Knowing the face of war

Credit: Carmen Rodriguez“You don’t have to explain to these children what war is – they've lived it,” says Abakar Adam, a professor at a Koranic school in one of the blocks that makes up the Djabal Refugee Camp in Eastern Chad. “They have seen their villages attacked and they have experienced fear. There’s no need for me to tell them why they’re here.” Around 15,000 people –out of a total of over 200,000 fleeing the conflict in Darfur– have been trying to rebuild their lives here for the past three years, despite the fact that their hearts are still in the land they were forced to abandon.

“I explain to the children that if there is peace we will be able to return, but we don’t have the power to find a solution. We want negotiations to take place so that we can return as soon as possible”, says Abakar. His name has been change to protect his identity.

The boys and girls sing the verses of the Koran, guided by their teacher, and transcribe parts of the sacred text on wooden boards with homemade plumes. It’s not yet seven in the morning, but they start early as the heat in this remote area will become unbearable in just a few hours. The children aren’t older than ten or eleven, but their responsibilities take in much more than going to the Koranic school and attending primary classes that have also been organised . They must also help with the work of the camp, for example by taking care of livestock or participating in the cleaning of communal spaces within the camp.

“Now they can venture out to the area just outside the camp because the rainy season has ended and there is enough grass, but in a few weeks time it will all be dry. Then the children won’t be able to go far with the animals because the situation is dangerous”, says the teacher. Attacks by groups crossing the border have increased recently, provoking over 70,000 Chadians, who were not affected by the violence until now, to abandon their homes.

These new displaced people join more than 218,000 Sudanese refugees who have been forced to flee Darfur and start again in one of the poorest areas in one of the poorest countries in the world. What surrounds this, and the other 11 camps that have been built along the border with Darfur, is a fragile environment – the semi desert Sahel – in which people have to struggle to find water, the wood to cook and a piece of land on which to graze their animals or grow their crops.

“The women are afraid to go collecting firewood in the mornings because there are men who attack them,” says Abakar. “I’ve already heard of three incidents in the last few days.” The theft of livestock has also become a habitual occurrence. The teacher is hoping the Chadian authorities will provide better protection for the women and girls and that there will be negotiations to put an end to the nightmare in Darfur and to stop the escalating conflict within Chad itself.

He is quietly spoken when he talks of peace, but warmer and more enthusiastic when teaching the children. Their melodic voices fill the air of the camp as they recite the sacred words. All that they need is their voices to be heard.

By Carmen Rodriguez -- January 2007

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