We make a quick stop to wrap up unfinished business in Farchana before heading out to Gaga, then on to Abeche. Our last day in the camps. The wind blows harshly in the morning sun as women line up to receive monthly rations and, a for a few, they receive white sheeting for their homes. For most of them this is the first time they have been given a tent or plastic cover since they arrived, between four and five years ago.
The camp feels unusually calm as we make our final stops to see Fatna and her son, Saad, Aljafis, Guisma and Marim, Mansur’s mother. I am glad that Aljafis and Guisma are in the school today and not home waiting for us as they have been the other days. We don’t take much footage or photos, instead we concentrate on our last goodbyes until we return. Saad holds my hand one last time as we walk towards our car. We wave goodbye and Alpha slowly begins to switchback our way towards the entrance of Camp Farchana and on to Camp Gaga in search of little Leila.
From the coveted window seat, my eyes begin to focus on the flowers of the desert. The small short plant with bright pink flowers stands out among the dark, thorny bushes of the same height. Each time we pass a wadi, tall mangrove-like trees tower above providing shade for the animals and their companions. Close to the trunk, green leaves fill almost every crevice, while deep red ones with cone-like, delicate flowers reach out and towards the sky. And finally, I see my favorite yellow flowers. They are short, yet vibrant yellow, and usually pop up alone and next to nothing else. Their seeds taken by the wind and scattered across the sandy desert, providing a moment of relief for the eyes in an unforgiving environment.
“We can not go in. We need to go and see the Sub-Profector and get a stamp. He is 10 kilometers away,” Bouba returns to the car with a stern and unfamiliar face, papers in hand We have no choice but to leave Camp Gaga, already a distance from the main road and search down our final stamp. We come upon a small village with five or six structures and broken down truck. The Sub-Profector is gone, chasing down stolen cows from the night before and the man left in charge is illiterate and doesn’t even speak Arabic.
My annoyance with yet another stamp that could set us back a few hours turns to frustration. He’ll be chasing cows until dark? I repeat back to myself. We wait for some time to see if he will return. At the moment when I see a man carrying a radio, Bouba has already jumped out of the car and chased him down to ask the very thing we all want to know – when will he return and is there no one else? The Gendarem at the camp had already pointed his gun and Bouba and shouted and not following brand-new protocol, there is no chance they will let us in without the stamp.
We pile back into the car and solemnly begin the 2nd leg of the journey to Abeche. I request the French rap tape in an attempt to raise my spirits. It’s only 10:30 in the morning, and yesterday was our last day in the camps. Not today. I won’t get to meet Leila or the other faces of Camp Gaga, and now neither will you until we return in March, and leave enough time to chase down necessary (unnecessary?) stamps and signatures.
Disappointment sinks in and then I begin to wish we had just stayed in Farchana, at least of another hour or two or three. To be with the people one more time before I am left with only their memories rather than their hands holding mine and their smiles as they greet me, “Hamdelia!” I try not to think about it. Instead I begin to replay the moments I shared in the camps.
“Jama, Jama, Jama” races through my mind, all the way from Kounoungo. A family of all most entirely women struggling in a small corner of the camp hold together by Fatne. Darsalam, who gave birth to Jamal on her walk from Sudan to a place of refuge here in Chad. Aziza who smiles and smiles and smiles, and invites me to sit and share her small ration of water. Adef and Achta who have lost two children in the conflict in Sudan and in Djabal. Selma who wishes for the women of Sudan to united and strengthen a new Darfur. My mind settles on Fatna, the woman I felt so connected to before I even met her.
I know I will meet these women again in March, and then again after that, and I will be returning to a family that embodies strength, passion, hope and desire for survival. These women and their stories have reinforced my commitment. I can no longer allow them to stay in these conditions. I cannot let Mansur return to Darfur in search of necessities like soap and clothing. I will be back to visit them here and I will help carry their few belongings back to Sudan when peace comes.
I am quickly brought back to reality as we pass the security check points riding into Abeche. Tanks. Guns. Soldiers. Serious looks through dark sunglasses and lookout men stationed above on rocks. We reach UNHCR in Abeche.
No more rooms in all of Abeche. All field staff from the camps we have just visited have been called in for a security meeting. All flights to Goz Beida, Guereda and Iridimi suspended. All missions grounded. Rebels are hiding 35 kilometers outside of the city. Abeche is full. Chad is Chad, I remind myself as I languidly wander, then sit then wander around UNHCR. Alpha, Bouba, and Youssouff have left in search of two rooms. I am confident they will find something.
Hours later they appear – we have found a solution. One reception area turned bedroom and one tent next to an almost peacock looking, squawking bird. And a small bucket as a shower. Our host is gracious and fixes us a small meal.
I reach the small cushion that lies between myself and the ground. The best bed I have slept in since arriving in Chad. We begin to organize pictures from the days upon days of beautifully hopefully eyes, Saad returns once again, Aljafis over and over again, then Guisma once, twice, three times she appears. We did not make it to Gaga, but I my heart feels full and there is no tugging of pain, I am simply full.