Darfur’s refugees in Chad

Darfur’s refugees in Chad

Some 200,000 civilians, many of them women and children, have crossed tChad since 2003, fleeing the ongoing violence in the western Sudanese province of Darfur. The refugees and the local populations are sharing the region’s limited resources, but tensions are rising as competition increases for food, firewood and water.

Local Red Cross volunteer Ibrahim Jakob Barka Adam (a refugee) weighs and measures children with a calm, fatherly manner that reassures them. ©Rosemarie North / International Federation

A sudden influx of uninvited guests can tax even the most generous host. When the hosts are among the world’s poorest people, the visitors vastly outnumber them, and the newcomers have no immediate plans to leave, you might expect trouble.
For the past two years, people in eastern Chad have played host to nearly 200,000 people fleeing conflict in Darfur, a region of neighbouring Sudan. Both hosts and guests come from the same ethnic group, Massalit, speak the same language, have the same customs. They are a people separated by a border.
Conditions in eastern Chad are hardly hospitable. It is in the Sahel zone, a textbook example of survival in one of the world’s most marginal regions. The land is arid, the climate harsh. There are few trees. Dust covers the ground.
Perhaps surprisingly, villagers in eastern Chad have largely accepted the 193,000 newcomers, who are among more than a million people displaced since early 2003 by fighting between rebel troops and pro-government militia in Darfur.
“The local population has been very generous to the refugees until now,” says Eelko Brouwer, head of delegation for the International Federation in Chad.
“We have to avoid a situation in which there are more and more strains between the refugees and the local population, where they compete for resources.”

Competition for limited resources
Bredging is the name of a Red Cross-run refugee camp housing 28,500 Sudanese. It is also the name of a village of 960 people just one kilometre away from the camp.
Refugees often fled in the middle of the night, with no time to collect their belongings. They are totally dependent on international aid for food, water and shelter. From Bredging village, local people get a good view of life in the neighbouring camp. They watch as the refugees benefit from schools where children sit under canopies, adult literacy programmes, vocational training, health education and fortnightly distributions of food, all managed by the Red Cross.
“The refugees get food regularly,”says Haoua Mahamat, a villager from Bredging. “That’s nice for them. But we don’t have anyone who will give us food. We have nothing. Everyone is suffering.”
It also rankles with villagers that refugees forage for straw from their land.
“Refugees use some of the straw to feed their animals and the rest they sell at the market,” Mahamat says. “Our animals are dying of starvation because we don’t have the money to buy the straw.”
In effect, villagers are now forced to pay for straw they had considered their own before the refugees arrived.
Perhaps the greatest strain is over firewood. Inevitably, 43,000 refugees from camps including two run by the Red Cross, Bredging and Tréguine, home to 14,500 refugees, are foraging for firewood in the same dry landscape that was used by about 10,000 local villagers.
“Before the refugees arrived it was easy to get wood to prepare meals, says Fatimé Ibrahim Adam, 44. “Since their arrival all of the wood has gone. We have to walk three to four hours to the mountains to find wood.”
In a neighbourhood of Bredging camp, Mariam Ahmat Idriss, 35, is trying to make ends meet for herself and her five children, aged 5 to 16, on her own. Mariam lost her husband, her brother, and her brother’s two sons, aged 15 and 16 in Darfur.
Mariam says she is desperate to earn money so she can buy meat and vegetables to supplement the ration that is supplied by the World Food Programme and distributed every two weeks by Chad Red Cross volunteers and staff.
“On the day of the food distribution I went to see if there was any work,” Mariam says in a resigned voice. “There wasn’t any. So I have been looking for firewood to sell at the market.
“But it’s risky. The local people caught me and took away my axe. They said, ‘don’t cut down our trees.’ So it creates problems when you look for wood. I’m scared.”
Three months ago two young men from a village caught an elderly refugee cutting firewood. They attacked her, slashing her face with a knife. Refugees don’t have much choice when it comes to cooking fuel. The Red Cross is working in partnership with other agencies to find an alternative to wood, but there are no obvious solutions.
Going hungry
Food is also a problem. The International Federation estimates that more than a third of local people are undernourished. That is a higher ratio than in the camps. In fact, during a distribution of a calorie-rich supplement to more than 3,500 children, and pregnant or breastfeeding women in six villages around the camps in May, two severely malnourished children were discovered. They were taken by ambulance to Adré, a town about two hours’ drive away to an emergency feeding programme run by Médecins Sans Frontières.
There are two main reasons for distributing food to the local population, says Matanda Sadrack, International Federation relief delegate.
“First, people in the local population are badly off. They don’t have a lot of resources themselves. So the first reason is humanitarian. The second reason is security. It doesn’t make sense for us to hand out everything to refugees living so close to people who are struggling for existence.”
The day after the distribution, Halima Brahim, 19, from Hadjer Hadid town, brings her baby, Zamzam, 11 months, to a nutrition clinic run by the Red Cross in Tréguine camp. Refugees and villagers alike can use the clinic. Although underweight for his age, Zamzam has been making good progress during the several weeks that he has been coming every Monday to the clinic, says Halima.

