[This blog was not originally produced for Waging Peace, but was shared with us by Abdelhafiz following his trip, in April 2023, and prior to the outbreak of conflict in Khartoum on 15 April 2023. We reproduce it with his permission. Abdelhafiz is a senior biomedical scientist in Swindon.]
My brief fourteen-day trip from London to the Republic of Chad on the first of March 2023 was undoubtedly unforgettable. It was a gruelling and strenuous journey that consisted of a nine-hour flight to N’Djamena. Followed by a two-day bus journey to Abeche, the site of the refugee camps, where regrettably I was only able to spend five nights in total. Despite the difficulties that I knew I would face and the heart-breaking stories I anticipated hearing, I knew that it was essential for me to go. Not only did I need to visit family members who resided there after being forced to flee their homeland by the Sudanese Government Forces supported by the Janjaweed militias but also, I wanted to live and perceive the painful reality of those who I have been fighting and advocating for, for over twenty-five years.
When arriving in N’Djamena I met with some university students, who were from the refugee camps, but were studying in the capital. They were supported by a scholarship scheme and lived together. Kindly, they let me into their accommodation and allowed me to stay with them for a brief period of time. They seemed grateful for the opportunity that was gifted to them as well as fulfilled by the student and university life that they had, which was a breath of fresh air. At the student house, the students introduced me to Khadija, she was the mother of a boy who had been granted resettlement in France. She had travelled to the capital to say her goodbyes to her son and needed to get back to the camps. She told me that she was widowed but had other children back at the camp in which she resided. The students asked if she could accompany me on my journey, and just like that we set off the next day.
N’DJAMENA TO ABECHE
We left N’Djamena at around three o’clock in the afternoon. The coach was decently packed and reasonably run down; but surprisingly it had comfortable seats. It was filled with different kinds of people going on long and diverse journeys to various locations. Mine was nine hundred kilometres and just about twenty-one hours long. Most of the journey was on bumpy and unpaved roads. We did stop for food; but I did not eat, which meant I went almost two days snacking on bananas, and dates that I bought on the side of the road which upset my stomach and resulted in me vomiting them all out.
There is an eleven pm curfew in Chad for people driving on this road. This meant, sleeping out in the open. When the clock struck eleven the driver punctually stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere and people started to take out their blankets and set up their beds on the ground out in the open. I was unprepared, using my shoes as a pillow was not the most ideal and comfortable situation, but it was that or sandy rocks. Five o’clock the next morning we resumed our journey and then we eventually reached Abeche (a town in Eastern Chad) at midday.
When I was at Adre station in Abeche I decided to have a cup of green tea from hot drinks sellers, mainly women, who serve hot drinks to their traveller customers. While I was sitting, my attention was quickly turned to a young boy, around the age of 9 in some old, dishevelled clothing, who was sitting very close to me. I asked him what I thought were basic and standard questions, like what his name was … it was Ishaq. I then asked him how old he was and that unexpectedly stumped him. He told me that he doesn’t know how old he was or when he was born. And naturally, I was so curious to know more about him; he told me that his parents left him in Abeche alone to go to Islamic Madrasa to learn Quran. He said that he has hung around the café to pick up any work he could to make any kind of money he could. Or even simply in exchange for food and water. This was a young nine-year-old child, roaming around a town alone, in search of food and water! Even after giving him some money and telling him to get some food, I was utterly filled with hopelessness. I was only helping him for a fleeting moment but also because his experience and situation was not unique. There are many Ishaqs, unfortunately.
ABECHE TO HAJAR HADID, THE CAMPS
Khadija wanted to get back to camp and see her family as soon as she could. We took an auto-rickshaw to Adre Bus Station, where she took her transportation to Traygin Camp. We said our goodbyes and she was on her way. I made my way back to central Abeche and met some pupils who were studying there. They also invited me into their student house, and that night I managed to have my first proper meal, mouth-watering grilled meat.
