Chad's Refugee Crisis
From time to time the harsh reality of Darfur that pits government-backed African-Arabs against the black African Darfuris is mentioned in the media and then just as quickly it disappears into silence again for months. It's not because nothing is happening--it's an ongoing crisis with millions of people displaced and on the run from violence, killings and rape. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled from the Darfur region into neighboring Chad in the face of attacks by Arab militias.
My first trip to Chad was in July-August 2004. Over the last few years I have stayed in contact with several colleagues who went there. On a regular base we updated each other with the latest info. And I knew I wanted to go back to eastern Chad to make a follow-up on the picture story that I made earlier about the refugees from Darfur. I cannot recall what it was exactly that made me decide to go back now and not six months earlier or later. At a certain moment the thought was in my head quite clearly and I started to make preparations. In those preparations as well as during my stay in Chad I got some great help from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]. They pre-arranged my local authorizations for in-country traveling and photographing. They also offered accommodation and free air transportation to the east of Chad. Also if I wanted to go from one place to another they assisted me in any way they could. I don't think that traveling around in a central African country is very often as easy as it is in Chad.
Less easy was photographing the refugees in the camps, that is, if you want to make 'real life' non-posed photographs. Besides, from the fact that you are being confronted with the misery these people are facing, there is also the attention that you attract as an 'exotic' western photographer. Because in no time you will find yourself surrounded by a crowd of mostly children and women.
Friendly as they are, it was so hard to get beyond the stage of them posing in front of my camera. No matter in which direction I pointed my lens, there would always be a couple of kids jumping in front of me to be in the picture. If I sat down on my knees somewhere to make a photograph I would feel lots of hands touching my clothes, the skin on my arms and several times I felt hair being pulled out of my scalp. In addition to that there was also the heat. In the dry months just before the rainy season starts, temperatures easily go up to 50 degrees C. [122 degrees F.] in the shade. When hiking around in the sun, where 60 degrees [140 degrees F.] is no exception, there where times that my cameras became so hot that I could barely hold them in my hands.
During my stay I visited several refugee camps and IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in the east of Chad. The day after I arrived in Abéche (the city in Eastern Chad where most NGOs are based) I visited the Gaga refugee camp, nowadays a shelter for about 15,000 refugees from Sudan. That same day Gaga was also visited by a U.S. delegation featuring U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern from Massachusetts. I covered this visit for several hours that day hoping I could make some newsworthy pictures. After all, it is not often that this area is visited by a American politician. Being a relatively new camp, Gaga is the only place in eastern Chad that still takes in new arrivals. This difference compared with other camps is quite visible. In the outskirts of the camp you will find numerous refugees that have just arrived and still need to be registered in the camp. These people, mostly families that consist of a mother and her children, live under a tree or just under a piece of plastic with a water canister and some pots and pans as their only possessions. The men are often killed in Janjaweed attacks or somewhere else, away from their family, fighting in a rebel group.
One day I went out to the Jabal refugee camp near Goz Beida. My first encounter with a refugee that day was a discouraging one. While walking through the camp a woman in her 50s approached me with her teenage daughter (as I presumed) standing at some distance behind her. With the enthusiasm that already became common for me she stretched out to shake my hand and gestured to invite me into to her makeshift home. With my somewhat naive soul I assumed she wanted me to take a look at their living circumstances. But once inside she began to remove her daughter's clothes. Suddenly it became clear to me that she only invited me in to offer me her teenage daughter for prostitution. With a polite but sad smile on my face I said, "Non, merci," and turned away. As I walked out I heard them both laugh about the situation as if it was a funny joke for them that they had scared off this western journalist with their indecent proposal.
The crisis in Darfur is a very complex one and I had done my research before I left. But things got more clear to me when I met Manual in Abéche. He is from Rwanda originally and works as a camp manager for the UNHCR in Iriba. He is also a survivor from the massacre that took place in Rwanda in 1994. From his own experience Manuel knows a lot about tribal conflicts and we had a long conversation about what is going on in Sudan. Manuel shared with me his interesting view on the situation and that helped me to understand things a bit more. On one hand you have the violence between Arab nomads and African tribes such as the Zaghwana, which has now become internationally recognized as ethnic cleansing and genocide. But there is also the power struggle between radical Islamist groups and the government. They strategically use the inter-tribal violence to destabilize the Karthoum authorities and the peace agreement that ended the civil war in southern Sudan; an agreement that was finally signed in the beginning of 2005. But the violent activities of armed groups have now also spread into neighboring Chad, which already shelters hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees. In the past year Chadian Arab militias who are following in the footsteps of the Sudanese Janjaweed have attacked many Chadian villages. By now about 125,000 Chadians have fled from the violence and are forced to stay in IDP camps.
With that in mind I think I am justified in saying that it is not only an ongoing crisis but also one that is getting worse rather than improving. All I can hope for is that it will not become one of the many forgotten wars. If I can contribute to that in any way I'll be glad to do so. I will certainly not forget this war.
© Michel de Groot
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