkeys is highly auspicious, an absence of donkeys predicts worrying events, and a quick glimpse of the tail end of a donkey suggests the unexpected. There would be no such problem where I was working on the Chad border. Donkeys are everywhere, by far the most numerous animal around and used for virtually every kind of chore. When you can’t see them you can hear their relentless braying, which sounds as if they have a squeaky toy stuck in their windpipe and are hysterically trying to cough it up. This was not at all what I expected from a refugee camp. Not only did the Sudanese refugees manage to bring most of their animals across to Chad, they also have beds, bicycles and even motorised mills for millet.

Farchana camp is located 40km inside the Chadian border and is home to 18,000 refugees who fled the Darfur region of Sudan. The first refugees arrived at the camp in March 2004 and a small but determined trickle continues to arrive. These are the refugees who make their own way to Farchana either by foot, truck or, of course, donkey. The majority got themselves over the Sudan/Chad border, which is conveniently marked by a 300 metre wide wadi (seasonal river). They were then transported by bus to one of the many camps further within Chad. I have to assume at this stage that they had a very persuasive way with the truck drivers in order to stash their beds, bikes and other bulky goods on the roof. Having seen a number of grossly over laden vehicles on the treacherous roads around the camp, this doesn’t surprise me at all as it seems Chadian drivers are nothing if not optimistic.

What I found most surprising was the contrast of reality with the typical images of refugee camps seen on TV. Having expected disease, famine and general chaos, the atmosphere is more that of a village. Tents are ordered into groups; communities develop; scrub and wood fences go up to mark out boundaries; and people concentrate on collecting firewood, food rations and water. Finding a group of children sculpting figures out of clay in a nearby wadi, I was interested to see that amongst the model donkeys, goats and camels, there was a fine replica of a helicopter, complete with shards of glass for windows (no doubt with a story behind it). The inventiveness does not end there. Trucks and cars are constructed from the spongy interior of sorghum stems like tiny rafts held together with string finished off with discarded flip flops for wheels. Bicycles are also numerous and regarded very highly by the Sudanese. The equivalent to a status symbol in Europe, bikes are decorated like carnival floats, sporting bunches of plastic flowers, coloured streamers, stickers, fancy seat covers and, if they’re really flash, a number of mirrors. Another sight which entirely caught me by surprise.

Yet despite appearances, this really is not an extended village. Numerous complex issues churn beneath the surface and it’s all too easy to forget what people have been through when seeing them in such a calm setting. There are numerous reports of atrocities carried out in Sudan, the cause for their flight. The 'Janjaweed' militias have a record of raping women, terrorizing communities and destroying villages. Adoum, a deaf and dumb refugee who helped out with odd jobs around the watsan tent, explained through a spontaneous theatre performance how he had been attacked by Janjaweed men as young as 15. They had shot him in the leg and beaten him, leading to the loss of his hearing, speech and use of one leg. Despite all this, surprisingly, the most controversial action so far in the camp was an environmental initiative to plant trees. The refugees interpreted this as the first step in leaving them to become self sufficient, which would allow the international community to forget about them, stop all aid and let them get on with their new lives. Riots ensued, and no more tree planting has been suggested.

MSF has been working in Farchana since it was set up, and has been present in Chad for the last 20 years. The organisation provides health care to the camp and local population and have a ‘feeding centre’ which organises supplementary feeding for malnourished children. MSF has also been involved in the design, construction and running of the camp water supply, which is what I was working on. In addition, a latrine building programme was completed, in which groups of refugees, including women, were assigned various digging, bricklaying, gravel shovelling and construction duties. This was one of the few opportunities open to the refugees to earn cash, so once news spread that we were employing workers we had crowds outside the water and sanitation tent. The techniques employed to chose teams out of this crowd is another tale…..

The most impressive thing about a crowd is the incredible spectrum of colours. The ladies’ saris lend a vivid contrast to the washed out landscape, whilst the men are resplendent in white jelabiey (long smocks) and tagiay (hats). Many have the traditional scarring on their cheeks, usually three thin vertical lines for the men and wider lines under the eyes for the women. Babies are everywhere, although you often don’t notice them wrapped up in layers of cloth on the ladies’ backs, safely tucked away in their colourful dens as their mothers go about their business. Children are even more numerous, running around in huge groups shouting “OK! ok ok ok ok…..” and “ça va!”, their favourite words picked up from the multitudes of NGOs working in the camp. The only peace to be found in the whole camp is on top of one of the small granite outcrops where the noise of thousands of people floats gently upwards and the camp opens up beneath you. Peace, however, may only be achieved providing you haven’t been spotted and followed by the gangs of kids…

In the middle of November we came to the end of Ramadan, an event heralded by the sighting of the new moon just after dusk. The Muslims (comprising almost all refugees and locals) were dutifully fasting and did not allowed a drop of water nor a morsel of food to pass their lips in the daylight hours. For those involved in manual labour this seems no mean feat, especially after spending almost a year either on the move or in various refugee camps. Redemption comes in the form of the huge Eid-al-Fitr feast, during which animals are slaughtered and the rules relaxed. Throughout the camp groups of men congregated around a cattle being slaughtered and distributed to all present, something one doesn’t expect to see in such a setting. Beef is not all there is on the menu: a special distribution of food boxes from Saudi Arabian benefactors supplements the usual diet of boule, a stodgy mixture of millet and sorghum. Not only that, everyone looks their best for a couple of days, which is a challenging task when you only have one set of clothes with you. Nonetheless, after a day of furious scrubbing, everyone was positively gleaming and strolling about looking extremely proud.

Once I was invited to share lunch with a group of Sudanese refugees who were building the latrines in the camp. The ladies sat in one group under a makeshift plastic shelter whilst the men were congregated in patch of shade nearby. The food was placed in bowls in the centre and everyone shared, scooping out the boule and rice with their right hand. Sickly sweet tea was served afterwards, with a plastic jug always nearby with which to wash your hands. This ritual occurs twice a day with very little variation on the ingredients. For me, this was the most touching invitation and memorable meal I could have had.

Nobody knows how long these refugees will have to stay in Chad, but an imminent return seems very uncertain. Some have been back to Sudan to try to salvage some of their harvests, but this is rarely worth the trip and the steady trickle of people over the border continues. In the meantime, the school is bursting at the seams, the community health projects are in full flow and food and water are available. It’s certainly not home for the refugees, but they are adapting in their own way and resigned to the wait.