Among the volunteers working at the clinic is Djouma Ahamat Gamaradine, 28, a farmer from Darfur and a father of four. “I myself am a refugee and I want to work to help mothers and fathers. A week or so after coming here, the babies can be much healthier. That’s a good feeling.”

Water levels low
To provide the refugees with safe water, the non-governmental organization Oxfam is digging new water wells for the camps (and later hands them over to camp managers). Oxfam spokesperson Cedric Fedida says that nevertheless, in many areas, the water tables are dropping.
“There are tensions already between the local population and the refugees, which was not the case in the beginning, because the local population think there are a lot of refugees to share the resource with. After a while, it may become too much.”
Acknowledging the problem of water for the local population, the ICRC decided to install a water pump to improve water supply in the town of Abeché, says Marcel Stoessel, head of Abeché sub-delegation for the ICRC.
“Abeché became the humanitarian capital of eastern Chad. Water consumption increased there because of the presence of humanitarian actors and also because of the presence of people who came to work for them in fields such as construction.”
Water is now available 24 hours a day, an increase of about 40 per cent. And the ICRC is also working on water projects in the towns of Iriba, Tiné and Adré, which are near refugee populations.
No quick, easy solution
Tensions will probably remain as the refugees are unlikely to return home soon, says Claire Bourgeois, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees deputy representative in Abeché.
“Our planning is based on what we are hearing, what we are seeing. Most of the authorities say the refugees are here for a long time — three to four years, even five years. So certainly we are planning for two more years because the peace process is taking a long time.”
So in spite of tensions over firewood or water, people need to find a way to live together peacefully. That message is understood in Bredging village. “We are like brother and sister. We have to share. We are the same people separated by a border,” says Haoua Mahamat.
Bredging village headman, Abdoulaye Ibrahim Djibrine, 47, says, “There are lots of difficulties, but we support the refugees. Although there’s not much room for them here, we have to live together.”
Rosemarie North
Rosemarie North travelled to Hadjer Hadid, eastern Chad for the International Federation.

From Chad to Afghanistan

dear friends and family, salamaleikum,

hope you are all doing well. please write.

for thre three amongst you, whose powerful spam filter hasn’t identified this message as an advertisment for a cheaper credit or something worse, here’s what 2006 has in stock for me:

I have no idea whatshowever.

but whatever it is going to be, it’s going to take place – most probably – in mazar-i-sharif, in the north of afghanistan. (same job, different place)

afghanistan is certainly an interesting place these days (and has been for the last few hundreds of years), in the middle of the global war against whatever. on the other hand, if it happens, it’s going to be the third consecutive year in a desert and muslim environment. guess I’ll have to ask them for something a bit more … lively, afterwards? (give me bogota, colombo, new orleans, something!!!). well I did already, actually. they seem to love me. these shit holes (SH) contribute to the fact that one remains a single male delegate, who could be sent afterwards … to another place for a single male delegate, in other words: to another SH? 🙂 so, negotiations are still going on, but it’s a rather good bet to find me somewhere close to the blue mosque next year.

this SH here in the east of chad was full of learning, a tough place, but a once-in-a-lifetime and unforgettable experience. I never dreamt that people could live in such an adverse environment here in the sahel zone at the border to darfur, and much less that I would join them to do that for nine months. I will never forget the tough warrior types I saw in the sahara in the north of the east with their turbans, the villages in the south of the east, where life has not changed significantly since the middle ages (they are actually in the middle ages of their history), the incredible natural environment with monkeys, donkeys, camels, pelikans, and the billions of insects; the transformation of the landscape from brown to green during the rainy season, which paralysed men, animals, and cars; and the thousands of nomads, who moved all their camels, cattle and other belongings in the beginning of the rainy season a few hundred kilometers to the north, to the edge of the desert. and in the middle of all of this, 200’000 sudanese refugees, 50 or so humanitarian organizations with their airplanes, landcruisers, long antennas, thurayas, high speed internet, lots of $$ and – most importantly – with their people from all walks of life and every continent, who came to help, or some maybe for other reasons.

