A Hunger For Home: Stranded in the Desert, Darfur’s Refugees Live with an Endless War

Nicholas Powers Jan 13, 2008

Photos and Text By Nicholas Powers

From the edge of her village in eastern Darfur, she saw helicopters over the huts, turning and shooting at the people below. Fatime ran over hills, across dry river beds, around bush. She ran with family away from the fading gunfire.

The sun rose and fell, spinning their shadows like a needle on a broken compass. They walked on swollen feet, breathed though dry throats, watched the horizon. Someone shouted. Men on horses trotted into the open, pulled the reins and galloped toward Fatime.

Lost in Translation

I learned about Darfur in 2006. On TV, sorrow-creased faces begged for help. It reminded me of flooded New Orleans, families on roofs reaching up for rescue. It took a day to buy a ticket to New Orleans and be there, giving out food and picking up stories. It took almost two years to stomp the water and screams out of my mind.

I taped a map of North Africa over my bed and studied Darfur. The war appeared in the media in 2004 but it had begun in the 1890s when the English drew borders that boxed the Arab north and African south inside the same nation now known as Sudan. The English developed the north but left the south a desert. After Sudan gained its independence in 1956, the Arabs saw themselves a degree better than the Africans, and since then both have fought over the identity of the nation. In between the rounds of war, old rituals continued. Each season, Arab herders drove cattle to the southern region of Darfur, where Fur, Masaaleit and Zaghawa tribes welcomed them. The cattle fertilized soil and helped carry supplies. In 2003, a drought in the North dried wells, turning earth to sand and forcing Arab herders south. They wanted more than grazing for cattle; they wanted new land.

Rifles were handed out to African tribesmen. Anger crystallized into rebel groups, among them the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. After the rebels raided a military outpost, the Arabdominated government, flush with oil money, bought weapons for the Arab herders creating a militia we now know as the Janjaweed. They galloped into villages; shooting men down, ripping women apart, stuffing bodies into wells or ravines. Refugees fled to the neighboring nations of Chad and the Central African Republic. In the years that followed, 2.5 million people were driven from their homes and up to 255,000 were killed.


My story begins in Chad. Last summer, I arrived in Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena and was driven through a sun-lit haze of dust and traffic to CARE, the international aid agency that had agreed to host me. Joseph Makusa, a CARE finance officer, shook my hand and took me to his office.

“First thing to know is people are afraid to say what they think here. It is dangerous.” His eyes searched the air for the right words. “The president Idriss Deby and his tribe keep the money and power. The rebels reached the city last April, but the French troops helped the president.”

I ask, “Even after liberation, France has troops here?” Joseph nods, “They never left. Deby needs them. The country is poor; prices are rising. Oil money is flowing, but not to the people. The other tribes want power.” I ask what tribe Idriss Deby is from. Joseph says, “He is Zaghawa. Here tribal identity comes before national identity. Tribes wear the mask of a political party to benefit themselves. No one feels they belong to the same nation.”
I push him, “Is the Zaghawa a minority?” He looks up, “Yes.” The see-saw picture he described to me of Chadian politics seemed a slippery slope to violence. I ask if the imbalance of power could someday lead to the kind of ethnic bloodletting that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. Joseph, who is Rwandan, sighed, “I know what happened in my country but ….”

He blinked and then glared, “I hate tribes. I hate African politics. It uses you in a way you don’t want to be used.” I ask him if he lost anyone in the genocide. “Yes … I lost many friends, many relatives,” he stared into his hands. “But,” he lifted his eyes. “We must keep things straight.”

We left the CARE compound. “Be careful,” Joseph said and I scrunched my eyebrows. “You won’t get shot, but men will stick you up. It’s a poor country. People are desperate.”

The NGO Economy

Each day in N’Djamena some foreigner told me a new story of a murder or mugging. Every warning was a brick in an invisible wall surrounding me. If I traveled, it was by car. If I bought water or exchanged money, a local was hired to do it. I rode around, staring out of the window of CARE jeeps and imagined above dirt roads our superhighways, beside each crumbled building our glinting skyscrapers.

I met BBC reporter Stephanie Hancock at the Café Glacier. We ordered coffee and she ran down the situation. “Deby is shrewd. He used the crisis in Darfur to position himself a victim of the Sudan saying the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is helping the Janjaweed and the Chadian rebels. Deby is right, but he supports the Darfur rebellion by allowing rebel groups like the Justice and Equality Movement to go into the camps and recruit.
“At least 170,000 Chadians are displaced, and Deby hasn’t given food or stopped the fighting. Instead, in 2006 Deby armed Chadians, handing out 400 Kalashnikov machine guns to the Dajo tribe. He is as guilty as Al-Bashir. So when the Save Darfur Coalition blames the Sudan I think it fits the American war on terrorism narrative. Arabs, Al-Bashir and Muslim terrorists are folded into one.” “Stephanie,” I hesitated not liking what I was going to say. “It seems the NGOs are the only business in town that brings money to the people.” Her eyebrows rose as she nodded, “I know what you’re getting at. War is an industry. Every Chadian with an NGO job supports 20 people, unlike the government. Even now, the schools are shut down and teachers on strike because they haven’t been paid in six months. Just five years ago the main road was quiet, no cars only goats. Now they are busy with NGO Toyotas and motorcycles.”

An Endless Border

On the following day, I flew to Abeche, Chad’s main eastern city, and headed to the local CARE office. On the way the driver yelled at boys fighting in the street. One had curly Arab hair; the other was African. As we drove on, I watched them in the side-view mirror, struggling in the dirt and wondered how many years before someone gave them guns to finish what fists could not.

