Two nights in Abéché, a small town that can even be found on the maps and which houses a number of UN agency offices. There are signs with acronyms on many of the buildings that are barely decipherable to visitors, all the more so in that they are often transcribed into French and into English. PAM for Programme Alimentaire Mondial, WDP for World Food Program. The UNHCR is backed by several non-governmental organizations, such as the CRT (water and sanitation) CORD (primary schools) and RET (secondary schools). International aid has to be organized, and the organizations need their acronyms.
One of my expectations was not confirmed here, nor was it later on: the staff of the UN and other agencies does not come from Europe – no Swedes, Dutch, Germans, Italians – but rather from Chad. Only a few of their employees come from other African states.
Accomodations in a guest house. Buying food. Fruit and vegetables. Drinking water as well. None of these are available where we are headed. Waiting for the promised and necessary military escort – necessary, because recently two trucks loaded with aid supplies were ambushed and plundered by gangs. The escort detail arrives, four men in camouflage suits. Two of them, Kalashnikovs hanging on their backs, stand in the back of the truck, eyes focused straight ahead, where they continue to stand during the drive of almost six hours. The sandy track is full of deep pot-holes and criss-crossed with seemingly bottomless ruts from the rains. A new UN truck lies like a capsized ship in a wide dry river bed, already half-covered by sand. Nearly all the cross-country vehicles of the UN organizations appear to be new, and I wonder what happens to the used ones. The drive drags on into the night, shaking, bumping, jolting. I try to soften the blows and take the pressure off my back by bracing my hands on my seat. The thought of getting a case of lumbago and having to be transported back is appalling.
The night – deep, long-lasting darkness – until an island of light appears in the distance: the administrative building of the refugee camp. The site, enclosed by a high wall topped with rolls of barbed wire, looks like a rural prison. In fact, it is there to serve as a defense against the outside world. I am allocated a round straw-thatched hut in a small camp set at a distance from the main site. I sleep with a constant rustling, scratching and squeaking above my head. There is a different little world up there in the straw. Inhabited by mice and lizards, one of which – a particularly large one – keeps settling on the bug screen over the little window. It blocks the view of the night sky for just for a moment. Here the stars seem to be unusually close, and the silence absolute. No bearing with the light and noise – the garbage – of the affluent world. I lie beneath the mosquito net on a hard bed with a view of the window. Slowly sinking into the heat that I had worried about, but which, as it is a dry heat, is pleasant and comforting to the body.
Fear? People keep on asking me about that. No, none. Fear would have been laughable here in the face of such misery. Only once does it occur to me that one of the guards could be watching me through the window while I was sleeping. These guards are old men and they sit by the entrance behind the iron gate. Anyone who wants to enter the small walled campus has to knock. If you stand for a while outside the gate you can hear the old men chatting quietly. There is a small peephole with an iron cover in the gate. When you knock the peephole is unbolted and you are carefully scrutinized, although there are no other white people in the camp; only then do they open the gate. In the event of a serious attack the men, armed only with hand-made clubs, would certainly not be able to offer much in the way of resistance. You think about that too, playing around with the idea, but also somewhat irritated by it: what sort of ransom would the Federal Republic be prepared to pay if I were kidnapped?
The next morning we are given a proper briefing on behalf of UNHCR by the Chad officials in charge of the camp and its supply train: administrators who quote figures and talk about background and also tell us that the PAM food allocations had been reduced dramatically several months earlier, as had the allocation of wood, which is essential for cooking. All this is delivered in a very matter-of-fact and highly knowledgeable manner. A capitaine is responsible for military security describes the precarious situation near the border with Sudan. The civil war in Sudan between black African and Arab tribes had broken out in 2003 and was –and is – a conflict that has its origins not only in ethnic and religious tensions, but also in economic issues. The main dispute involved the ownership of arable and grazing land. The consequences of the civil war were ethnic cleansing, murder and dislocation. The UN refugee aid program estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 people were murdered. The absurd difference of 100,000 people in the estimated tally of war victims merely serves to draw attention to the scale of and our distance from this catastrophe.
About 49,000 of the people who managed to escape over the border to Chad live in the Bredjing camp. It is probable that in all 397,000 refugees from the Masali and Pur tribes fled to Chad. They were taken in by this impoverished country, and then of course you think of the discussions back home in Germany, where communities argue as to whether they should take in 70 or 80 refugees. Where residents of a given neighborhood take to the streets if there is talk of converting an old local school into a refugee hostel. The capitaine reports on the insecurity of the situation in the area. Former soldiers have formed gangs. They come from the nearby mountains. It would be correct to assume that not only would the Chad army be unable to properly defend the border with Sudan, but also that Sudanese gangs would infiltrate the country. The camp in Breidjing is protected, but in the open countryside women searching for food or collecting firewood are in constant danger of being attacked, raped or kidnapped.