The next day rolled around and Al-Sadiq, one of my relatives, came from the camp to accompany me on my journey there. We then went into the town centre, and I bought some things for people I would meet in the camp – tea, sugar and a couple of other things. We left Abeche at around four in the afternoon, and after the previous two days and no nights of sleep, this was a much more alleviating and shorter three-and-a-half-hour drive to Hajar Hadid. We travelled in an old and challenged Landcruiser pick-up truck. The Landcruiser was accessorised with luggage and an estimated fifteen men on the roof (including Al-Sadiq) on their voyages, with their legs dangling down the sides of the vehicle, almost like a human chandelier. Most of these passengers were traders who were carrying goods that they were going to sell back at the camp. All of which I observed from my seemly safer and admittedly more comfortable passenger seat view that I had acquired for no reason other than the fact that I could afford it. The outside ‘seats’ costing around five thousand CFA whilst the inside costing seven thousand five hundred CFA. The driver, a local business owner, and I, chatted and listened to soulful music that he introduced us to.
We drove through several dried-up seasonal valleys, the first one was called Wadi Moura where we saw Koshakin Camp in the distance. A newer camp that had been built in the past two years, where more people had been displaced from Adukung in West Darfur. We then drove over Wadi Umliouna, a beautiful valley that was lined with divine mango trees, where in the distance we spotted Gaga Camp. Eventually, we crossed some rocky hills and landed on another, but much smaller dried-up valley called Wadi Hamra which meant we had arrived to Brygen Camp.
We reached the camp at approximately seven thirty in the evening. And due to the lack of easily accessible electricity, the only light was that of the moon. I was immediately met by simultaneous tears of joy and disbelief from my family; my aunt Azza and my cousins Fati and Khadija and their children. A reasonable reaction as this was the first time I had met my aunt since 2005, whereas the last time I had met my cousins was in the seventies when we were children. But it was the first time I was meeting some of them at all. An emotional moment. They had a unique and humbling way of greeting guests. They would kneel and sit on the ground and greet me repeatedly in their native tribal language, the Masalit language, it’s absolutely beautiful and moving. Something that felt incredibly authentic, but also felt like a way of expressing and symbolising gratitude for their guests and for the gift of living another day. We talked and talked until the night turned pitch black and started to yawn, our signal to sleep. The next morning felt like I was meeting them for the first time all again, as the sun gave me the light to see the people that I couldn’t make out the night before. That day family members and camp residents came from all parts of the camp to greet me, it was incredible.
In the evening some men and I explored the camp. It was much vaster than I had expected. After enquiring I was told that it was home to an overwhelming fifty-three thousand individuals and that it was typical for a man to have an average of two to three wives. The camp was a monochrome village made up of the beiges of the desert and of randomly placed, uncomplicated and poorly built home structures, the walls were low and made up of mud that was blanketed by thatched roofs. The camp was haphazard and compact, the streets were narrow and simple. As an indicator of the tens of years of residence, they had basic infrastructure. They had a market, primary, intermediate, and high schools, and a health centre.
We went to the nearby valley, Wadi Hamra, which seemed to be a social spot for the camp residents. The breeze that washed over the water meant that it was a place to cool down in the blazing Chadian sun. The valley was decorated by children playing football, people filling their buckets with water, donkeys and horses transporting people and goods.
Whilst chatting with the men I found out that one of them was actually the headteacher for the local high school and another was a self-proclaimed doctor.
He was not a medical doctor he told me had taken some medical and basic health care courses. On our way back, he showed me his clinic/pharmacy, which was a small room about two by three metres in size.
There was a small table with a chair on one side and a bench that could fit two to three people on the other. The table and shelf above were home to different medications. Some of the things I saw were needles, syringes, basic painkillers, antibiotics, saline and dextrose IVs and obviously no fridge which meant that everything was kept at room temperature. Following this tour we made our way back home and for the rest of the day I received some more guests.
