The last think I ever would have expected in an isolated corner of eastern Chad is a reunion!
This afternoon we made our way out to Koudigou, a camp near Goz Beida that is home to about 11,000 displaced Chadians, most of who have been there for close to four years now. It was a bumpy, sandy track through rough terrain, making our way past sporadic groups of people coming and going with supplies of water and bundles of firewood and hay. Also sharing the road were camels, donkeys, goats and sheep with occasional herds of cattle in the distance. As has been the case throughout our time on the ground here in eastern Chad the sun was relentless and the heat suffocating.
Even before we had arrived a group of about 15 elders and leaders had gathered to meet with us. We made our way into a small building that offered welcome shelter from the sun while still allowing a breeze to blow through.
We made our introductions and explained who we were, a bit about Amnesty International and the focus of our mission. The first village chief to speak, Abakar Yusuf, then astonished me by saying he remembered me from when I was here in 2006 and had spent some time in and around the village of Adé, very near the Chad/Darfur border. He reminded me that he had spoken with me about the very tragic death of his wife, who was shot and then thrown into their burning home when their village had come under attack by Janjawid militia.
I immediately remembered and even recognized him. I certainly recalled the heart-wrenching story of his wife’s death, which had only happened about two weeks before our arrival. In fact I recall that the report we published in January 2007 following that mission, includes an account of Abakar’s wife’s death, alongside Abakar’s photo.
Abakar pointed out that when I had first met him and the others from his village, their conditions were wretched. It was true. Many people had been killed during the attack. The village had been destroyed. They had lost most of their livestock and food supplies. And when we met with them they were living and sleeping out in the open, uncertain where to find food and water and fearful that there might yet be further attacks. Abakar said, with a wry smile, “you can see that things are much better for us now, but I can tell you that the situation is still very hard and difficult.”
We spent quite some time with Abakar and the other leaders, hearing of the many challenges they face. Above all else we heard of their fervent desire to return home, but ongoing fear that it is still far too dangerous and insecure to do so.
After the meeting I was able to spend some time talking one-on-one with Abakar. I told him how astounded I was that he remembered and recognized me. He said that the unexpected arrival of our Amnesty International team back in November 2006 was the only “sign of hope” that came their way during that terrible time, something he could never forget. He had been surprised that anyone coming from a country so far away wanted to know so much about what had happened to his wife, he said, and sharing it with me had eased some of his sadness.
I told him how humbled I had been that he had been willing to tell us what had happened, when it was still so recent and painful. And I described for him how his account of his wife’s death and his photo had been prominent in the materials we produced to tell the harrowing story about what was happening in eastern Chad in 2006. I told him of the campaigning we had done and the visits I had made to New York to meet with members of the Security Council, as we pressed the UN to send a mission to eastern Chad. I assured him that our work would not have been possible if he and others had not trusted us with their very personal stories of loss and pain. I suggested that he should feel proud, therefore, that his voice had played an important role in pressing the UN in the end to agree to establish a mission.
With a very clear twinkle in his eye he then pointed out to me that since the UN was now pulling out, and it was still too dangerous for them to return home, “obviously there is still more for us to do together.” I agreed. There most certainly is.
We ended with photos, much handshaking and then his final words: “that he very much hoped that the next time we meet he will be back home and we can simply enjoy a good meal and not have to talk about hardship and suffering.”
Abakar Yusuf desrcibes the death of his wife: read the excerpt from ‘Are we citizens of this country?’ – Civilians in Chad unprotected from Janjawid attacks (2007)