To settle or not to settle? (3/6), by Laurent Gaudé

Country : Irak

Tags : Refugees, Literature, Kurdistan

The third chapter of Laurent Gaudé’s travel journal from the Kawergosk refugee camp - in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.

It starts in such a small way, every day, almost invisibly. In order to take their shoes off somewhere dry, some inhabitants have created little doormats outside their tents, on a base of stones. That is how it starts, to protect them from the wet, to extend their tents, to improve their lives in some small way. In a camp like Kawergosk when winter draws near, the main concerns are heating and how watertight the tents are. But also the toilets. Screens of jute have been hung across the front of the stalls for a modicum of privacy. Wooden pallets have been laid down to keep the tents off the ground. That is how it starts, with lots of little alterations.

Then one day some builders come and create a series of concrete pads in a part of the camp where there are no tents. Around the edges of each pad they construct a wall three breeze blocks high. New tents will be erected over the top of these. Every family eyes these constructions enviously, hoping they will be allocated one. It goes without saying their daily lives would be much improved. That is how it starts. Getting organised. Trying to create a bit of comfort amid the misery. Two large UNICEF tents serve as schools for the children. Another has been adapted as a mosque. Shops pop up here and there. Men do odd jobs, work at things, try to improve their situation.

"Kawergosk may be the name of their new lives, and this puts an unfathomable sadness in their eyes"


And yet the question is on everyone’s lips: Doesn’t all this mean the camp is here for the long run? Kawergosk refugees are torn between a need for comfort and a fear of settling down. They cannot help thinking of the Palestinian camps in southern Lebanon. What if they were still here in ten years’ time too? Or twenty...? And what if they were refugees forever? What if from now on they lived in camps of permanent structures where the only difference was that sheet metal had replaced sheets of canvas? I can see the look in people’s eyes as they watch the concrete being poured into those pads. It offers a comfort they will be unable to resist, of course, but there is fear in their eyes too, as they contemplate this comfort. Kawergosk was a land of welcome, a provisional haven where they could escape the dangers of war and the hardships of a ravaged country. They are beginning to think that Kawergosk may be the name of their new lives, and this puts an unfathomable sadness in their eyes, the sadness of those who are exiled and realise they will never go back. 

Last modification the 31 December 2017