Dear friends and family,
Our journey from Abeche to Goz Beida was a smooth one. At Goz Beida, we received again a very warm welcome from our friends at UNHCR, and were put up in excellent accommodation at a nearby partner agency. To me that means high scores on bathroom and Internet :-) We’ve been very lucky with the accommodation so far on this trip. There was a problem with the on-site Internet access, but luckily I managed to fix it. The camp manager was delighted as his work had been disrupted for 3 days due to no Internet. Not sure how much of a trend this is, but on this trip it appears that Internet access is becoming a basic necessity for the NGOs operating here.
Djabal camp is only about 4km from Goz Beida town. According to our UNHCR colleague, it’s one of the safest and most advanced refugee camps in Eastern Chad, in terms of no problems with weapons and violence in the camp, and relatively less problems with water and the like. However, when talking with the refugees, repeatedly the issue of not enough food and water was brought up. It’s been like this in every camp we’ve visited. Growth in the camp population no doubt adds resource pressure (50-60 births a month at Djabal alone), but I think another core issue is that keeping such a huge population on life support for year after year is simply an expensive and non-sustainable undertaking. These people are probably among the most resourceful on the planet, able to cultivate and survive in the very challenging environment that were their homes in Darfur. But here in the camps, they are largely deprived of the opportunity to use those skills to their benefit — for instance, farming by camp inhabitants is officially prohibited (though of course some still do). This is not out of malice either; introduce over 300,000 refugees to an area already scarce in key natural resources and contention between them and the local population is bound to occur.
We heard again today (the last time being on my ’07 trip) that in some ways, the refugees in certain camps are living better than the local Chadian residents, by virtue of the services they receive. This is a really sad and tough situation.
As you’ll see in today’s video, we were surrounded by kids from the moment we entered the camp. 60% of the camp population is under 18. I don’t think there are many things that can subdue the energy and enthusiasm of kids in general, but despite their outward exuberance, quite a few of the kids we saw today did not seem in great shape. Many wore tattered clothes and were quite skinny; some had bloated bellies. I always qualify these observations by saying that the relief agencies work very hard indeed and without them, many lives would have been lost. But that said, if these observations bear out in the facts, I think one’s disssatisfaction is better channeled not at the humanitarians, but at those who continue to prevent — through their action and inaction — the peaceful return of these people to their homeland. I deliberately cast the net broad. It’s not just the obvious unnamed nations involved, i.e. those who carried out the mass atrocities, those who continue to obstruct international pressure, those who despite the means to do so have yet to display their full peace-making potential. It’s also the member organizations of the Darfur movement who have yet to respond to recent developments in a commensurate fashion, in terms of scale, agility and potency. It’s also the man in the street (yes, you and me) who slips too easily from passionate concern into the blissful detachment of everyday life.
The relief agencies expelled from Darfur left enough food at the IDP camps to last till May. Friends, that is barely a month of runway. When food runs out, people deprived of the means to cultivate their own crops will starve. When clean water runs out (recall the news we received earlier this week of water purification chlorine running out in 5 IDP camps), people start drinking dirty water. When people drink dirty water, they get cholera and other water-borne diseases. When people get cholera and medical treatment is not available (recall that Doctors Without Borders was one of the expelled agencies), they die of dehydration.
Many are saying that in the worst of outcomes, the speed and scale at which lives will be lost in Darfur in the coming months will dwarf many past genocides. Please — take the time to learn about the situation, and do whatever you feel is a response worthy of it and worthy of yourself as an enlightened global citizen. In countries with well-functioning democracies, half the battle is already won — you have a voice and it is not too hard to use that voice to make your representatives act on your behalf. Don’t worry about coming up with policy if that is not your area of expertise — there are already many doing a good job at that. Just express your will. A government by the people, for the people. Make it so.