The refugee camp is only a few kilometers from the administration center. The sun, the warmth, the blue sky, these are for me, a man from the North, like a dangling carrot, allowing me to feel that poverty in southern climes is not as oppressive as elsewhere. This initial friendly impression is reinforced by the terracotta-colored walls, built with air-dried bricks, which divide the camp into sections. The little shacks are propped up against the walls or within them, and covered with straw or plastic sheeting. In between them are tarpaulins supplied by the UNHCR, gray and blue. In front of most of these huts is a small open space, perhaps four meters square, six at most, with an occasional tree or a bush on it. Narrow alleys divide the individual blocks. The walls, almost as tall as a man, don’t run straight, but have slight kinks in them – as if there were built by rule of thumb – and also follow the ups and downs of the land. And that too is important: the refugees have built the housing and the long walls themselves. No corrugated iron, no planks, only mud, branches and straw. Natural materials found locally. One has to say that this refugee camp is somewhat more impressive than many of the favelas in Brazil or Columbia. And the large colorful cotton veils worn by the women here contribute to this favorable impression. A number of veils have realistic designs printed on them: one with banknotes from various countries, another with stylized pelicans, and a particularly striking one covered with big green frogs .
A stranger can move about freely. Lots of children follow behind – admittedly curious, but they never hassle the visitor. Some of them stroke my hand or my skin, furtively or as if by accident. Now and then little children seem startled and shrink back, hiding behind their mothers. Clearly, white people do not come here often but I, for one, receive a friendly welcome and no one begs for anything. The refugees speak Arabic and Masalit, and some know a little English. They learned it in Sudan and imported it into French-speaking Chad. Two translators accompany us.
A tall man, dressed in a simple white robe with a white cap on his head, is the spokesman for Block 5. He welcomes us with a respectful politeness and invites us into the little living room. Four posts, roughly hewn from tree trunks, hold up the flat straw roof on their forked upper branches. It is of the simplest form imaginable and reminiscent of the homes we see later. At my request the spokesman writes his name in my notebook in Arabic. The translator reads it out loud: Suleymann Ah-Ar. With a wave of his arm Suleymann invites us to sit down on a carpet on the floor. A woman brings in a plate piled with noodles. Given the reduced rations, it is a truly generous gesture. The women sit down on the dusty floor, at some distance from us.
When asked how long he has lived here in the camp, Suleymann, in a quiet and controlled manner, tells us his story, one that he has shared with most of the others here. Ten years ago he and his family fled from their village in the middle of the night when the Islamic Djandawids, the “Devil’s Riders”, arrived. Huts and houses were set ablaze, women raped, and men and even children killed. He escaped with his wife and child, hid and then took off on foot after nightfall. After walking a long way they crossed the border into Chad. They were fortunate in that they lived near the border. Many others from his village fled at the same time they did. But some were unable to avoid the massacre.
And why were they driven out, when he and the other refugees were also Muslims?
Because of the cattle, he says, because of the land.
When they arrived here in 2003 they were given temporary accommodations. The World Food Program provided them with a reliable source of food. Suleymann Ah-ar had once been the proud owner of a large herd of cattle and sheep. When I asked him how many animals there were he simply replied: Many. His calm, upright posture clearly expressed the pride of the former landowner, despite the fact that there are only two sheep left from his large herd; they were standing outside on the small dusty patch of ground in front of the hut. Back in the old village he had been the second in command. Suleymann does not bemoan his fate – a question of pride – he just tells his story in a calm, almost unemotional manner. A face marked by grief. I am allowed a quick look at his small hut, measuring perhaps six square meters. A mattress on the floor, a plastic chair, a faded worn carpet. A few accessories. No electricity. No running water, either. Drinking water can be fetched at certain times. The supply of water is organized by one of the non-governmental organizations. Drinking water is stored in huge tanks and the shiny chrome taps in various locations are placed so that even the children can reach up and turn them on.
When I asked Suleymann Ah-ar what problems they had at the moment, he replied: the rationing of the wood and food supplies. Down from 12,5 kilograms to 4 per head and per month. One suspects that this radical cut in the food allowance has to do with the situation in Syria, from where millions of people are fleeing. But to say that other people are also suffering is no sort of argument to present to those who are suffering here. The direct consequences of this rationing policy are theft and the use of force, says Suleymann. Violence has now suddenly started to break out between the people who are living here in such crowded conditions. Women are a privileged target. There is no police, no justice system in the camp. Otherwise, there is no other sort of criminal activity in the camp. There is nothing to steal other than people’s food rations. Poverty is a great equalizer. The problems of violence between husbands and wives and between neighbors are openly discussed and settled within the community . But, this new violence, which has its origins in hunger, cannot be resolved by discussion and mediation. Women are the main victims in the camp; as the weaker sex, they are more vulnerable to physical attacks. And yet, one can see that they are the ones who organize every aspect of everyday life and maintain a social stability, as precarious as it may seem. They work hard, very hard. Cooking, but above all getting a hold of wood, water, something to eat, whatever they can find in this barren landscape. During our stay a woman who was expecting twins died. She should have had a Caesarian operation. But they can’t perform one in the clinic. There’s no surgeon and no operating theatre. The woman died on the way to the hospital in Abéché, five agonizing hours away.