Saying good bye to our staff and our office turtle in Eastern Chad on the way to Afghanistan – the latter unfortunately died under the very Landcruiser pictured behind.

it’s always sad to leave your staff behind at some small airport, knowing you will most proably never see them again. I will be in europe for a few weeks and would be enlightened to have a milkshake or a glass of red wine with you (both of which very foreign commodities for me)

– 9.10. – 12.10. geneva
– 13.10. – 20.10. somewhere in switzerland
– 21.10. – 7.11. somewhere in europe, relaxing
– 8.11. – 30.11. switzerland again, still relaxing
– 1.12. off to 12 months of afghanistan – or wherever else they have in stock for me

with such precise pieces of information, I am sure you will call : +41 76 336 42 22

if you want to be sure that an email reaches me, use this address: icrc (at) stoessel (dot) ch

ps: my last story from chad. four days ago, I woke up with a terrible headache. two paracetamol didn’t help a lot. I went to our office, and our administrator also had a terrible headache. in the evening, I was invited at the WHO, where a quarter of the mainly medical people were complaining of having incurable headaches. the next morning (still headache), I went to our office again and exclaimed: “can any chadian please explain me why EVERYONE HAS A HEADACHE here?”. the receptionist looked at me in a pityful way and said: “monsieur marcel, don’t you know it’s always like this after it has rained for the last time. the roads will be passable again”. (indeed, there was a huge storm with rains the night before the headache). how can she – they – know that it rained for the last time? (in chad, they also believe that with a few cuts on your feet, snakes and scorpions don’t do any harm to you – we just killed two scorpions in our house, we don’t believe in gri gri) – she further assured me that on the FOURTH day, the headache will be gone. this morning, I woke up without headache.

Marcel Stoessel
ICRC sub-delegation Abeche, Chad
* Personal e-mail – not an official ICRC communication *

ICRC: A Lifestyle

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) accepted me in 2001 as one of their infamous yet unknown delegates. After having attended the HEI and after having worked and travelled before that, the reality of my life fundamentally changed when I arrived in a small ICRC aircraft (“Red 607”) in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone. I started to do such previously unimaginable things such as talking to prisoners in private and speaking with the prison director afterwards; organizing relief distributions for 12’000 families, who returned home after the conflict; or asking villagers questions together with a nutritionist in order to find out how successful our seeds distributions were one year before.

The young girl from Sierra Leone is back with her family after two years of separation – family reunion organised by the ICRC from Sierra Leone to Liberia, 2002.

The ICRC became very much my life, as I was identified with the organization not only when I had to represent it in front of administrative authorities, military commanders, or the Sierra Leonean Red Cross Society. After this first mission, the ICRC moved me to neighbouring Liberia, where I was working with up to 80 Liberian staff and volunteers to deliver thousands of “Red Cross Messages” to lost family members and to organize hundreds of family reunifications of unaccompanied children with their parents. It was an extremely gratifying experience to bring news about loved ones to desperate people.
But the situation was difficult: We only had access to part of the country, and the conflict finally reached Monrovia in what Liberians called the Three World Wars (three attacks on Monrovia in summer 2003). We could only continue essential lifesaving activities out of a residence and a hospital we supported. I was evacuated twice, and once I stayed with the core team behind. In between attacks, we were able to move and distribute food, blankets, and water, trace missing family members, and repair some of our destroyed equipment. I saw the ICRC at its best, using limited resources to save as many lives as possible. I will never forget the energy with which our Liberian staff, many of whom have lost their houses and belongings, worked. And the people of Monrovia will never forget the ICRC as one of the few organizations, which stayed with them during their most difficult time.

Stray bullet in our office, Liberia, “Second World War”, 2003.