We pulled into the compound, where the CARE officer Françoise ran around showing workers floors that needed brick, electric wires to be routed and computers to be installed. “We just moved in, so you came at a bad time,” she said. When we sat down, she traced her life across Africa. “I was in Mali, in Kenya and now here.” She leaned in, “I’m not an expert, but tribal identity starts young. Adults will interpret what a child does as Zaghawa or Yoruba. It creates the divisions in the child that grow into civil war.”

“You are going to Iriba tomorrow,” she said. “I made the trip, it’s beautiful. You’ll be going with good drivers.” We left the next morning heading north. I watched the dry yellow land rise and fall, waved to peasants who waved at us. We wrestled the land with the jeep, swaying as the driver lurched up hills, our heads bumping.

We stopped at a rain-swollen river. On our side a large semi truck puttered. The driver tied a rope around an older boy who waded into the foamy currents, hands out like a tightrope walker. He was sucked in. The men reeled him from the river and he stumbled onto land, wiping his face. He went out, was sucked under again and reeled back. On the fifth try he wobbled out on the other side of the river. They took the rope, tied it to the truck and signaled the other driver. He started his engine and drove pulling the truck in and through the waves. My driver turned to me, “Chadians don’t build bridges, but we know how to cross rivers.”

We drove on as day faded to evening. Our driver turned on the headlights, and we passed like a submarine, illuminating cargo trucks caked in mud as men slept on the tires cradling machine guns. We turned away but the afterimage floated in the night.

In Iriba, I met my translator, Zoubeida. As we rode to the camp she told me, “The main tribes in this camp are Zaghawa and Fur. In July 2003 they came over the border into Chad. They were hungry, afraid. Feet blistered from walking. Women were pregnant. When they delivered, their babies died.” Our truck heaved over a hill. I saw a burnt tank in the sand. She waited for my eyes to return. “In beginning of this camp they sit all day and cry. When you ask them question they cry deep.”

The Refugees

We ride into camp and walk through a maze of huts. We enter one and Zoubeida tells a young woman who I am. She nods and we sit. “Her name is Saida Vakhid. She is 22 years old.” Saida talks to me as Zoubeida translates. “When I was 16 my father engaged me to his sister’s son who was in Libya. He never came back so he told me to marry the man’s brother instead. If I did not agree, I must leave house. I had baby. After baby I didn’t talk for a year.” I ask of the age difference. “He was 30 she was 16.” I tap the notepad. “Where is her family now?”

Zoubeida translates, “She is alone.”

We leave to go to a meeting of village elders.

“Zoubeida, how are women treated?” She nods and lowers her voice, “Women have many problem. Women to women it’s easy to talk. Woman to man is hard. A lot of beatings happen. Men are angry.”

We enter a building with a large group of men sitting on the rug, the women in the back. The chiefs are on chairs. One with a glowing white turban and an ornate cane held court. I ask the universal question. “Do you get paid enough?” They laughed. “We need four times as much,” they said. “What would you like to say to Americans?” The chief with the cane spoke with confident joy as Zoubeida translated. “We know about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. We know when the African-American people hear our story they will help us.” I winced knowing his solemn words would be drowned out in the music, movies and celebrity gossip sloshing in our ears back home.

I think of Zoubeida and wonder what she’d like to ask. “The anger from the war, does any of it cause abuse of women?” They squint at the question, shake their heads. “No we don’t have that problem here.” The next morning, I asked Zoubeida if the Janjaweed use rape as a weapon. She took me to a hut where a young woman sat quietly. Zoubeida told her who I was and she spoke. “My name is Fatime Saleh,” Zoubeida translated. “Three years ago the Janjaweed attacked. They came on horse and helicopter. We ran. Some of us were separated from family.

I saw them kill my uncle. They shot him. We were running from the village, crying and shouting. Five men on horses pulled me away. They raped me. I remember the whole thing. I couldn’t walk. I lay there for two days. I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die. Someone saw me and gave me water. At first I didn’t say anything because I was ashamed. I told my husband. He knew the situation with us. I’m always thinking about what happened. I want to go home. There is nothing new here.”

Her eyes were wet and bright. Pain emanated from her like a ringing bell. I stumbled out and we drove back to the CARE compound. Night came and I climbed on the truck and rubbed my chest. It was tight as if my heart was pumping Fatime’s voice. I sat there seeing her face every time my eyes closed.

Leaving on the U.N. flight back to Abeche, I studied the land below. Grass traced underground veins of water. My trip had been similar. I flowed into Chad on the veins of Western aid, riding its jeeps and planes, sleeping on its beds and writing its story. The trickle of money and equipment from the other side of the world sustains life here.
At the CARE office, Françoise shook her head. “They are planning [to send] 20,000 soldiers here. Where are they going to stay? The only way peace will come is if there is a framework for [the] return [of the refugees] and I don’t see that happening for years.” I flew to N’Djamena to catch the first of three flights home. We filed into the jet and flew into the night. I saw North Africa beneath me. It was a black desert with small patches of light like spilled glitter.

In New York, I sat on the subway train, rocketing through the tunnel. In Chad it was easy to measure their poverty by our wealth. At home I measured our wealth against their poverty. My mind imposed a dirt road on every highway, a mud hut next to every skyscraper. In my apartment, I stood over my toilet and flushed, amazed at the water swirling down.

Later, I read a Reuters Africa report by Stephanie, the BBC reporter I met in N-Djamena. Gunmen had barged into aid offices in Iriba and beat the staff. A shiver went through me as I thought of my friends.

Photos: the true face of war: Fatime Saleh was abducted and raped by five men on horseback after fleeing attacks on her village in Darfur. “I’m always thinking about what happened,” she says from a refugee camp in eastern Chad. “I want to go home. There is nothing new here.” (above)

A Darfurian refugee family living in another camp in eastern Chad receives a ration of millet, the grain that is a staple of the local diet. (Below)

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