By Anisha Desai
Last time I wrote, which was on Sunday, 3 August, we were sitting in the airport in Addis, waiting for our flight to N’djamena, Chad. Well, that one left about four hours late, but we still did get to the city in time to check in, freshen up a bit, and then go out to dinner with Serge Male, the head of the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for Chad. Actually, we’d met before when the UN Mission on Darfur I’d led the year before arrived in Chad. This was much very informal – and thus more fun, in my view.
We were well into dinner when the sky opened, as they say, and the rain came pouring down. We had to pull our table further under the thatched roof of the patio seating area because the backs of half of the table were getting wet. The waiters had to bring the meals to the tables under umbrellas. A few of us finished before the others and decided to go back to the hotel – well, the waiters escorted us to the vehicles under big umbrellas, but they didn’t help much. The downpour had already turned the roads into gushing rivers and we walked in water that came up to mid-calf.
Thunder was rolling and lightening streaked through the sky as I stood in the middle of the road river with the kind waiter holding the umbrella over our heads as we tried to find the cars. Judy was still standing in the entrance to the restaurant and yelled that she hoped I’d not be electrocuted before we found the cars. She thought I looked like a perfect target and had the sense not to step into the water until we could make a dash for the cars. Well, I wasn’t struck by lightening and by morning, all the water had all disappeared.
Wangari expressed much dismay that the rainwater wasn’t “harvested” to be used once the rainy season ended. Seemed to make a lot of sense to us, but of course, to do that a government would have to put its oil money into such infrastructure – to say nothing about education, health care, etc – rather than into weapons and armed conflict. It would have to do for the women who do most of the work and take the guns out of the hands of the men who seem to make most of the war. But that seems pure fantasy of course. Idealism, not realism.
The next morning, Monday, eight of us headed out to the airport – yes, another airport – to catch our small prop plane to fly over the desert to the village of Bahai which is about 1,000 km north-east of N’djamena and sits on the border with Darfur. Demetri and Erin stayed back in N’djamena to keep things in order and be at the ready in case any unexpected problems arose. They also managed to get our tickets moved up a day so we were able to leave on Tuesday night rather than Wednesday. We’d factored in an extra day in case we had problem with rain, the plane or any other unexpected contingency, but we didn’t need it so after some of us had been on the road for almost three weeks, we were going to go home an unexpected day early.
So Wangari, Wanjira, Mia, Quing, Liz, Judy and I went north on the plane. We flew about 2 ½ hours to stop in Abeche to refuel and then about another 1 ½ hours to reach Bahai. Flying over the desert, watching the terrain get less and less green the further north we went. Of course there was some green here and there, along the wadis which would fill with the rains and turn to mud not long after. Some grassy areas that would spring up in response to the rain.
The Abeche airport was nothing like what I’d seen there in early 2006. Then there were just a couple of small humanitarian planes, outnumbered by lots of armed men of undetermined allegiance. Then I’d been told that they could have been Chadian military but that they also could have been rebels – from either Chad or from Darfur. A surly lot, I was trying to deftly sneak a couple of photos of them in their weaponized pickup when one of them saw me and cocked his finger at me like a gun. Needless to say, I shuffled off and inside the “terminal” as I put my camera away.
This time such charming vehicles were not to be seen, however the landing field was home to over a dozen aircraft. Some were humanitarian planes, but there were also Chadian military helicopters as well as various helicopters and other equipment belonging to the forces of EUFOR – European forces dispatched to protect the border areas between Chad and Darfur and Darfur and the Central African Republic.
Mia was very agitated that it had been so easy to get helicopters for EUFOR while the UNAMID forces inside Darfur were still begging for them. One reason of course would be that the EUFOR forces were invited in and welcomed by Chad, while Bashir et al were fighting tooth and nail to derail the full and/or meaningful deployment of UNAMID inside Darfur.
Just before we got back into our plane after its refueling at Abeche, we were informed that JEM rebel forces had launched an attach on the town of Adre, due east of Abeche on the Chadian border. JEM – the Justice and Equality Movement – is one of the three primary rebel groups in Darfur. If one can talk about the rebels that way any more since at last count there were at least seventeen groups – splinters of splinters of splinters? But, JEM does remain one of the most important and its full involvement in any future peace negotiations would be critical to their possible success. Apparently they were attempting to take the town to set up a forward base before the full onslaught of the rainy season from which to launch attacks into Darfur. We were told that the rebels were at that moment being strafed by EUFOR aircraft (and Chadian military? I don’t think so….). We managed to leave Chad without an update on the outcome of that fight.
Thank god for navigational equipment because how our pilot ever found “Bahai airport” was beyond our imagination. The site was marked by nothing but a small rectangular structure which seemed to be empty. To call it a building would be to glorify it. I’m not it sure what its purpose is; not far from it was an even smaller structure, which was the latrine. As we circled the airport to make our approach to the dirt strip of a runway, vehicles were already neatly lined up beside each other near the building of uncertain use waiting for us. Within five minutes of dropping us off, our pilot Patrick was on his way back to Abeche and would be returning for us the next day.