After the artillery shells, stray bullets, and child soldiers, I had to get used to a different type of unfamiliar circumstances when, after a long break, an Email announced my next posting in “Jenin, in the Occupied and Autonomous Territories”. As a responsible for two small offices in the North of the West Bank, I became a very tiny humanitarian actor in one of the most mediatized conflicts of the world. Both sides are very aware of the need for a humanitarian intermediary, be it for the safe passage of ambulances or the exchange of prisoners. On a daily basis, I would speak with people, who didn’t like each other (to express it diplomatically) about humanitarian issues, help to organize family visits for detained Palestinians, transmit family messages, and collected allegations about violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Privately, I had Israeli and Palestinian friends, who often asked me on which side the Red Cross stood. I answered in the same way as my colleague, who was asked if he preferred Palestinian or Israeli food. He said: I prefer Japanese.

ICRC office in Jenin, 2004.

My present posting is in a place at least as foreign as Japan: Since January, I call “Abéché” my home. Abéché? I asked the same question. It’s in Eastern Chad, in the desert, on the 700 km border with Sudan’s Darfur region. With a team of 10 expatriates and around 30 Chadian staff, we work to establish the link between Sudanese refugees and their families back in Darfur, repair defunct water systems and monitor the situation of the Chadian population. And of course, we visit detainees and organize speeches about IHL to various “arms carriers”. I don’t know how the population can live in this adverse environment, let alone accommodate 200’000 refugees. To even try to start to describe the conditions under which we work, would not give justice to the diarrhoeas and the car breakdowns of our delegates.

Along the 700 km of border between Darfur and Chad, on a satellite phone, 2005.

After West Africa, the Middle East and the Sahel Zone, what will be next? I don’t know. The most frequent question I have to answer (apart from: “who is cleaning your laundry?”) is “How long do you still plan to do this?”. Answer: As long as I see a sense in the work, as long as I don’t become cynical, as long as there is something to learn, and as long as I haven’t met my princess. How many people can claim that they see a sense in their work, and that they enjoy it at the same time?

Marcel Stoessel

Fairytale from the Desert – II

fairytales should have a dramaturgy and a happy end. I hope my mails will have at least a happy end. they certainly don’t have a dramaturgy.

today, we measured 44 degrees in the shadow, and some of our work is taking place in the sun. we had no running water today. the heat is the theme of discussion amongst expatriates. not amongst chadians: wait six weeks, they all say, then it will be hot.

welcome to the desert of eastern chad, which has in some places more refugees than local population, and more animals than people. eastern chad is going through an exercise, which it has never gone through in its history: a dry season with 200’000 refugees. the last rainy season was already bad – how the next one in june/july/september will be, nobody knows.

Amongst Sudanese refugee children in the heat of Eastern Chad, 2005.

it’s easy to write about the temperature on a day when you had no shower. it would still be impossible for me to describe this incredible environment here. the best is for one to forget everything one has ever learnt. it is useful that i have worked for my organization for a few years. but most of the rest of my experiences in my life, I better forget them. they are simply non applicable here.

in this sense, until we hear again from each other,

Marcel, abeche

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.

From OPT to Chad

dear friends,

i hope all of you are doing just fine.

almost nine eventful months in the northern west bank are coming to an end – a job which one delegate is reported to have called “babysitter between the israelis and the palstinians” (jokingly). well, they are difficult babies to sit on. at least it’s a compensation for having no children so far! and rarely babysitting is so intellecutally challenging like it is here…

destiny has found a white spot on the world’s map for my next mission. this is what rumour has about it: it’s in the desert. it’s 45 degrees in summer. field trips take 8-10 days and include overnight in tents. there is no beer to be found. the fact is that it is a sub-delegation in abeche, eastern chad, on the border with sudan’s darfur region. is there maybe some regret that I asked my personal manager in geneva for an operational context, adding that “living conditions are secondary”? noooo……..

anyway, here is the plan for the next few weeks:

27.10. Return to Geneva, weekend in Geneva
1.11.-4.11. Course near Geneva
5.11.-4.1.05. Holidays, mainly in Switzerland
5.1.05. Departure to Chad

hope to see you soon – and if you have wondered why you have not written me for more than a year: THIS IS THE MOMENT TO DO IT 🙂