The next day we walked around the camp popping into people’s homes and saying hello, we also went to the camp’s market. It was made up of rows of women who had laid their mats on the ground and were selling a small variety of things, there were some tomatoes, grasshoppers and mangos. I learnt that most people at the camp did not have jobs and those who did, worked for the organisations that supported the camp. Their headquarters was in Farshana Camp which was a forty-five-minute motorcycle away. So it confused me to see a market as unemployment cannot support the structure of a market. I soon found out the extent of which the camp residents relied on these organisations. They heavily relied on them for the basic needs of the camp. Some of the organisations that they depended on were: WFP (World Food Programme), UNHCR, IRC (International Rescue Committee – focused on health and water), HIAS – focused on social and mental health aspects), CNARR, JRS, ADES and DAFI. All of these are essential for the survival and well-being of the people in not only Brygen but all the other thirteen camps.
I was told that the people in Brygen had not been getting any food from these organisations for the last four months and that in the next upcoming months if this condition persisted, it would trigger a catastrophe, it would mean starvation. I understood the level of desperation when I was told that the residue of food on the pots and pans that people were cooking with was being scraped off and reused.
I noticed that their diet was also very limited, it mainly ‘Asida’ (Sudanese & Afrikan food – a lump of dough, obtained by stirring flour into boiling water) which was made of sorghum flour and a sauce that accompanies it, this was eaten twice daily. Drinks-wise it was just water, which they sourced from the two pumps set up by the organisations. However, they were irregular. I was told that sometimes residents would wait in long queues for days at a time for there to even be water in the pump, this was their only option for clean water. When the pumps were empty they were forced to source water from hand dug wells from the Wadi.
The camp had some primary, middle schools and one high school. In a manner that I had expected, there was a significant number of children who attended school but who were also matched by a good number of children who did not. They were taught in the Chadian curriculum, and they had some students who managed to make it out of the camp and attend university. The teachers at the schools were camp residents who had left the camp, gained some sort of education, and returned as teachers.
Many people complained of a specific stomach issue. Which I can only predict must be caused by some kind of food and water contamination. I speculated that it maybe bacterial infection from the Helicobacter Pylori, based on the symptoms that they had expressed to me. I further noticed that there was a high number of children with coughs and fevers, some people with eye problems, some women with gynaecological problems.
A major indication of the overall health of the people in the camp was the five graveyards that they had. The graveyards were extensive and covered in plain, grey rocks that served as headstones. The amount of overturned dirt and the swarms of flies suggested the frequency of the deaths that unfortunately occurred at the camp. Essentially, people are dying of hunger and disease.
There was a health centre that had been built by some of the previously mentioned organisations. Unfortunately, I did not get to visit it but I was told that it did not have any qualified doctors, but it was made up of nurses and medical assistants. They had an immunisation clinic and they also had beds for inpatients, however that weren’t equipped for any issues more major than dehydration. Anything that exceeded this would mean that the patients would be transferred to Abeche, which AEDS was directly involved in. The most frequent cause for transference is childbirth complications.
An absolutely heart-breaking event that had occurred only two days before I had arrived at the camp, involved a devastating labour complication. One of the men that had been with the mother told me her story which was later confirmed by her family members in the camp. He told me that, after a complication during labour this mother had been transferred to Abeche and needed to be operated on. She needed an emergency caesarean section operation. The woman was transferred with her husband who accompanied her during the operation. Beforehand, the doctor and medical assistants gave a prescription to those that accompanied her and told them to get the medication from a nearby pharmacy, where they managed to buy the medication for twenty thousand CFA. The procedure took place through the night, and at around one o’clock in the morning the baby was successfully taken out and was handed to the husband. The group then asked about the mother and the medical assistants told them that they needed surgical sutures to stitch her back together. They were told that needed to go to the pharmacy and acquire some. However, this time the pharmacy was shut, leaving them to desperately look around for another place that would sell some. They eventually came back to the hospital empty-handed. Upon their return, they had been told that the doctor that had operated on the mother had gone home. The entourage told the medical assistants that the pharmacies were closed and that they couldn’t get hold of any surgical suture. The medical assistants said that they would have to pay them thirty-five thousand CFA and that they would find her some. They could afford to pay them twelve and a half thousand CFA now and the rest would have to be paid the next day. They then stitched up the lady and moved her to her bed in the recovery ward. Eventually, when they were able to see her, they noticed that her stomach was extremely swollen and when they asked the medical assistants about it they said that it was not an issue and that she would be fine. At around three in the morning the same day she devastatingly passed away. And when the body was taken by her family to be washed before the burial, they found that her body had only been partially stitched back together. Due to negligence the newborn was left without her mother and was handed over to the father and his other wife.