I guess it was about 15-20 minutes to UNHCR from the airport and as we drove along we heard that Bahai was a village of about 400 people and it boasted two markets – the “Libyan Market” and the “Chadian Market.” From the village it was about 45 minutes on a good day to the refugee camp; after a big rain the same drive could take more than five hours – if you didn’t get completely immobilized by mud.
We literally dumped our things at HCR and turned right around and drove to the camp — Oure Cassoni. As we were driving out of HCR’s compound and through downtown Bahai some of us thought the “Libyan Market” wasn’t a market at all, but part of the refugee camp. The confusion arose from the market stalls, many of which were covered with UN plastic sheeting. Although I thought that market area resembled parts of camps I’d seen further south along the border, it was indeed a market. I confess not one that sparked my interest – which probably says more about me than the market itself.
Oure Cassoni was only about 3 km from the border with Darfur, much to the dismay of UNHCR which called for camps to be 50 km from the border, but hadn’t been able to convince the governor of the province to let them move the camp. In all honesty, the people living in the camp had little interest in moving either. Being so close, they were able to go back and forth into Darfur more or less when they wanted – to try to plant crops, to see family, to have their kids take school tests needed for certification because any schooling they might get in Chad would not be recognized in Darfur and they all meant to go home some day.
The camp is home to 27,000 (give or take a few hundreds) refugees from the conflict in Darfur. Of that number approximately 85% are women and children. Some had been there since the camp opened in April of 2004; some had come two years later. Those with us were not uncertain how many were widows, and we forgot to ask once we’d gotten back to HCR later that afternoon for our briefing with them and some of their implementing partners.
As soon as we got to the camp we went into a meeting at the “women’s center” with about forty women from the camp. Unfortunately, the interpreter was a man – a problem in that in such a traditional culture women are very inhibited about speaking freely in front of any man. I should have known better from my experience the year before, but…
In any case, the meeting was very interesting in that it primarily focused on the here, now and the future, not so much at all on stories of how they got to the camp. I won’t try to rebuild the conversation, but the gist of their messages was that they wanted peace. For them peace included not only the indictment of Bashir, which they vigorously and unanimously applauded when asked their opinion of that situation, but also of all of the 51 (or is it 52) names on the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s list who ultimately will be investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity. They were also very clear about their feelings about capital punishment – no question for them that Bashir and his cohorts should be executed.
We noted that we had no doubt about their feelings about Mr. Bashir, but how did they feel about the rebels, we asked? Did they feel that the rebels represented them and their aspirations for peace. They all said yes; it might be my own interpretation and not that of all of us on the delegation, but I didn’t seem to feel they were as totally enthusiastic in that view as they had been about Bashir being executed. They said they trusted “all the rebels” not any particular group. One could only wonder if the women had been told to put it that way and not mention JEM – the rebel group that controls that area across the border into Darfur – likely because of the recent frictions with JEM in trying to keep them out of the camps. We’d heard from various people during our trip that JEM could be found in and around Bahai all the time.
This despite “spirited discussion” between local authorities and JEM rebels about removing themselves from the camp for the security of the refugees and the humanitarian workers. But such “agreement” would last a day or two and then they’d be back, keeping their tight control on the camp. Inviting Khartoum’s Antonov bombers to drop bombs right along side the border, but still inside Sudan – which had happened recently in fact. The question for all was when would Sudanese forces would ignore the border line – that for many is but a figment of the imagination of colonial powers anyway – and “misdirect” a bomb onto the refugee camp itself, or on Bahai – or both.
In fact and unbeknownst to us, probably just about the time we were asking the women about the rebels, three weaponized JEM vehicles drove directly and brazenly through the center of the camp. And our discussion continued. When we asked if they thought women should be part of any negotiations of peace for Darfur they gave a strong yes, suggesting that one woman representative should be chosen from each of the various refugee camps who could then meet and develop a women’s platform for negotiating.
We were not interested in cutting off the discussion when we were told it was time to leave and go meet with a group of youth from the camp. Our group split in two so some of us could continue with the women, while not disregarding the young people who were already assembled and waiting to talk with us.
When we were back in our vehicles and returning to Bahai, our colleagues told us that the “youth” weren’t youth at all, but men from the camp and the discussion was dominated by one man in particular who seemed to clearly be given the “party platform.” (This had been very similar to a meeting I’d had the year before with camp leaders, when one youngish man dominated the talking so that it took a great deal of effort to hear from anyone else.) They were clear about wanting Bashir before the International Criminal Court and that any renewed peace negotiations must deal with issues such as political representation at the national level, return to their land, compensation for all they suffered and lost in the attacks on their villages. Apparently, they’d also said rebels who’d committed war crimes should also be brought to justice.
Not long after we got back to the HCR compound we had a meeting that included, of course, our host as well as representatives of the World Food Program, the International Rescue Committee, Tchad Solaire and others.