What does Suleymann want for himself? He would like to return to his village. And that the rations be returned to their former levels. A young woman in white has joined us. She is 33 years old, speaks French, has eight children and was invited to Europe for two weeks by one of the aid agencies, to Holland. Two weeks in paradise, where you can buy everything. Water comes out of the tap. And the never-ending rain? But that provides water. And the land is green and fertile. The people who live there know that their paradise is not a real paradise. But for the people here it is precisely that.
Lots of children follow the guests from the north around, curious and whispering among themselves. Should we give them a little something? Arguments for and against. Anne, our production director, chief organizer and translator from French into German, is against the idea. I think back to the time just after the Second World War: the city was destroyed; ruins, hunger, cold and sickness. The chewing gum from the Americans, the chocolate and the biscuits that the GIs gave us were like the promise of another, richer and more welcoming world. The English gave us nothing. Who knows, perhaps the turning away from England to America, to its jeans, films and music, which so annoyed the grown-ups, can be traced back to those gifts and the taste of chewing-gum and chocolate. Our desires and fears reach way back into our childhood. Then there are the memories of the refugees from the East, those who came from Pomerania and East Prussia, and had fled to Hamburg. They were accommodated in windowless Nissen huts on the banks of the Isebek. Up to 40 people slept in those huts. Yet another vivid memory is that of women standing over steaming tubs and doing the washing, or collecting coal and chopping wood. There were no men around. They were either dead or in captivity. And the few we saw were old or invalid. It was the time when men were walking around on crutches or with pinned-up jacket sleeves. And the girl and the boy who came to school barefoot in winter, until someone gave them some shoes. But the refugees, even though they spoke German and had the same color skin, were not welcome.
I try to explain to the others that fleeing from danger is not something new: seven million people had escaped from the Eastern regions to the West. That is no consolation, but it could help people to keep an eye out for the chance of taking action. Of doing something. The decision to make plans for a new life in a new place or situation, to start afresh. To feel at home in an alien world. The UN High Commission for Refugees, based in distant Geneva, is now – after ten years – trying to find a solution for this camp, where the refugees live in limbo: neither there, where they came from, nor here, where they are now. This would represent a real effort to help the refugees, who up to now have been looked after in a sort of enclave, to begin the process of integration. That was why the Sudanese school curriculum was replaced by that of Chad.
The results of the conflict were evident during our visit to the school. Simple buildings made with mud bricks. Fifteen teachers for 1,500 students. The classrooms were bare, no benches, no tables. A blackboard, covered in writing, was propped up against the wall, Arabic writing and figures: suddenly you remember that our numbers came from Arabic. Outside four teachers, two men and two women, sit in the shadow of an acacia. The large, open square outside the school is completely empty. No children to be seen. They are on strike.
We learn that the refugees do not send their children to school. They refuse to let their children be taught according to Chad’s school curriculum. And yet, the only difference would be in the history of each of the countries. And the study of French in secondary school.
The refugees are afraid that they might lose their identity. And that, in turn, has to do with their hope of returning to their old homeland. Does Chad also want the refugees to go back? The official answer is yes. But I am not so sure. Instead, I get the impression that this camp, supported by the UN, serves instead as a form of development aid agency for the country. It creates a large number of jobs: drivers, guards, fitters, clerical workers.
Historical experience argues against the return of the refugees. Other people now live where they used to live, who then would have to be expelled. The long history of the cultures from East Prussia and Silesia – all the choral and dance groups that kept the hope of a return to the homeland alive in Germany for decades – has been rendered meaningless by the dying out of the refugee generation. And here too a return is no longer possible. It would entail a decision to make the transition from a group living in provisional, fully-supported temporary asylum to an independent self-supporting community. But, unless I am mistaken, there is no political leadership in the refugee community that could bring about this sort of integration. All the old people want is to return. And what does the younger generation want? They want to get out of the camp. They want to have a future. If that were to mean going back to the Sudan, fine, but Europe would be better. Germany, or Holland.
A young man spoke to me three times in two days in good English, once in the little market and twice outside the camp. Could I obtain an entry visa for him for Germany? It would be his way out of poverty and helplessness. Because there is no sort of qualified work to be found here. Just to receive food is not an option at his age (which I put at about thirty), neither for his pride, nor his curiosity, nor his ambition. And the impression the man gave, the way he approached me with a friendly but firm determination, is that he will soon be on his way. And no one can blame him for that.