A Karama is an organised meal and meeting that happens with a large group of people in celebration. They held a Karama for me in which we invited many friends and family. In order to help out I paid for it, as I am in a position fortunate enough to afford it. We had a cow slaughtered, a practise that is a part of their tradition. We all sat together chatting and eating. They also recited the Quran for the souls of all Dar Massalit martyrs and to our ancestors who died for the cause. It was a remarkable day. The day after the Karama, I decided to dedicate it to my family as it was going to be my last day at the camp.
BRYGEN CAMP TO ABECHE
There were no vehicles from the camp to Abeche that day, so we had to take an auto-rickshaw to the Chadian side of Hajar Hadid. Once we arrived there, at around nine am, I got on another pick-up truck to Abeche and we picked up passengers on the way. This time I was accompanied by a mother with a child who must have been barely younger than a year old. At around midday and not too far away from my final destination the tyre on the Landcruiser burst. A brief moment of mild panic was followed by a quick replacement of the tyre as there was a spare tyre in the back.
When we reached Abeche, a student that I had been in contact with, met with me and we made our way to the station where we would get on the coach that would take us back to the capital.
ABECHE TO N’DJAMENA
This time when it hit eleven pm, we stopped in a small village, and I was much more prepared to sleep in the open. I had small blanket and had previously bought a plastic mat to put on the ground, a much more comfortable night. When we resumed our journey in the morning, in an almost comically uncanny way, the tyre of the coach burst. This time the spare tyre was also damaged. By a pure stroke of luck, the coach had broken down close to civilization where a mechanic was nearby, and the mechanic was able to replace the tyre and just like that, we continued our journey. I reached N’Djamena at around three in the afternoon, where I spent two days before flying back to London.
DARFUR GENOCIDE SURVIVORS MUST NOT BE FORGOTTEN
Since I have returned from my visit to the Camp, I have been asked several times by some Sudanese people the question, “are there still refugees from Darfur who are living in Eastern Chad?”, which unfortunately suggests that the genocide survivors have been forgotten.
To remind everyone, those refugees who I have visited have been in this Camp for nearly 20 years as the result of the Darfur genocide which was recognised by the International Community in 2003 that means this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Darfur genocide.
The Darfur genocide survivors were forced to flee their land in 2003 by Sudan Government Forces supported by Arab militias who are known as Janjaweed.
Currently I’m not quite sure that we have an accurate figure of the number of civilians who have been killed or displaced since 2003, but safely I can say that over 300,000 people have been killed and over 3 million displaced. Only more than a week ago the Janjaweed militia attacked a small town in West Darfur called Tandalti. Because of the attack, around 20,000 civilians crossed the border into Sudan’s neighbouring country, Chad. Where they are currently living in miserable conditions with no food and shelters.
I would like to remind the international community that, the violence continues in Darfur and Sudan’s marginalised areas, such as Blue Nile state and South Kordofan. There must be ways to stop and address these gross violations of human rights.
In March 2005, the UN Security Council referred the case of Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In July 2008, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested that the court issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charging him with crimes against humanity and war crimes for the government’s role in orchestrating violence in Darfur. In 2010, three counts of genocide were added to the list of charges, yet no justice for the people of Darfur and no justice for the people of Sudan.
In 2020, Sudan’s now deposed, transitional government signed the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) with some of Darfur’s rebel groups. The security arrangements under the agreement, include disarmament and reintegration of forces, and the deployment of joint security-keeping forces. But it has been proven that the JPA is achieving nothing more than power-sharing between warlords. In the last 3 years, the killing and displacement of civilians in Darfur is worse than ever.
Not so gentle reminder: when the Rwandan genocide happened in 1994 the International Community said ‘’Never Again’’ but yes it has happened again in Darfur and sadly its ongoing right now. The International Community has failed our people.