Fairytale from the Desert – I


this email goes out in the hope that it reaches all of you, who have written me. I read every email, but I am so overwhelmed in terms of workload and new impressions, that I can’t respond individually for the moment. but I love your emails. please only use the address icrc AT stoessel DOT ch and don’t include any attachments.

Less and less green, flight from Chadian capital N’djamena to Abeche.

I have arrived at the edge of what westerners would call civilization, where a seemingly anarchic, fragmented and timeless society meets the world of information technology in the form of humanitarian and development workers. as I am writing, I hear an 80ies song from my laptop, while I am breathing sand. I have not seen even a fraction of the territory in eastern chad, which we from the ICRC are supposed to cover from this sub-delegation. but one thing I have seen so far is sand, lots of sand, even no I am supposed to be at the southern edge of the sahara. sandstorms in the northeast are so strong these days, that cars have to stop driving. one evening, the eastern capital of abeche, where I am based, was so foggy due to the sand it reminded me of last december in switzerland. temperatures at night remind me of switzerland in november – extremely cold. yet everyone is talking about the heat to come. the governor of a province, born and bred in this environment, during a courtesy visit, looked into my eyes and sighted: “il va faire chaud, monsieur!” (“it will be hot”), as if he wanted to say: I am sorry for me but even more for you!

First field trip, still smiling while making radio contact with base, 2005.

conditions were already very hard for people, who lived here, before the 200’000 sudanese refugees ran for their life. then the refugees came to chad, and the various tribes welcomed their own. then the resources were not enough anymore, and the humanitarians came. we all had to construct everything from zero. nothing is sure here, everything is oral, everything is rumor. but I would say if 10-20% of people here can read and write (arabic), that this is a fair estimation. we are hiring! drivers, field officers, please come and work for the red cross. let’s forget the word “qualifications”. it would be already good to have literate, motivated and intelligent people. but either they are from what can only be described as other countries (the capital, or the south), or they work already for other organizations. or they are – teachers! and some schools are already reported to be empty. so we don’t hire teachers. we don’t even have half of the 50 or so national staff that we should have in eastern chad. those, that we have, are wonderful people, but they need to be trained on such basic things as “what is the red cross?”. when I came back from a field trip today, a child threw a stone at our convoy, hitting and breaking one of the back side windows. the child ran away from the sand track towards the savanna. our driver wanted to pursue the child off the track, get out of the car, and give him a real good beating, as it is customary here. violence even within the family is so normal that I don’t even want to remember my human rights courses. and of course our driver didn’t do it!

We construct water systems in towns along the Darfur-Chad border under adverse conditions, 2005

so, unlike other countries, where we rely on long-standing staff, who can work independently, here, everything lies on the shoulder of half a dozen extremely motivated and friendly expatriates. they have to do things as simple as to ensure that the lights of the cars are switched off every evening and to ensure that they have enough food and water for thei field trips of sometimes eight or more days. all of us are kind of learning the jobs that our national collegues are supposed to do. during these trips, they have to set up systems for the exchange of family news, visit detainees, repair water systems, and constantly try to explain what we do here so that children everyone remains friendly, friendly, and that children don’t throw stones…

Field trip to South-Eastern Chad, 2 Landcruisers, water for 10 days, all inclusive, 2005.

for the few people that I have met with their turbans in this fairytale in the desert, for only 0.1% (estimation, Stoessel, 2005) time has any meaning that goes beyond the rythm of day and night and the harsh seasons. the official life expectancy is 45 years. people don’t know if they will be alive next year. it’s in the hands of allah. I find myself not only at the intersection of emails and camels, but also at the intersection of africa and the middle east. from the little that I have started to understand here, daily prayers are absolutely indispensable. the local people are mostly friendly and welcoming, but to even try to think what is going on in their heads is an impossible talk, which is included in my job description.

this probably all doesnt make sense for you. how should it when I can’t even find the words myself. as I am closing this email, I remember the camels, and donkeys on the sand track today, overtaken by UNHCR landcruisers. I remember the people I saw today with their turbans and traditional dresses. I remember the children, who smiled and waved, and the child, who ran away after breaking the window behind me. I remember the small “pointed” brown mountains, which bring a change to the flat landscape. these mountains looked like implanted from space, even though they have the same colour as the sand. I am tired like everyone, and my warm blanked is locked in the wrong car, so this is going to be a cold night!


Marcel Stoessel
ICRC sub-delegation Abeche, Chad

* Personal e-mail – not an official ICRC communication *

Sudanese refugee camp in Eastern Chad.

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